“The Holocaust was real” should not be a controversial statement, but sadly it has become one. Today, we feature Dr. David Hazony, an expert on Jewish philosophy, who dives into the troubling rise of Holocaust denial and its roots in conspiracy theory and antisemitism.

Hazony describes Holocaust denial as not only an offshoot of historical antisemitism but also a mechanism for individuals to express disenchantment with societal authorities, attributing personal or societal failures to fabricated Jewish conspiracies. He emphasizes the grave consequences of dismissing the Holocaust, warning that such denial undermines the lessons learned from one of history’s darkest chapters, potentially making society vulnerable to repeating past atrocities.

“When you don’t want to believe something, you find ways of not believing it. When there’s a market for disbelief and denial, you’ll find people prepared to fulfill the needs of that market through false scholarship, through false books, through false documentaries and films, and all of the false information. The question is not so much what are they thinking as why are they thinking it. What need does it fulfill? What role in society does it fulfill? Why does it make them feel good? And how do we get to the bottom of what’s driving people who want to believe that they’re forces geared up against them to take away that which is rightfully theirs? That’s the real question that we need to ask.” ~Dr. David Hazony

David Hazony, PhD

David Hazony is an award-winning editor, translator, and author. He is the former editor-in-chief of the journal Azure and was the founding editor of TheTower.org. His book “The Ten Commandments” (Scribner, 2010) was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. His translation of Uri Bar-Joseph’s “The Angel” (HarperCollins, 2016) won the National Jewish Book Award. He has edited two previous anthologies: “Essential Essays on Judaism” by Eliezer Berkovits (Shalem, 2002) and, with Yoram Hazony and Michael B. Oren, “New Essays on Zionism” (Shalem, 2007). He has a PhD in Jewish Philosophy from the Hebrew University and lives in Jerusalem.

Gabe Howard

Our host, Gabe Howard, is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.

Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.

To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.

Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.

Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.

Gabe Howard: Thanks for listening, everyone. I’m your host Gabe Howard. Calling in to the show today we have David Hazony. Dr. Hazony is the editor of the book “Jewish Priorities: Sixty-Five Proposals for the Future of Our People.” He also holds a PhD in Jewish Philosophy from the Hebrew University and lives in Jerusalem. Dr. Hazony, welcome to the podcast.

David Hazony: Thank you so much for having me on.

Gabe Howard: I want to start out by saying that “the Holocaust was real” should not be a controversial statement. However, it’s become one over the past few years, and in fact, a number of polls have found that between 3 and 10% of Americans believe that the Holocaust is just a myth. It’s completely made up. And in fact, in one study, the number was as high as 20% among Americans between the ages of 18 to 29. And additionally, there’s all these other studies that while people may believe that the Holocaust was real, they believe that the death rate from the Holocaust has been largely exaggerated. And I want to just start off right there and ask you, why do you think this is happening?

David Hazony: Well, the phenomenon of Holocaust denial fits simultaneously into several different categories that we know from other areas. So category number one is conspiracy theories, right? The whole world of the Holocaust isn’t real fits in with the moon landing wasn’t real. And many other things that you and I perhaps understand and believe and studied and saw evidence of that a large number of people simply choose not to believe, for whatever reason. Conspiracy theories, we can go in into some depth as to what causes them. But basically human beings are from birth, trying to make sense of their world and trying to figure out who they can trust. And when certain things happen in their lives, they become less trustworthy of various kinds of authority. And then somebody comes along and says, you know why you’re suffering? It’s because you believe these people here. Come and believe me, I believe the following crazy things.

David Hazony: And that’s how conspiracy theories tend to attract people who are looking to have a certain sense of control over the mysteries and the causes of their own issues. So that’s kind of number one. Number two, Holocaust denial fits into an equally ancient category we call anti-Semitism. For literally thousands of years Jews have faced any number of false accusations, theories, claims about what their life is like, what their realities are, what their methods are. You know, we’ve had the centuries of the blood libel. It was claimed that Jews would kill Christian children and bake their blood into matzo. These are, have been historically very, very dangerous beliefs because at certain points in time they become politicized and weaponized by people with power who want to give their populations a certain kind of relief by attacking their local Jews. And we saw this in Europe. We saw it across the Middle East over centuries.

Gabe Howard: Are we seeing this in the modern era? Like, for example, after World War II? What happened when the war was over?

