KRAKOW, Poland (JTA) — Gavriel Rosenfeld, president of the Center for Jewish History in New York City, specializes in Nazi Germany and counterfactual history — or the study of what might have happened, but didn’t.
So when Elon Musk claimed this week that the Holocaust could have been mitigated if only X, his social media platform, had existed at the time, Rosenfeld took notice.
He said Musk’s comments stood out as a textbook example of a “fantasy scenario in which history turns out better thanks to an alteration of some key variable — in this case, transporting present-day technology into the past.” Such arguments are called “Connecticut Yankee counterfactuals,” he said, in homage to the 1889 Mark Twain novel in which a contemporary man is transported to England during the reign of King Arthur.
“This fantasy is a self-serving one,” Rosenfeld told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “It enables [Musk] to switch the conversation away from his allowing right-wing antisemites to post freely on X — which have increasingly discredited his platform — by claiming it would have served a social good if — and it’s a big if — it had existed 80 years ago.”
Rosenfeld was one of several Holocaust scholars to challenge Musk’s comments, which he said on Monday during a conversation with conservative commentator Ben Shapiro at a conference in Krakow hosted by the European Jewish Association.
Musk’s trip to Poland came as he has become embroiled in a series of antisemitism-related controversies. In November, Musk came under fire for endorsing an X post that said Jewish communities push “hatred against whites.” (The tech mogul replied, “You have said the actual truth.”) He has also threatened to sue the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights group, over its objections to hate speech on X. The website has seen antisemitic content spike since Musk took charge.
In his comments, Musk said X could have deterred the Nazis by making their mass murder “impossible to hide” and allowing “freedom of speech” against them.
His remarks were broadly praised during the event, which gathered European politicians and right-leaning Jewish leaders to discuss the global threat of antisemitism after Oct. 7. Among the billionaire’s most vigorous supporters was EJA Chairman Menachem Margolin — an influential European rabbi affiliated with the Chabad Hasidic movement — who asserted that X “could have saved millions of lives” during the Holocaust.
But Rosenfeld and other scholars say Musk’s imagined version of history demonstrates a misunderstanding of the genocide.
“The problem with Jews was not that they didn’t have the information, the problem was they didn’t have options,” said Doris Bergen, a Holocaust historian at the University of Toronto and scholar-in-residence at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Where were German Jews supposed to go? Who was providing refuge for elderly people, people with disabilities, and others deemed not valuable as workers?”
Bergen noted that half of Germany’s Jews — those who had the contacts and resources needed to escape the Nazi regime — actually did leave the country between 1933 and 1939. Those included Anne Frank’s family, who went to the Netherlands. But the Nazis caught up with them after occupying that country in 1940, as they did with the Jews in Poland, Hungary, France, the Soviet Union and the other nations they invaded.
“What would social media have done for these people, who in many cases were killed at the same time as the Germans invaded?” asked Bergen.
Musk argued on Monday that Nazi Germany represented the dangers of regulating speech, saying, “One of the first things the Nazis did when they came in is they shut down all the press and any means of conveying information.”
That is another inaccuracy, said Bergen, who suggested that Musk “take an intro course on the Holocaust.”
“Germany had a lot of newspapers that kept going all the way through the Nazi period,” she said. “Definitely there was pressure to conform to the ‘party line,’ but it was not so simple as controlling all the media.”
International media, including JTA, also covered what was happening in Germany and elsewhere in Europe under the Nazi regime but did not ignite adequate international concern to stop the genocide.
Christopher Browning, a Holocaust scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of “Ordinary Men,” about a Nazi death squad, also said information was available — but its availability was simply not enough to prevent the atrocities.
“Much about the Holocaust traces not to lack of information but unwillingness to process into knowledge,” said Browning. “Wishful thinking, denial and inability to imagine the unprecedented all played a role among victims, perpetrators, and bystanders.”
Historians have also pointed out that the Nazis were masters of using existing media to press their case against the Jews, suggesting that in this alternate universe, the Nazis might have weaponized social media as well — as countries today have been accused of doing in their internal and external conflicts.
David Myers, a professor of Jewish history at the University of California, Los Angeles, called Musk’s comments “ludicrous” and “offensive,” questioning why the owner of X overlooked his company’s power to swiftly disseminate hate and violence across the world. In fact, Myers said, social media might have made it easier for Nazis to find their local allies across Europe.
“Every day people gather online with like-minded souls to express their shared hatred for groups including Jews, Muslims, Blacks, Asians, and LGBTQ people, among others,” he said. “Moreover, these hate-mongers can receive detailed guidance online on how to carry out a massacre.”
Musk addressed the EJA conference after privately touring Auschwitz-Birkenau, a trip lauded by attendants of the conference. Margolin told JTA he believes that Musk has a better understanding of antisemitism and Jewish trauma after that visit.
