An Interview with Holly Huffnagle

U.S. Director for Combating Antisemitism American Jewish Committee

by Dr. Eugene Fisher


Holly Huffnagle in Wittenberg, Germany, October 2017

Introduction

Holly Huffnagle serves as the U.S. Director for Combating Antisemitism at AJC (American Jewish Committee), where she is responsible for coordinating and leading the organization's response to antisemitism in the United States. Previously, Holly was the Assistant Director of AJC Los Angeles, overseeing International Relations and all projects and programs related to monitoring and combating antisemitism. Before coming to AJC, Holly served as the policy advisor to the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism at the U.S. Department of State and as a researcher in the Mandel Center of Advanced Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC . She received her Masters from Georgetown University where she focused on 20th-century Polish history and Jewish-Muslim relations before, during, and after the Holocaust. Most recently, she was a Scholar-in-Residence at Oxford University with the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy. Holly has lived and worked in Poland to conduct research on ethnic minority relations before World War II, and was selected for the Auschwitz Jewish Center fellowship on pre-war Jewish life and the Holocaust in Poland and northern Slovakia. She has volunteered at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim, Poland, and served as a liaison for the Jan Karski U.S. Educational Foundation.

Holly received her B.A. in History from Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA. In fall 2017, she co-led Westmont College ’s Europe Semester Program, teaching courses in Europe on the Holocaust and contemporary European challenges.

Dr. Fisher: What motivated you to go to Poland to research Jewish life and the Holocaust in Poland and, specifically, at Auschwitz-Birkenau?

Ms. Huffnagle: My focus on Poland began when I studied abroad my junior year of college. My alma mater, Westmont College, has a program called Europe Semester, which takes students throughout Europe while completing coursework. Our time studying in Poland was life-changing for me. After our visit to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, we were hosted by the Center for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim. Here we were, a group of American Christian students, discussing reconciliation, Jewish-Christian dialogue, and how centuries of Christian anti-Judaism laid the groundwork for the Holocaust. I remember asking myself the question posed by German theologian Johann Baptist Metz: “Is the theology I am learning…such that it could remain unchanged before and after Auschwitz?” My Christian understanding did change.

I wrote my undergraduate History capstone on Polish Catholics’ memories of World War II suffering, and how—under Communist rule and absent of the memories of Polish Jews—their understanding differed from a broader Jewish understanding of the war and the Holocaust. Now the magnitude of loss in Poland was unimaginable (Poland lost 20% of its population, including 90% of its Jewish community), and unfortunately, in some places, comparisons of suffering occurred between Catholic Poles and Jews. I found myself working to repair that.

Auschwitz is the site of Jewish suffering. The majority of those murdered at Auschwitz were Jews. Yet there were also 74,000 non-Jewish Poles killed at Auschwitz; the camp remains a site of Polish suffering as well. When I volunteered at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in the summer of 2011, I did so to honor the victims of the Holocaust. Yet we were honoring the legacies of other victims of National Socialism as well.

Dr. Fisher: Academically, you have studied 20th century Polish history, Jewish-Muslim relations, and global antisemitism. What are some of the chief lessons that you learned in these studies?

Ms. Huffnagle: The first lesson is 20th century Polish history is incredibly complex. To begin with, Poland did not exist as a state when the century began. Only in 1918, after the end of World War I, did Poland return to the map of Europe after 123 years. The country was independent for approximately two decades before being invaded by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The Polish government was in exile throughout World War II, and Poland takes great pride in their Underground State. After the defeat of Nazism, Poland fell on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain and the Polish Communist Party determined how the country learned about and remembered World War II and the Holocaust for almost fifty years. It was really only in the 1990s and early 2000s that Poland, as a new democracy, was finally able to learn what really happened—Poles were not only victims during the war, but some were also collaborators with the Nazis, and even perpetrators of the Holocaust. Yet Poland also boasts the highest number of Righteous Among the Nations than any other country. Helping Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland was punishable by death and yet thousands still did. So things are not so simple—challenging assumptions is another important lesson. In a similar vein, one of my favorite stories to share is how Polish Tatar Muslims helped rescue Jews during the Holocaust. When we think about pre-World War II eastern Poland, often considered poor and backwards in the literature, we do not think about the friendly and propitious exchanges between Muslims and Jews which occurred on a daily basis. Most people with whom I speak do not know there were (and still are) ethnic Muslims in Poland.