David Hazony: In the modern era, so once you get towards the end of World War II, a few things happen. First, you have the fact that the Nazis are trying really hard to cover up the massive atrocities they did. And in fact, so pervasive was the potential of Holocaust denial in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust that when General Eisenhower came to the concentration camps himself, he insisted that photographers take pictures. He sent wires back to Washington and to the allies’ office in London, telling them to send out journalists to come and see it, because he already knew at that point that it was going to be denied. The people would very soon begin saying that it never happened. Fast forward another two decades. You have the emergence of the Cold War. The Soviet Union invested very, very, very heavily in spreading anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. We know about the protocols for the Elders of Zion, which was written half a century earlier in Czarist Russia. But it got a whole new lease on life in the, in the late 1960s, early 70s. Well, it turns out that we have a very, very parallel phenomenon emerging in which Israel is the new boogeyman. It’s the new Satan. The, the same kinds of conspiracy theories are projected onto the Jewish state.

David Hazony: And for Jews with historical knowledge, there’s nothing new here. It just feels exactly like not only what the Soviets developed, but also what the Nazis developed in terms of their propaganda inflaming the masses against the Jewish population and before them, the czars and dating back hundreds and thousands of years. So, I’m sorry to get a little bit far afield on the subject of Holocaust denial, but it’s really impossible to separate it all out. Holocaust denial is simply one form of conspiracy theory on the one hand. But it’s also one form of anti-Semitism, and this is something that’s very important to understand. Antisemitism is inherently not a bigotry like racism, but a conspiracy theory. It’s not about deciding that an entire race or group of people is simply not up to your standards or inferior inherently. But it’s something that, that that accuses a people of secretly being in control over their lives and therefore a legitimate subject of rebellion and resistance and sometimes even violence.

Gabe Howard: From my perspective, one of the interesting things about Holocaust denialism is that it doesn’t include World War II denialism. It doesn’t say that World War II never happened. It doesn’t say that the Germans didn’t invade any other countries. It didn’t say that the bombing of Pearl Harbor didn’t happen to get America into the war. All of that stays intact. It’s just this one little part. Is that part of the anti-Semitism of this particular conspiracy theory?

David Hazony: Certainly. Why specifically the Holocaust? It’s a really hard question, but I think part of it is because the Holocaust itself was so big and so fateful in determining how Western nations perceive themselves and perceive their obligations to each other and to humanity. And it became such a fundamental source of truth for Western thinking in Europe and the United States about how the 20th century happened, and why is it that the Nazis had to be defeated, and how the entire global order sort of emerged after World War II and so much of what we see today is the product of the Holocaust itself. And at the same time, you see Jews coming to power with their own sovereign state and also coming into their own culturally and socially and economically in the United States, where, you know, Jews were a middle-class immigrant population at the time of World War II, and they’ve become very, very successful in such a whole range of areas. And it becomes very, very easy to point to these two facts and say, if I deny the Holocaust, then I’m fighting the battle against the Jews. It’s just a great way for disaffected people to say, I’m not a I’m not with you on this. But I want I just want to say another point here, which is that it’s really important not to demand intellectual consistency among conspiracy theorists in general who are perfectly capable of holding contradictory beliefs at the same time, anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers in particular.

Gabe Howard: Here’s the thing that always handcuffs me when I hear about any conspiracy theory and including Holocaust denialism. I just want to roll my eyes and think you’re an idiot. When people say these ridiculous things, the Holocaust didn’t exist. The earth is flat. We didn’t go to the moon, you know, in spite of video evidence and, and research and, and picture evidence and just on and on and on and the fact that you just can’t keep that many people quiet. If all of this was made up, some somebody would drop the ball, somebody would say, yeah, we made that up. Right. It just it, it just doesn’t hold water. But here’s the problem that I have when I just walk away and do nothing, this allows it to spread. When I, when I confront them, I sort of find myself in an argument with a fool. And we’ve all heard the phrase, you know, you know, you know, if you if you get in an argument with a fool, you now have two fools. I don’t know what

David Hazony: Right.

Gabe Howard: To do about this, but I can see that it’s getting worse. And again, I want to remind the listeners that Holocaust denialism and even conspiracy theories have spread into government. We have senators, politicians, presidents all spouting these conspiracy theories. So it’s not just the strange, weird person that you run into at the bar at 1 a.m.. These are our leaders who are shaping our laws.

David Hazony: I think that it’s really hard, as you say, to know what to do when things are spreading and when conspiracy theories take on a political edge or a violent edge as they seem to be doing in our time. Because normally I’m like you, if I hear somebody say the earth is flat, then I sort of mentally write them off and move on to people who don’t say the earth is flat. But when, you know, I’m struck by the, the Pizzagate conspiracy in particular, and I’ll tell you why. First of all, Pizzagate is about a pizza place you recall in during the Trump/Clinton election campaign, a pizza place in Washington, D.C. and it happens that I lived in Washington, D.C. at that time, and I personally went to that pizza place fairly often. It’s called Comet Pizza and Ping Pong, and they have actual ping pong tables and good pizza. And so when it emerged as this crazy conspiracy theory about this place, I thought, well, I’ve been there, so I’m not going to take it seriously at all. And then when somebody came and finally shot up the place and was arrested they asked him, why did you think there was a pedophilic child trafficking ring going on in this pizza place that you now see is a pizza place? And his answer was really interesting. His answer was, I guess I had bad intel.