However, an Auschwitz tour guide and Holocaust educator was skeptical of Musk’s claim that X could have deterred the Nazis. Social media only reflects the complexity of human nature at the heart of a genocide, which is what must be reckoned with, she told JTA.
“Social media works both ways,” said Agnieszka, who declined to share her last name. “It can generate really good generosity among people, make them really empathetic and loving toward others. But on the other hand, the same social media is able to gather people who are full of hatred.”
For Rosenfeld, the scholar of alternate histories, Musk’s counterfactual opened the doors to other scenarios that could have increased, not decreased, the dangers faced by European Jews.
“Given how popular opinion of the current war [in Gaza] has been decisively shaped by video footage shot on personal devices, it’s likely that the Allied war against Nazi Germany would have been more difficult to prosecute had there been daily images of German civilians being incinerated in Allied bombing raids,” he said, noting that some conservatives made this point in the 1970s about media coverage of the Vietnam War.
But all of the possibilities of the past, Rosenfeld said, are secondary to the role that Musk’s counterfactual thinking plays in the current day.
“From my perspective,” Rosenfeld said, “the key function of Musk’s counterfactual assertion is to rehabilitate his social media platform by investing it with hypothetical virtues — all the while deflecting attention away from its real world liabilities.”
South Dakota Passes Bill Adopting IHRA Definition of Antisemitism
South Dakota’s state Senate passed on Thursday a bill requiring law enforcement agencies to refer to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism when investigating anti-Jewish hate crimes.
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem (R) already adopted the definition, which has been embraced by lawmakers across the political spectrum, via executive order in 2021. This latest measure, HB 1076, aims to further integrate the IHRA’s guidance into law and includes the organization’s examples of antisemitism. It now awaits a vote by the state House of Representatives.
“As antisemitism continues to rise across America, having a clear and standardized definition enables a more unified stance against this hatred,” the Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM), said in a statement. “We appreciate Governor Kristi Noem for making this legislation a policy goal of hers, strengthening the use of the IHRA Working Definition in South Dakota through legislation, following the December 2021 adoption via executive proclamation.”
CAM called on lawmakers in the lower house to follow the Senate’s lead and implored “other states to join the fight against antisemitism by adopting the IHRA definition, ensuring the safety and well-being of their Jewish residents.”
First adopted in 2005 by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism states that “antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews,” and includes a list of illustrative examples ranging from Holocaust denial to the rejection of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination. The definition is used by hundreds of governing institutions, including the US State Department, European Union, and the United Nations.
Widely regard as the world’s leading definition of antisemitism, it was adopted by 97 governmental and nonprofit organizations in 2023, according to a report Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM) Antisemitism Research Center issued in January.
Earlier this month, Georgia became the latest US state to pass legislation applying IHRA’s guidance to state law. 33 US States have as well, including Virginia, Texas, New York, and Florida.
Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.
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Columbia University Sued for Allowing Antisemitic Violence and Discrimination
Columbia University allowed for antisemitism to explode on campus endangering the welfare of Jewish students and faculty, StandWithUs Center for Legal Justice and Students Against Antisemitism (SAA) alleges in a lawsuit announced on Wednesday.
Filed in the US District Court of Southern New York, the complaint recounts dozens of reported antisemitic incidents that occurred after Oct. 7 which the university allegedly failed to respond to adequately because of anti-Jewish, as well as anti-Zionist, bias.
“Columbia refuses to enforce its policies or protect Jewish and Israeli members of the campus community,” Yael Lerman, director of SWU Center for Legal Justice said on Wednesday in a press release. “Columbia has created a pervasively hostile campus environment in which antisemitic activists act with impunity, knowing that there will be no real repercussions for their violations of campus policies.”
“We decline to comment on pending litigation,” Columbia University spokesperson and vice president for communications told The Algemeiner on Friday.
The plaintiffs in the case accuse Columbia University of violating their contract, to which it is bound upon receiving payment for their tuition, and contravening Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. They are seeking damages as well as injunctive relief.
“F— the Jews,” “Death to Jews, “Jews will not defeat us,” and “From water to water, Palestine will be Arab,” students chanted on campus grounds after the tragedy, violating the school’s code of conduct and never facing consequences, the complaint says. Faculty engaged in similar behavior. On Oct. 8, professor Joseph Massad published in Electronic Intifada an essay cheering Hamas’ atrocities, which included slaughtering children and raping women, as “awesome” and describing men who paraglided into a music festival to kill young people as “the air force of the Palestinian resistance.”
