By Gilad Atzmon
Despite the vast amount invested in Holocaust education and in spite of the fact that the Holocaust is the only compulsory subject in the British national history curriculum, British pupils seem not to follow the message of the rigid topic. For some reason, they struggle to buy into the primacy of Jewish suffering. They show little interest and learn mostly nothing. Yesterday’s Tablet Magazine article, “The Failure of Holocaust Education in Britain”, produced a clumsy attempt to grasp the reason for the failures of Holocaust education.
UCL’s Centre for Holocaust Education has recently conducted the ‘world’s largest ever study of its kind, it interviewed over 8,000 pupils aged 11-18 in England. Andy Pearce who work as a researcher at the centre told the Tablet that apparently 25-30 years of Holocaust education “is failing to make an impact.”
Pearce reports that when students were asked who was responsible for the Holocaust, “Hitler dominated the answer.” This is presumably a ‘wrong answer.’ Pearce continues, “Incredibly when we asked them to tell us who the Nazis were, students responded by saying they were ‘Hitler’s minions’ and ‘Hitler’s paratroopers.’” Pearce wasn’t happy with this answer either. “There was no reference to the Nazi Party as a political movement. Students also told the researchers that most Jews were killed in Germany. There was no understanding of collaborating regimes and many believed that mass killing began in 1933.”
Pearce inadvertently provided some crucial insights into the systematic failure of ‘holocaust education.’ While Heidegger taught us that to educate is to teach others how to learn, indoctrination is a very different exercise. It teaches how to produce the ‘right’ answers. The Holocaust, as taught and preached, falls into the domain of indoctrination. It is not a subject matter that is open to discussion or revision. The Holocaust as a subject does not accommodate dilemma or confusion. It is treated like a religious text with a rigid structure that doesn’t allow deviation.
For history to be relevant it must contain a dynamic discourse with present day, historical and contextual connotations. If the Holocaust is to be a vibrant topic that is engaging and enlightening for young enthusiastic minds, then the Holocaust must be placed into a context, such as comparing Auschwitz to Gaza. Nuremberg laws must be juxtaposed with the Israeli National Bill and the Israeli Law of Return. For the Holocaust to win our kids’ attention they must try to address the most difficult of questions: How and why was it that just three years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the newly born Jewish State ethnically cleansed the vast majority of the indigenous Palestinians? For the Holocaust to garner universal interest, it must carry a universal message!
Apparently ‘Holocaust education’ in Britain and in the West in general is dependent on Holocaust survivors. Elli Olmer is an outreach teacher for the Holocaust Education Trust. She told the Tablet, “I love what I do and hope to do it for many years but it all depends on what happens after we lose our survivors.” Despite Israel’s scientific gains in life extending technologies, it seems survivors aren’t going to live forever. Moreover, many survivors complain that their ability to reach young audiences is fading for the obvious reasons. However, their approach that engagement with a chapter in the past can only be reached through personal experience with people who lived through that chapter shows that the Holocaust is understood by these so called ‘educators’ as an a-historical narrative.
Historians revisit Napoleonic wars without depending on ‘meetings’ with survivors of those wars. We believe that we can learn about the Roman empire without expecting veteran Roman generals to visit our classes. Why then does the Holocaust needs its survivors? Why can’t the Holocaust be taught as a proper historical chapter through analysing texts and documents and encountering some opposing views? Because Holocaust education is driven by political interests and laws requiring such education are passed by means of emotional manipulation. It is there, of course, to serve Israeli and Jewish politics -- the Holocaust is the raison d'être behind the Jewish state. But the Holocaust is also used to serve other global political trends such as (im)moral interventionism, pro immigration, anti racism, pro liberalism and so on.
The use of the Holocaust for political ends suggests that British youngsters may actually be more sophisticated than the banal minds that attempt to crudely indoctrinate them into submission. They sense that something about the holocaust education is not ‘straight forward,’ so to say. It is not taught as an open discourse, it is somehow different than other chapters in the past. It isn’t really open to discussion.
As could have been expected, Corbyn and the Labour party are dealt some of the blame. “The current debate over anti-Semitism in Britain’s opposition Labour Party and the views of its leader Jeremy Corbyn have also had a negative impact on Holocaust education in the classroom and made better teacher training even more imperative.” Apparently, British youngsters do not live in a bubble. “Students now ask about Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism... Two to three years ago I would not have had pupils who would have heard the terms,” a teacher said.
The UCL team also examined what teachers hope to achieve by teaching the Holocaust. “There is a belief that if we study the Holocaust it will stop it happening again.” The truth of the matter is that there is more than one holocaust happening at the moment: Palestine, Libya, Syria just to mention a few. The Holocaust will become a meaningful lesson when it is finally emancipated from the primacy of Jewish suffering and when we return to empathy and compassion as a basic tenet of our culture. Unfortunately I do not see the Holocaust Education Trust leading us in such a direction.
Surprisingly enough, Mike Levy, a Holocaust educator based in Cambridge, admitted to the Jewish outlet that there is “an atmosphere of fatigue in the air when it comes to talking about the Holocaust and that students and teachers want to learn more about other genocides and contextualize the Holocaust.” I agree with Mr. Levy. Let’s expose our kids to Aleppo, Tripoli and Gaza and show them the crimes that are committed by our own democratically elected governments. Let them figure out for themselves who are the Nazis of our time. I believe that this would be the first step in preventing the next Holocaust.