Gabe Howard: Is there anything that we can do about that, though? Would of there have been a way to get this man better intel?

David Hazony: Okay, so there are a lot of people who, if they actually see things with their own eyes, will say, okay, maybe that theory was wrong. At this point, there are two separate questions you have to ask. Question number one is how did so many people get to the place where they believe things like this? Where have they lost the ability to distinguish fact from fantasy, conspiracies from reality? And number two, is it possible to intervene and provide experiences, educational experiences that for that segment of the conspiracy theory population that is open to having their, you know, their intel corrected? That can actually help? And I think that that is, by and large true. I think that Holocaust education in fact educates, and that a very large number of people will, will not become conspiracy theorists because of that education. And that brings us back to the question of, okay, at what point in their lives did they start believing crazy things? Did they stop having trust in science, or having trust in historians or in academia, or in scholarship or in journalism or any of it? Do they simply cut themselves off from these things as a source of truth? And what can be done as intervention to help people realize that that connecting yourself to truth is actually a very, very vital life skill?

Sponsor Break

Gabe Howard: And we’re back discussing the psychology of Holocaust denialism with Dr. David Hazony. Dr. Hazony, before we started recording, we were talking about the potential audience for this episode, and they’re not going to be Holocaust deniers. Those folks are just simply not listening. The people listening are going to be people who are just trying to wrap their heads around how these beliefs can even exist in the first place. Maybe they’re trying to figure out a way to convince a family member or someone they work with of the truth, and I was trying to think of specific reasons why Holocaust denial is ridiculous. And the thing I came up with is the Nuremberg trials. At no point in any of those trials did anybody put together a defense that it just simply didn’t happen, that it was all a lie, that it was all made up, that it didn’t exist. There was I was following orders. They didn’t understand what was happening. The scope was beyond them. But never did anybody sit down, take the stand and say, look, this was all BS and it did not happen. Is that not a compelling argument if it didn’t happen? Or is this just circling back to anti-Semitism when people deny the Holocaust?

David Hazony: I think that it’s the latter. I think that arguments generally don’t work because the premise of argumentation is that you’re trying to figure out what’s true. And people who indulge in conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial are not trying to figure out what’s genuinely true. Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories more broadly are not actually theories in the way we normally use the term. They’re not consistent things that if you just show them the contradictions, they’ll give up on the theory, because that’s not the purpose they serve. Theories, as we use the term, are meant to scientifically test and reveal underlying truths of the universe. Conspiracy theories have a completely different purpose, which is to create a sense of empowerment in someone who otherwise feels disempowered or threatened. It’s a way of expressing a need to reassert control and reassert power. They’re trying to act out, to rebel, to gain a certain measure of control over the discourse, to show that they have power and to generate power. And when it becomes a movement and becomes politicized, it in fact generates power through the use of these beliefs. And the real question is, how do we develop educational systems and educational methodologies, and the educational experiences from an early age that help root out the conspiratorial thinking and teach children the mental habits of science and literature and history and all the things that our whole civilization is built on. It’s not easy because it’s not just about schooling, it’s also about parenting. And these traditions of conspiratorial thinking are passed down culturally from generation to generation. And it’s an ongoing battle. It’s a battle we’ve been fighting as a civilization for hundreds and hundreds of years. But we have to renew it every single generation.

Gabe Howard: Let’s stick to those generations, because one of the things that a lot of studies have pointed out, and one of the things that I noticed, is that this seems to be a young thing. This is 18 to 29 who are really pushing this. The stat I gave at the beginning of the podcast was up to 20% of 18- to 29-year-olds are believing this Holocaust denialism, whereas 65 and up, the number is almost zero. And that makes me wonder are we teaching kids wrong? Why are young people so much more likely to believe this?

David Hazony: I think they believe that they’ve been taught to distrust the sources that you and I might have trusted at their age. You remember back when the internet started out being real big, and the web, and we’re talking about the 1990s, and there was all this optimism about how we can have all the truth at our fingertips, and we can just know stuff. And by googling it and everything like that. And it turned out that, that that’s not how human beings are wired. Human beings aren’t simply limited by their access to knowledge. They’re limited also by their desire for knowledge and their willingness to figure out who you can trust and who you can’t. And so, yeah, I think that there is a cause of concern when we live in a time where, where younger people don’t feel they can trust sources of information, and they’re looking for some clever other person to come along and say, you know, that whole internet, that’s how they’re keeping you down. Okay, traditional values, this set of institutions, it’s all about keeping you down. And if you just follow me, then we’ll rise up again. Well, as you mentioned, political leaders, what they’re doing is they’re taking advantage of what they see as very, very powerful sub rational forces that if they can control them and channel them, it’ll help them gain power and be elected. I don’t believe that politicians who spout conspiracy theories actually believe them. I think they’re it’s just a form of politics, and a very dangerous one at that.