300 faculty signed a letter proclaiming “unwavering solidarity” with Massad, and in the following days, Students for Justice in Palestine defended Hamas’ actions as “rooted in international law.” In response, Columbia University president Minouche Shafik, opting not to address their rhetoric directly, issued a statement mentioning “violence that is affecting so many people” but not, the complaint noted, explicitly condemning Hamas, terrorism, and antisemitism. Nine days later, Shafik rejected an invitation to participate in a viewing of footage of the Oct. 7 attacks captured by CCTV cameras.
The complaint goes on to allege that after bullying Jewish students and rubbing their noses in the carnage Hamas wrought on their people, pro-Hamas students were still unsatisfied and resulted to violence. They beat up five Jewish students in Columbia’s Butler Library. Another attacked a Jewish students with a stick, lacerating his head and breaking his finger, after being asked to return missing persons posters she had stolen.
More request to the university went unanswered and administrators told Jewish students they could not guarantee their safety while Students for Justice in Palestine held demonstrations. The school’s powerlessness to prevent anti-Jewish violence was cited as the reason why Students Supporting Israel (SSI), a recognized school club, was denied permission to hold an event on self-defense. Events with “buzzwords” such as “Israel” and “Palestine” were forbidden, administrators allegedly said, but SJP continued to host events whole no one explained the inconsistency.
Virulent antisemitism at Columbia University on the heels of Oct. 7 was not a one-off occurance, the complaint alleges, retracing in over 100 pages 20 years of alleged anti-Jewish hatred at the school.
“Students at Columbia are enduring unprecedented levels of antisemitic and anti-Israel hate while coping with the trauma of Hamas’ October 7th massacre,” SWU CEO Roz Rothstein said in Wednesday’s press release. “We will ensure that Columbia University is held accountable for their gross failure to protect their Jewish and Israeli students.”
Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.
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University of California-Los Angeles Student Government Passes BDS Resolution
The University of California-Los Angeles student government on Tuesday passed a resolution endorsing the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, as well as false accusation that Israel is committing a genocide of Palestinians in Gaza.
“The Israeli government has carried out a genocidal bombing campaign and ground invasion against Palestinians in Gaza — intentionally targeting hospitals universities, schools, shelters, churches, mosques, homes, neighborhoods, refugee camps, ambulances, medical personnel, [United Nations] workers, journalists and more,” the resolution, passed 10-3 by the UCLA Undergraduate Student Association Council (USAC), says, not mentioning that UN personnel in Gaza assisted Hamas’ massacre across southern Israel on Oct. 7.
It continued, “Let it be resolved that the Undergraduate Student Association of UCLA formally call upon the UC Regents to withdraw investments in securities, endowments mutual funds, and other monetary instruments….providing material assistance to the commission or maintenance of flagrant violations of international law.
The days leading up to the vote were fraught, The Daily Bruin, the university’s official student newspaper reported on Wednesday.
“Non-UCLA students” sent USAC council members emails imploring them to vote for or against the resolution and USAC Cultural Affairs Commissioner and sponsor of the resolution, Alicia Verdugo, was accused of antisemitism and deserving of impeachment. The UCLA Graduate Student Association and University of California-Davis’ student government had just endorsed BDS the previous week, prompting fervent anticipation for the outcome of Tuesday’s USAC session.
Before voting took place, members of the council ordered a secret ballot, withholding from their constituents a record of where they stood on an issue of monumental importance to the campus culture. According to The Daily Bruin, they expressed “concerns” about “privacy” and “security.” Some members intimated how they would vote, however. During a question and answer period, one student who co-sponsored the resolution, accused a Jewish student of being “classist” and using “coded” language because she argued that the council had advanced the resolution without fully appreciating the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the history of antisemitism.
“As a Guatemalan, …my country went through genocide,” he snapped at the young woman, The Daily Bruin’s reporting documented. “My family died in the Guatemalan Mayan genocide. I understand. I very well know what genocide looks like.”
Other council members voiced their support by co-sponsoring the resolution, which was co-authored by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a group that has held unauthorized demonstrations and terrorized Jewish students across the country.
Responding to USAC’s decision, Jewish students told the paper that they find the campaign for BDS and the attempts of pro-Palestinian students to defend Hamas’ atrocities myopic and offensive.
“How can anyone dare to contextualize since Oct. 7 without acknowledging that the Jewish people are victims of such a cataclysmic attack?” Mikayla Weinhouse said. “BDS intentionally aims to divide a community. Its supporters paint a complex and century-old conflict in the Middle East as a simplistic narrative that inspires hate rather than advocates for a solution.”
University of California-Los Angeles denounced the resolution for transgressing school policy and the spirit of academic freedom.
“The University of California and UCLA, which, like all nine other UC campuses, has consistently opposed calls for a boycott against and divestment from Israel,” the school said in a statement. “We stand firm in our conviction that a boycott of this sort poses a direct and serious threat to the academic freedom of our students and faculty and to the unfettered exchange of ideas and perspectives on this campus.”
Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.
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