A final pertinent lesson is to speak out against false claims. I have heard the phrase “all Poles are antisemitic” or Poland called “an antisemitic country,” which is not true. Are there antisemites in Poland? Of course. Just like there are in the United States. But to paint a whole country and people with such a broad brushstroke is dangerous. In the fight against antisemitism, we have to be as accurate as possible and not overstate (or understate) the problem. When the term antisemitism is invoked injudiciously and untruthfully, it does a disservice to the fight.

Dr. Fisher: You are teaching about the Holocaust and antisemitism at Westmont College. What are the challenges you face in educating students about this history and its lessons for us in our society today?

Ms. Huffnagle: I will begin by saying that Westmont College’s course offerings on the Holocaust and antisemitism is critical. Westmont is a Christian liberal arts school and it is important in our understanding of contemporary antisemitism to see how many of the antisemitic accusations and tropes we see today originated with early Christian thinking and in medieval Christian Europe. It is essential for Christian students to understand this. In addition, for those of us who are working on issues of Holocaust education and antisemitism, the school’s support is paramount. (I was very appreciative Westmont offered my course “The Politics of Prejudice and Antisemitism: Religion, Israel, and U.S. Foreign Policy” in Fall 2019). My students at Westmont came to these classes with a real desire to learn, and to make a difference.

There are several challenges in this space, however. To begin with, as the last generation of Holocaust survivors pass away, one challenge is finding new ways to teach this history so it resonates with students and, while connecting the lessons of the Holocaust to current conflicts and genocide prevention, still maintains its uniqueness. A second challenge is post-Holocaust antisemitism is an under-taught and under-resourced field in the academy. When antisemitism is taught, it is often only in the context of the Holocaust. Or when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is taught, contemporary antisemitism examples, such as Jews being blamed or attacked for Israeli policies, is rarely discussed. The academy also does not often discuss the vehement antisemitism at the core of Islamist groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah. While this was not an issue at Westmont, we do see it on other college campuses across the U.S. Another challenge is the politicization of antisemitism; just as we have witnessed elected government officials weaponize antisemitism for personal or political gains, students have also made the fight against antisemitism political. This is connected to the fourth, and final, challenge. On several college campuses Jewish students are not allowed to define what is antisemitism, therefore disavowing them of their agency and experience as victims. This is a big problem.

Dr. Fisher: How would you assess the current situation of antisemitism in Europe and the United States?

Ms. Huffnagle: Unfortunately, antisemitism both in Europe and in the United States is on the rise. We know this from surveys of Jewish attitudes, but also from law enforcement incident reports. As AJC’s U.S. Director for Combating Antisemitism, my focus is only on antisemitism in the United States, so I will speak to what we are seeing here. AJC conducted a landmark survey last October which revealed nearly nine out of ten American Jews (88%) said antisemitism is a problem in the U.S. today and 84% said antisemitism in the U.S. has increased over the past five years. American Jews’ feelings toward antisemitism align with the data. Antisemitic incidents in the U.S. rose 150 percent between 2013 and 2018. Antisemitism has also become more violent and more open, illustrated by recent shootings in Pittsburgh, Poway, and Jersey City along with ongoing violence in the streets of New York and the horrific Hanukkah attack in Monsey.

There are also more sources of antisemitism in America today. Antisemitism continues to emanate from the white supremacist far-right, but we are also seeing it rise from the radical left, from religious extremists, and even from segments of other minority communities. Fighting antisemitism from these different sources continues to pose a great challenge. However, I have also seen several positive developments. We are seeing unprecedented coalition-building across governments, civil society, and different religious and ethnic groups coming together to fight antisemitism. Right now, for instance, Germany holds the Presidency of the Council of the EU, and combating antisemitism is one of their top priorities. This would have been unheard of just decades ago. There is also a growing realization that antisemitism is not a Jewish problem but a societal one. We still have a long way to go, and it is my hope, as a Christian, that more Christians, as well members of other faiths or no faith, will be able to come alongside Jewish communities around the world and advocate for their safety, security, and well-being.

Dr. Fisher: What can we do, today, in our country to combat the recent rise in antisemitism, academically, in our local communities, and nationally?

Ms. Huffnagle: We need to build coalitions that encourage our local, state, and federal government officials to keep combating antisemitism high as a domestic policy priority. We also can increase understanding for non-Jewish Americans about what antisemitism is and how it manifests today, explaining when antisemitism rises, it is often a reflection of other societal ills that affect all of us as Americans. Finally, academically, I would encourage the academy to offer courses on post-Holocaust antisemitism, and for our students to understand how antisemitism did not end with the Holocaust. I hope more and more Americans will see the fight against antisemitism in the context of a bigger fight for the health of our society and our democracy.

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