Gabe Howard: I just have to imagine that the average listener just doesn’t understand why anybody would want to deny the Holocaust.

David Hazony: I think there are many answers. Some of them are deep and psychological. Some of them are opportunistic and career-ish. I’ve seen people on the news become conspiracy theorists in public, on television when they weren’t before because they found a niche that they thought would build them a bigger audience. The, the motivations can be very, very different. I think that if you leave aside the politicians and you leave aside the media figures who are all of whom are often opportunistic and get to the core question of what is somebody missing in life that they have to develop crazy theories that blame certain groups of people for bad things that happen? I think it’s an ancient core reality of being human. I think that’s why we had you know, the pantheistic mythologies, right? Back in the day when before we had monotheism, people would say, oh, there’s a sun god or there’s a rain god. And they were fighting each other. And that’s why I don’t have wheat this year is because of the stupid gods who are fighting each other. Instead of trying to really understand what provides wheat and how agriculture works. So I actually think that this is an ancient eternal reality about being human, and that learning how to overcome that, that’s actually progress. And it’s something that’s taken thousands of years for human beings to achieve. For science to emerge, for the applied sciences, from engineering to agriculture and computers. And all these things emerge only after we were blaming things out of our control and developing crazy theories to explain them. So I don’t think it’s something that can be defeated. I think it’s something that’s inherent to being human, but I think it’s something that we understand that civilization thrives when we overcome it. And that’s our challenge in the generations to come, is to constantly, constantly overcome those innate human urges to violence, to irrationality, to hatred of perceived threats and perceived powers that are above you.

Gabe Howard: I want to give you the opportunity to speak on this specifically. Other than being incredibly insulting to the victims of the Holocaust, why is this denialism so bad for our society, as we’ve been talking about through most of this podcast? There’s all kinds of conspiracy theories out there. People believe all kinds of insane things, and yet life moves on. Why is this one worse?

David Hazony: Because the Holocaust teaches us what people can do. How bad it can get. And if you don’t believe that it can get that bad, you won’t be on the lookout for the signs. And you won’t be able to mobilize to defend the core values of your society. If you don’t believe something is a threat because you don’t believe it’s possible, you won’t fight against it. The Holocaust teaches us how bad things can get. What human beings like you and me and those around us are capable of doing to each other. And if you don’t have that striking lesson, then you won’t have any defenses up for when it actually comes.

Gabe Howard: This is a lot. This is a lot to take in and it seems so negative and hopeless.

David Hazony: You know, this is a pretty much of a downer. A lot of the stuff I’m saying, and I actually would like to leave with some with a more optimistic note if that’s possible. I think that everything that we are seeing today on the one hand, is very frightening and very troubling because you see the rise of conspiracy theories that turn into violent political movements to the left and to the right. But I also have this very call it irrational, very powerful belief in our ability to overcome it. I think that we’ve gone too far to allow the achievements of Western civilization to be taken away from us and to slip away. And I think that we see in Israel a tremendous mobilization and belief in the strength and prosperity of our future and in the younger generation. And I think that it’s a mistake when we just assume we hear all the noise and we think that’s the majority of people. I think that younger people across the West are creative, energetic. They have their heads on straight and they’re just not as loud. But there will be pushback. And the Western world and its institutions will recover from this hit and will hit back because we have no future without that. And I think it’s going to happen.

Gabe Howard: Dr. Hazony, thank you so much for being here. Where can folks find you online?

David Hazony: So I have a website, DavidHazony.com. “Jewish Priorities,” the book also has a website, JewishPriorities.com. The book is available at Amazon or anywhere else online, where books are sold. And I’d love to hear what people think about it.

Gabe Howard: Once again, we really appreciate your time today, Dr. Hazony. And I want to give a great big thank you to all of our listeners. And you’ve been listening to the Inside Mental Health podcast from Healthline Media. My name is Gabe Howard, and I’m an award-winning public speaker. Now, I could be available for your next event or you can grab my book, “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations.” You can get it on Amazon, but you can grab a signed copy with free podcast swag. Or learn more about me by heading over to my website, gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. It is absolutely free and I have a huge favor to ask. You recommend the show, whether it’s on social media, whether it’s in a Reddit thread, whether it’s in a support group, how whether you send somebody a text. I just need you to know that sharing the show is how we grow. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.

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