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The Crisis in Israel's Holocaust Education


Photo Credit: Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, Chief Rabbi Meir Lau, and Israeli government ministers participate in March of the Living. Credit: Creative Commons/JAFI Israel

Crossposted from TikkunDaily

By Ayana Nir

On the eve of Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) Israel’s streets experience a virtual shutdown. Restaurants, bars, and cafes lock their doors and the streets grow eerily quiet as inhabitants venture home to pay their respects; Israeli TV and radio channels limit their programming to Holocaust documentaries and related talk shows, while viewers, in turn, flip to international networks for comedic escape from the steady stream of grisly footage and repetitive slogans their TVs emit annually; schools hold large ceremonies to further instill in students the collective memory of a now distant trauma they have never really known, and at 10AM on the 27th of Nisan the country is frozen still for two minutes while a siren disrupts the monotony of everyday life and commuters stop in their tracks to hang their heads in a gesture of silent collective sorrow.

The memorialization of the Holocaust has been the topic of debate since Israel’s founding, and changing trends in its representation shape its significance within the context of national identity and politics. It is easy to overlook the political power presented in the production of educational texts, but the influence of educational curricula is indisputable in shaping public perspective for political gain.

That is why Israeli Minister of Education Shai Piron’s plan to introduce Holocaust education to Israeli public schools starting as early as the first grade has been so controversial. Alongside the concern voiced by many parents about traumatizing young children with gruesome details of systematic ethnic cleansing, many begin to question how the continued rehashing of communal wounds shape the development of national identity and what political interests the perpetuation of historical trauma might serve.

An Early Indoctrination Into Trauma

Growing up in a suburb outside of Tel Aviv, I can’t recall the earliest moment I learned about the Holocaust. It was a constant presence in my upbringing and early education. The sound of the tzfira on Yom Hashoah was hard to ignore, and the lengthy memorial ceremonies each year instilled in me a highly politicized understanding of this historical event. The overwhelming message was that the presence of a strong Israeli state was the one and only deterrent preventing this tragedy from occurring again, and the focus on the lengthy history of European anti-Semitism, with common references to its contemporary manifestations, led my peers and me to develop worldviews shaped by a fear of persistent victimization outside the sheltering boundaries of our isolated Jewish state.

In my attempt to conjure up my earliest memories of Holocaust education, I contacted a friend-of-a-friend, Roni Tal, an education student born and raised in Israel. Like me, he struggled when asked to pin down the earliest time he was formally taught about the Holocaust. As a student in training to become a teacher, he said he is well aware that discussion of the Holocaust already begins as early as kindergarten, even without formal legislative intervention in the manner.

Tal also talked about how, like most young Israelis, he attended an organized school trip as a teenager to visit the death camps in Poland. According to Tal, each day on the trip was concluded with an in-depth discussion among the students and educators about their experiences that day. He and his friends would often point out thoughts and conclusions that varied from the predominant Zionist narrative put forth by the educators and guides overseeing the trip. Tal and his friends wanted to talk instead about racism and ethno-nationalism, sentiments that gave ideological justification to genocide. He said discussion of these topics was discouraged, and educators persistently shifted dialogue and focus back to nationalist discourse and Zionist imperatives.