PolitiFact FL: How familiar are US students with the Holocaust? Checking Dean Phillips’ claim
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Dean Phillips, the Minnesota U.S. representative who’s taking on President Joe Biden in the Democratic primaries, decried a lack of knowledge about the Holocaust among American youth.
With a war in the Middle East, pro-Palestinian demonstrations on college campuses and polls showing widespread criticism of Israel among younger Americans, Phillips expressed support for Israel.
"When half of American high school students are not familiar with the Holocaust, is it surprising that we’re in a circumstance now where they do not understand why there must be one nation in the world with a Jewish majority that … Jews can take refuge in?" Phillips said Nov. 13 at Dartmouth College.
Half of U.S. high schoolers are not familiar with the Holocaust? We checked the most relevant and recent polls available that examined what young people know about the Holocaust and found that Phillips’ claim is exaggerated.
Two polls surveyed school-aged children. A third — the one Phillips cited when we inquired — surveyed young adults.
None of the polls, from the Pew Research Center, Liberation75 and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, shows rates of ignorance of the Holocaust’s existence as high as 50%. But the polls found that high schoolers were less familiar with the details, including how many Jews were murdered (6 million), what a ghetto was (an area where Jews were forced to live), and how Adolf Hitler came to power (democratically). Many could not name a concentration camp, such as Auschwitz.
Hutton Cooney, a spokesperson for Phillips’ campaign spokesperson, told PolitiFact that Philips was likely referring to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany survey, "though I realize it’s not exact."
Here’s a rundown.
• Pew Research Center survey, 2019
The Pew poll, which surveyed U.S. people ages 13 to 17, may offer the strongest evidence for Phillips’ claim. Using a multiple-choice format, the survey asked to name the decades the Holocaust occurred (57% answered correctly), what Nazi-created ghettos were (53% got it correct), how many Jews were killed (38% were correct), and how Hitler became chancellor (33% were correct).
This poll’s four questions were geared toward gauging how accurately respondents could recall the Holocaust’s granular details rather than whether they knew about it at all.
The other two polls asked broader questions like the one Phillips framed, producing results that don’t align with his statement.
• Liberation75 survey, 2021
This survey’s age group, ages 10 to 19, is reasonably close to "high school," but the respondents were mostly Canadian, not American. It was sponsored by the Ontario-based Holocaust education group Liberation75. About 15% of respondents were from the U.S.
The survey found that 80% had definitely heard about the Holocaust. Seven percent said that they might have heard of it.
• Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany survey, 2020
The third poll was the one Phillips’ campaign cited when we asked for corroboration for his claim. But its age range was out of sync; it surveyed U.S. respondents 18 to 39 — and so excluded most high schoolers. Those ages were chosen because they represented members of the millennial and Gen Z population.
When the poll asked, "Have you ever seen or heard the word Holocaust before?" 12% of respondents said they definitely hadn’t heard about the Holocaust or didn’t think they’d heard about the Holocaust. That was a far lower rate of uncertainty about the Holocaust than what Phillips said. Also, virtually all of those who said they had heard about the Holocaust said they learned about it in school.
As with the Pew survey, respondents’ knowledge of the Holocaust’s details was narrower. More than half believed, incorrectly, that 2 million Jews or fewer were killed, while nearly half of respondents couldn’t name a concentration camp or ghetto.
Alexis M. Lerner, an assistant political science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy who designed the Liberation75 poll, said that even the middle school students she surveyed displayed higher rates of knowing that the Holocaust occurred than what Phillips said.
"It’s harmful to the cause of Holocaust education to inflate the numbers" of students who don’t know about the Holocaust, she said. Now that about two dozen states require Holocaust education, "it would be hard to believe that students haven’t heard about it."
Experts cautioned that even if the Holocaust knowledge gap is not as broad as Phillips signaled, Holocaust knowledge among younger Americans stands to be improved.
For instance, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany survey found that 20% of millennials and Gen Z respondents in New York believed the Jews caused the Holocaust, said Greg Schneider, the group’s executive vice president, a finding he called "shocking."
"These results underscore the need for more Holocaust education, mandates and curriculum," Schneider said.
Alan Cooperman, Pew’s religion research director, said that the polls together signal that there are legitimate concerns about how much young people know about the Holocaust. But he added that Phillips’ statement "is more sweeping and less precise than I’d like."
Phillips said, "Half of American high school students are not familiar with the Holocaust."
Recent polls we found don’t support this claim and reveal that well more than half of younger Americans broadly understand that the Holocaust occurred.
However, Phillips’ statement contains an element of truth, because the polls show young people are less familiar with granular details, such as the number of Jews killed or about concentration camps.
We rate the statement Mostly False.
- Dean Phillips, remarks at Dartmouth College, Nov. 13, 2023
- Pew Research Center, "What Americans Know About the Holocaust," Jan. 22, 2020
- Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, national and state surveys, 2020
- Liberation75, "Survey of North American Teens on the Holocaust and Antisemitism," 2021
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, "Holocaust Education in the United States," accessed Nov 19, 2023
- Email interview with Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, Nov. 16, 2023
- Email interview with Alan Cooperman, Pew Research Center director of religion research, Nov. 16, 2023
- Interview with Alexis M. Lerner, assistant professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy, Nov. 16, 2023
- Email interview with Hutton Cooney, spokesperson for Dean Phillips, Nov. 16, 2023