EHRI in an Upside-Down World. Covid-19 and Holocaust Research and Education
By Roxana Popa, Public Relations Counsellor at EHRI partner, The "Elie Wiesel" National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust In Romania, and involved in EHRI communications.
In a moment, our world turned upside-down. Caught in a whirlwind of actions, on a fast forward rhythm, we woke up in a world we no longer recognize, forced to STOP, to prioritize, to understand what our needs are, and what helps us to adapt and cope with change. First, overwhelmed by the shock of the change, we began to understand the role of health and freedom. The privilege of doing simple things without restrictions, things that not long ago might have annoyed us or seemed trivial. After that, we realized how much we miss human interaction, and how lucky we are (at least most of us) to be able to interact remotely, online. Maybe it is now that we have understood the benefits that technology brings to our lives, and we have also understood that to feed our sense and need of belonging, the world could not stop. We must go on with our lives: working, learning, and doing all the things that define our normality. Doing this differently, but continuing it.
Why should Holocaust research continue during a crisis?
A pandemic radically foregrounds certain needs and priorities, and some may ask why Holocaust research should continue during a crisis such as the one we are living through now, when the safety and health of people are clearly a priority? Because the Holocaust is not only about a tragic episode that belongs to history and took place a long time ago. It is not only about death and victims that we commemorate once or twice a year. Holocaust research is an interdisciplinary field offering us examples of survival and adaptation. It provides models for change and insights how to manage a crisis. It reveals to us how people can react in a stressful situation and the power of solidarity.
Lately, we often hear people looking back to other pandemics (e.g. the Spanish flu) trying to find precedents and answers. The Holocaust is also a crisis that we should continue to look into. We cannot put it on hold now, because doing so would mean forgetting valuable lessons for humankind.
Holocaust research shows us all too clearly how easily hate speech arises and infiltrates societies in times of crisis, when people try to place guilt and find someone responsible for their problems.
The stranger next to us
During a crisis, blaming “the other” is a common reaction. The “stranger” who does not resemble us easily becomes the source of all problems.
“Otherness” is a well-researched concept in anthropology and sociology. Our interaction with ”the other” is influenced by the stereotypes we are projecting on it. ”The other” automatically implies difference and strangeness. That difference does not necessarily link to proximity; it relates more to an imaginary construct built on ethnic, racial, religious, aesthetic, or cultural criteria. This process of “othering” developed over centuries and made the Holocaust possible. To protect/validate their position in the world, people use/accept stereotypes, thereby encouraging the rise of hate speech.
Jews often played the role of the ”other”, the ”stranger,” the “scapegoat” during past disasters. Historical research reveals that pandemics have always incited antisemitism and attitudes of hatred. The Black Death in the Middle Age gave rise to one of the bloodiest episodes of antisemitism in European history, until the Holocaust. The label of the Jew/ the stranger/the minority spreading diseases has remained constant until modern times. No matter whether typhus or cholera, natural calamities or disasters, wars or economic crisis, Jews were always vulnerable to be designated as perpetrators. And this legacy sadly remains relevant in the present coronavirus pandemic
What is new is the context, the environment used for disseminating hate messages. Online communication has changed the way we participate in public life, the way we express our opinions. Encouraged by anonymity and the feeling of security provided by our virtual identities, we react more violently and exceed more easily certain limits in expressing accusations towards those we consider to be the perpetrators. Conflicts arise much more quickly in virtual environments, and snowball much faster towards a crisis.
The European Commission barometer, published in 2019, reveals that more than a third of Europeans consider antisemitism increased in their country over the past five years. The report published by the Tel Aviv University's Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry shows an increase of 18% in antisemitic violence in 2019 compared with the previous years. The report also states that “coronavirus inspired antisemitic expressions that represent forms of the traditional Jew-hatred and conspiracy theory. The accusations formulated through these theories appear to be promoted mostly online by representatives of extreme-right, ultra-conservative Christians, Islamists, and to a minor extent by the far-left, each group according to its narratives and beliefs.”
Media articles and reports from a variety of organizations reveal that online antisemitism has spiked in different parts of the world during the current sanitary crisis. In Romania, the “Elie Wiesel” Institute’s antisemitism report states that the coronavirus pandemic has led to an escalation of antisemitism and conspiracy theories. The rhetoric combines economic antisemitism with the scapegoat myth. Facebook networks and blogs have been widely used in recent months for disseminating hate messages against Jews and sometimes against other minorities such as Roma people. In Turkey, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are used to spread conspiracy theories claiming that Jews invented the new coronavirus. In Great Britain, individuals hacked a synagogue service that was being live-streamed on Zoom and posted antisemitic content. An incident in the United States shows that antisemitic violence can go beyond virtual environments. In Massachusetts, federal authorities arrested a man for trying to set off a firebomb near a Jewish home entrance for the elderly. He claimed that he got his inspiration from the internet.
