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The Crisis in Israel's Holocaust Education

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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.

According to Yarden Skop’s article in Haaretz, “What I learned in kindergarten today about the Holocaust,” Israel’s education ministry insists that the new Holocaust education curriculum it drew up this year for younger children will not focus on deaths and atrocities, instead discussing the personal stories of young survivors. Still, the children will learn about the yellow star, and other historical concepts deemed significant by the ministry, textbook writers, and Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies.

Though the new proposed Holocaust curriculum, which has not yet been released for public review, is described in disarming terms that present it as a kid-friendly children’s book about genocide, it’s important to understand that this legislation mandates the early indoctrination of children into a narrative of historical trauma that will, at the very least later on in their education, be presented in highly politicized contexts that encourage ultra-nationalist identification.

Historical Transformations in Israeli Holocaust Education

Israel’s education ministry publishes a new national curriculum periodically, dictating the objectives and content of education for all of Israel’s public schools. As a result, textbook representations of the Holocaust and the role it has played in the Israeli educational system have changed dramatically throughout the years.

Education scholar Dan Porat, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has documented these shifts in detail in his Journal of Contemporary History article, “From the Scandal to the Holocaust in Israeli Education.” Israel of the 1950s, Porat explains, seemed to carefully avoid nearly any mention of the Holocaust in its educational texts. At a time when Israelis sought to define their national identity with power and confidence, the Holocaust was seen as a representation of former surrender. Textbooks focused their attention on Jewish revolt rather than killing methods and casualties. At this time the personal stories of survivors were kept private and the communal trauma of the young state swept under the rug in a futile attempt to ignore its festering wounds. Porat shows how it was the decision by prosecutors of the Eichmann trial to focus on personal stories rather than documented evidence that exposed many Israelis to formally highly private narratives of trauma now widely disseminated in radio broadcastings of court proceedings.

In the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, when threat of annihilation reared its head once more, the ministry of education published new curricula. According to Porat, the new textbooks published at that moment represented the Holocaust as an event divorced from the context of World War II and reflected an empathetic emphasis on the individuality of the victims. Still, throughout the 1970s the Holocaust was an elective topic in public schools. It wasn’t until 1982 that a law was passed making Holocaust education mandatory. This new legislation aimed at educating students on the “consciousness of the memory of the Holocaust,” not just the documented details of the historical event itself, and added the subject of the Holocaust to the Matriculation Exams, meaning students were to be tested on it as a prerequisite to receiving their diplomas.

Zevulun Hammer, Minister of Education under Menachem Begin, commissioned and approved a single Holocaust textbook for all Israeli public high schools. This text was aptly named “The Holocaust and its Significance” and presented the extermination of the Jewish people as a self-contained event, covering the events of World War II in a meager 2.5 percent of the text. According to Porat’s research, that textbook included an entire chapter devoted to Holocaust deniers and those who minimize the enormity of the genocide and its unique historical nature. And, in order to ensure that Israel’s increasingly heterogenous population had some way of establishing roots in its painful defining past, a great deal of text focused on Jewish casualties in North Africa, which were considerably lower than certain regions of Eastern Europe that textbook writers virtually ignored. According to “Bearing Witness Ever More; Remembering the Holocaust” (an August 2013 article from the Economist), coverage of the Holocaust in Israel’s general history textbooks increased from 20 pages in the 1960s to 450 pages in the 1990s.

The Effects of Trauma-Oriented Education

Most young Israelis today have strong emotional ties to the Holocaust and it’s no wonder – their educational system has emphasized its study and skewed its significance toward a deep personal identification that hinders its potential in teaching universal values. This trend doesn’t seem to be changing either. A study by Bar-Ilan University featured last year in Haaretz found that 78 percent of principals and 67 percent of teachers feel that Holocaust education should emphasize Zionist values, compared to 57 percent of principals and 60 percent of teachers who think it should emphasize universal values.

Visits to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, have been an educational standard for years and, more recently, organized school trips to visit the death camps have become widespread routine. A recent study by the education ministry has determined that these trips, which take place in high school’s final years, result in a more positive opinion of the IDF. And so Israel’s high school students might return from their visit to the death camps with a heightened sense of their historical victimization to find their first draft notice arrived in the mail. Recent IDF draftees are also often taken to Yad Vashem before beginning their military training. The timeliness of these visits is undoubtedly propitious to Israel’s ruling right wing, and its politicians, particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, readily exploit the collective trauma of Israeli citizens for political gain.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s use of Holocaust terminology to describe the conflict with Iran has come under fire both in Israel and internationally. The strategic references to Jewish extinction made by the Israeli Prime Minister are transparent exploitations and their efficacy can be confirmed both by a historical examination of Israeli public opinion when compared to trends in Holocaust memorialization and by a series of experiments conducted by Michael Wohl and Nyla Branscombe in 2008. Branscombe and Wohl’s study “Remembering Historical Victimization: Collective Guilt for Current Ingroup Transgressions,” found that Jewish Canadians who were reminded of the Holocaust accepted less collective guilt for the oppression of Palestinians in comparison with those who were not reminded of past victimization. Further, Jewish Canadians who were reminded of the Holocaust experienced less collective guilt for current transgressions than those who were reminded of genocide committed against other ethnic groups.

Now, imagine a lifetime of references to historical victimization, a childhood that is permeated with the mandated memorialization of trauma, and an early education that perpetuates this trauma as a vital component of one’s national identity. The effects of Israel’s increasingly nationalistic educational system, with the Holocaust presented as a foundational element of Israeli identity, are already felt today: public polls indicate an increasingly separatist and militaristic younger generation.

A recent survey found that 46 percent of Jewish Israelis aged 15-18 feel Arabs should not be represented in the Knesset and 50 percent would be opposed to Arabs living in their neighborhood. Shai Piron’s legislation, mandating Holocaust education starting in first grade, requires teachers to school Israeli children in their historical trauma before these children can learn basic math. A set curriculum by this right-wing ministry will constrain discourse and set historical and political identification early on for an entire generation of children. Israel’s educational system could be the biggest obstacle standing in the way of Middle Eastern peace today, and with public opinion growing increasingly extreme alongside an educational system that is progressively politicized, what hope is there for future resolution?

 

Ayana Nir is a freelance writer and web editorial intern at Tikkun.