"Disgrace for England!" screams the subject of the e-mail circulating the globe. "This week in England every memorial of the Holocaust has been removed from the schools study programs arguing it hurts the Muslim population that denies the Holocaust." The undated e-mail goes on to assert that this act of appeasement is irrefutable proof that anti-Semitism is alive and kicking, 60 years after the end of World War II, and that this is a sign of an "upcoming world disaster." And what is the author's recommendation to the shocked recipient? "Never to forget," and no less important, to forward the e-mail on to another 10 as-yet-unenlightened friends.
You needn't be English to be alarmed by such a news flash, which seems to suggest not only that history curricula are the latest casualty in the advance of cultural relativism and the collapse of liberal values, but also that it's British Muslims who are behind the onslaught.
The problem with such whipped-up indignation is that the e-mail is based on falsehood, a malign reading of a report commissioned earlier this year by the United Kingdom's Department for Education and Skills to look at how the school system contended with the teaching of sensitive subjects like slavery, the Crusades and the Holocaust.
In setting out the case for why such a study was needed, the report noted: "A history department in a northern city recently avoided selecting the Holocaust as a topic... for fear of confronting anti-Semitic sentiment and Holocaust denial among some Muslim pupils." Indeed, a shocking incident. But the whole point of the report was to provide tools and support to all the U.K.'s 4,500 high schools, to help them avoid precisely this kind of aberrant behavior when teaching sensitive subjects.
In fact, never before has Holocaust education in the U.K. enjoyed such support, in terms of both policy and finances. In 2001, the same year as Holocaust Memorial Day was first observed in Britain, the subject became part of the compulsory national curriculum. The government has provided funding for a fixed number of 11th and 12th graders, from every school in the country, to visit Auschwitz with the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET). Thousands of school groups visit permanent exhibitions on the Holocaust around the country, and specialist programs offer teachers skills and materials to teach their pupils about it.
The situation is a quantum leap from the low-key and poor-quality education we received at school 20 years ago, where, as the token Jewish pupil in my class, I was actually invited to give "the Holocaust lesson," as the teacher had no materials, knowledge nor, indeed, any special interest in the topic.
If the situation is so bright, then why does this bogus message, which has been circulating in varied e-mail forms since April of this year, refuse to die?
In the British context, one has to see the apprehension as one element in the fervent debates currently under way regarding the status, identity and agenda of the country's two-million-strong Muslim community. In the context of open European borders giving rise to a new scale of immigration, the phenomenon of home-grown Muslim bombers in London and Glasgow, and a focus on the consequences of the U.K.'s policies of multiculturalism, the tone of the debate ranges from nuanced discussions on the meaning of citizenship to a far more uncontrolled and undiscriminating swell of anti-Muslim feeling.
But those who forward such an e-mail are unthinkingly buying into a characterization of the Muslim community as inherently hostile to Western and Jewish memory, as if the two communities were engaged in a zero-sum confrontation over cultural power which, if the Jewish community were to lose, would lead again to its threatened annihilation.
No less interesting, though, is why chain e-mails like these garner such traction, especially as the Internet facilitates such easy confirmation - or repudiation - of all kinds of spurious "facts." The answer lies in the role of the Web and of e-mail in particular in popular culture.
In an era of lethargy and of disillusionment with conventional politics, but also at a time in which the unknown individual can magnify his voice virally many thousands of times through e-mail, the idea of alternative activism at the touch of a button is clearly appealing. For those with ideological agendas, e-mail is a perfect weapon. It offers anonymity, speedy and effortless diffusion, the difficulty of a wholesale refutation - rebuttals never enjoy the same reach as the original allegation - and the networked power of distribution (and complicit endorsement) through one's peers.
But before forwarding a chain e-mail, out of an indefinite sense of righteous indignation, resist the herd instinct.
Consider whether you yourself really stand behind the facts and sentiments expressed in it, or whether you are allowing yourself to be cynically manipulated into feeling a fleeting sense of purpose and participation that overrides your better judgment. As a talkback on the HET Web site put it, "save the mobilization for real causes."
At the same time, you might want to spare a thought for the hapless University of Kentucky. It appears that in an earlier version of the "Disgrace to England!" e-mail, someone in cyberspace "translated" the "U.K." into the University of Kentucky as the location of the educational pseudo-crisis. Hundreds of thousands of e-mails are now circulating accusing the university of dropping Holocaust studies, prompting frantic denials by university authorities, whose Web site insists that their school "is not afraid to teach students about the Holocaust."
Who's next? The universities of Kansas, Khartoum or Kerala? Is any more proof needed regarding the integrity of the "brains" behind e-mail panic campaigns, and the gullibility of chain e-mail forwarders?
Esther Solomon is a senior editor at Haaretz.com.