All these incidents prove the revival of an old mechanism. The pandemic provides the perfect ground for a rise in antisemitism, but one that is different from the past: Antisemitism is now spreading quickly thanks to online environments. Holocaust research helps us understand how a social crisis can generate and accelerate other humanitarian crises, and encourages us towards constant monitoring and prevention of online hate speech.
Holocaust education during pandemics
Why is Holocaust education relevant during a pandemic? Because it enables critical thinking, and it underpins a democratic value system. As the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) stipulates, ”learning about the Holocaust is an opportunity to unpack and analyse the decisions and actions taken (or not taken) by a range of people in an emerging time of crisis […] and a reminder that decisions have consequences, regardless of the complexity of the situations in which they are taken.”
The current pandemic, has amplified the lesson of empathy that Holocaust research and education teaches us. Until recently, the survivors' testimonies might have seemed to us stories from a long time ago. Now, we listen to them and understand them from a different perspective. We understand them as lessons on how to adapt, survive, cope in times that are much more complicated and unpredictable than what we are used to. There is no comparison between the atrocities of the Holocaust and the coronavirus situation, yet the testimonies of Holocaust survivors give food for thought, offer perspective and inspiration of how to live through a crisis, how you face changes, and how to continue.
The benefits of digitalization and online access to information are particularly apparent in the field of Holocaust education. During the last few months, it has become very apparent that education cannot be put on hold. EHRI and EHRI partners offer a rich tapestry of online educational materials, including online courses, virtual tours, interviews with Holocaust survivors, online exhibitions, and so on. In a time when all learning has moved to the online space, EHRI supports education by bringing together resources that would otherwise be difficult to identify and access.
How did EHRI adapt during pandemics?
When the coronavirus crisis started, EHRI did not have to make a big transition towards remote working and online activities. As a large international consortium, we have long been used to collaborate online, and it is of course one of EHRI’s key missions to develop a digital infrastructure that enables online access to Holocaust resources beyond physical borders.
During the last decade, EHRI has built a community to overcome the fragmentation of widely dispersed Holocaust sources, and to promote innovative tools that advance the digital transformation of Holocaust research. We have developed the EHRI Portal that provides online access to information about Holocaust sources no matter where they are physically located, as well as other online services such as the EHRI Document Blog, EHRI Editions and EHRI Online Training. The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically highlighted the value of these digital platforms: They remain fully accessible to anyone and are proving invaluable when more traditional modes of doing research have become very restricted.
However, EHRI has always been more than just a digital infrastructure. In the past, we have organised in-person training seminars, workshops and conferences to enable knowledge exchange and to identify needs and challenges faced by various communities of experts in Holocaust studies, and to investigate new research trends in the Digital Humanities and complementary areas. The Conny Kristel Fellowship Programme has provided researchers physical access to the world's leading Holocaust archives. We are looking forward to restarting these activities as soon as social distancing and international travel restrictions are lifted.
When the coronavirus crisis started, a feeling of isolation affected many of us. EHRI is above all a community that brings people together. Being part of the EHRI network, connects you to other experts and professionals. EHRI was developed to overcome dispersal and fragmentation; Today it also helps to defeat isolation.
The “new normality” we must adopt reveals the importance of a digital infrastructure and international community more than ever. EHRI is on its way to maturity and the current crisis has only encouraged us to continue our transition towards a permanent and sustainable (digital) research infrastructure.
 European Commission barometer on anti-Semitism, January 2019: https://ec.europa.eu/commfrontoffice/publicopinion/index.cfm/survey/getsurveydetail/instruments/special/surveyky/2220
 Tel Aviv Unversity, Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry, Antisemitism worldwide- report on 2019 and the beginning od 2020: https://en-humanities.tau.ac.il/sites/humanities_en.tau.ac.il/files/media_server/humanities/kantor/Kantor%20Center%20Worldwide%20Antisemitism%20in%202019%20-%20Main%20findings.pdf
 Mutler, Alison, Universul.net, ”COVID-19 pandemic sees a rise in online anti-Semitism in Romania”, May 21st, 2020: https://universul.net/covid-19-pandemic-sees-a-rise-in-online-antisemitism-in-romania-holocaust-group-says/
 Jovanovski, Kristina, The Medialine, ”Anti-Semitism Spreads During Pandemic in Turkey”, May 25th, 2020: https://themedialine.org/by-region/anti-semitic-conspiracy-theories-spreading-during-pandemic-in-turkey-group-warns/
 Bellaiche, Julien, Global Network on Extremism & Technology, ”Online Antisemitism in Times of COVID-19”, April 21st, 2020: https://gnet-research.org/2020/04/21/online-antisemitism-in-times-of-covid-19/
 Kampeas, Ron, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, „With white supremacists driven online by the pandemic, anti-Semitism trackers watch for new threats”, Aprils 23rd, 2020: https://www.jta.org/2020/04/23/united-states/with-white-supremacists-driven-online-by-the-pandemic-anti-semitism-trackers-watch-for-new-threats
 The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance: https://www.holocaustremembrance.com/resources/educational-materials/why-teach-about-holocaust