By Zarah Louis
In England, The Holocaust has been a compulsory theme in the history curriculum since 1991 and it was the first European country to make it so. So seriously is this taken that in 2012, the British Government (courtesy of the British taxpayer) allocated £1.8 million into Holocaust Education funding. The decision as what exactly should be included in these lessons is left to the individual establishment or teacher, some may choose to condense it into a couple of lessons and for others it may be spread over the course of a few weeks and nothing detrimental can be implied towards those that choose the former option. Assistance can also be forthcoming from the Holocaust Educational Trust which works “in schools, universities and in the community to raise awareness and understanding of the Holocaust, providing teacher training, an outreach program for schools, teaching aids and resource material. One of our earliest achievements was ensuring that the Holocaust formed part of the National Curriculum for History. We continue to play a leading role in training teachers on how best to teach the Holocaust.”
The Holocaust section of the website of the Holocaust Education Trust includes a slideshow timeline commencing on January 30 1933 when Hitler took power and culminating in the 1945 Nuremberg Trials. Of the 15 frames, only one touches on any other group being affected by The Holocaust, these being the 70,000 mentally and physically disabled people who were deemed to be “unworthy of life”. Indeed a case has been made by some that The Holocaust is different from the holocaust and that the Roma and other groups that suffered the same fate in Nazi Germany in the period up to 1945 as those of Jewish ethnicity belong in the latter category. The Holocaust Education Trust adds its own stance on the above issue in its supporting material for teachers ‘INTRODUCTION TO THE HOLOCAUST COMMON MYTHS & MISCONCEPTIONS ‘
“The term Holocaust refers to all victims of Nazi persecution. Although certain groups other than Jews (including Roma and Sinti (Gypsies), people with disabilities, Soviet prisoners of war and Polish elites) were victims of Nazi mass murder and many others were persecuted, only Jews were targeted for complete extermination. The Holocaust specifically describes the murder of Europe’s Jews. This is not intended to ignore or belittle the suffering of others but, in fact, to achieve the opposite. Using the term ‘the Holocaust’ as a catch-all for Nazi persecution can obscure the varying experiences of the different victim groups.”
The remainder of that document does indeed obscure the different non Jewish victim groups by not mentioning them again at all!
As one of the purposes of school history is to encourage students “to ask and answer questions of the present by engaging with the past”, then surely the holocaust in its broadest possible sense should be that which students become familiar with?
Whilst it is undeniable that those of the Jewish ethnicity formed the overwhelming majority of people who perished as a result of Nazi Germany thinking and actions, the fact remains that other groups including the Roma and Sinti peoples were categorized and subsequently exterminated by exactly the same warped thinking and legislation that saw millions of Europeans of the Jewish ethnicity perish. Sadly, for the Roma and Sinti peoples however, the same vigor has not been put into recognizing their holocaust which accounted for 25 % of their already small ethnic group being killed. As a consequence the Roma are still discriminated against today and remain Europe’s pariahs. This was evidenced in 2010, (and is ongoing today which saw the forced expulsion of Roma peoples from France by Nicolas Sarkozy’s government and as a consequence his actions were frequently compared with Pro Nazi War time leaders in the main stream media and earned a rebuke from the EU Justice Commissioner, Viviane Reding. Despite the fact that France had been occupied and suffered greatly under Nazi Germany’s rule, no one, except Nicolas Sarkozy, appeared to take umbrage with these parallels or feel that they were insensitive; it was more a case of if the cap fits…
Holocaust education should not be taught merely as a series of horrors that students need to be informed of as empty vessels awaiting to receive a fill of prescribed knowledge. It is a historical event which students and teachers should be able to discuss, debate and challenge. If one of the lessons that the holocaust should imbue in tomorrow’s generation is to learn lessons from the past, then surely ‘never again’ should be examined in the broadest context possible? If ‘never again’ is simply looked at in the context of Judaism and anti Semitism and then only retrospectively, not only does the subject do a great disservice to the Roma and Sinti peoples, homosexuals, mentally and physically disabled and political prisoners that perished in the very same camps but it serves to stifle any debate about the present or future. “How can you tell what’s going to happen, unless you know what happened before?”
It is of course important that students are made fully aware of the long history of anti-Semitism and how this hatred culminated in the attempted extermination of mainland Europe’s Jewry in the early 1940s. It is therefore vital that students are clear as to what constituted anti Semitism pre 1940s in order to fully grasp how pre war anti Semitism evolved. It is evident that some people believe anti Semitism has evolved further since 1948 and there is often a debate to be had as to how it should be defined. For example, the controversial London Declaration may not go far enough in its definitions for some and yet goes too far for others. This is a debate that should not be stifled in the classroom if we want future generations to be vigilant in recognizing and challenging true anti Semitism.
Students of multi cultural Britain will already understand that it is wrong to “engage in hate against Jews” just as it is wrong to engage in hate against any person of different race, creed or color. Or that it is as wrong to “Hold Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel” as it is to hold Muslims collectively responsible for the actions of the state of a predominantly Islamic country for example. But students may not understand the difference between religious Judaism and political Zionism. They may believe it is the same or they may not have even encountered the word Zionism in their lessons. Given how instrumental Zionism was in planting the seed of an idea for A Jewish homeland and how influential it remains today, this cannot be ignored.
The London Declaration also opines that ‘Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis’ is anti Semitic. The very fact that this has been included in the Declaration indicates that it is a charge frequently levied against the Israeli government. Of course, no country would be happy to have its policies compared to that of Nazi Germany, but as we have seen already with Sarkozy’s administration, where parallels can be made is it not right that they should be, if we are to learn lessons from the past?
Students should of course be taught that not all Jews live in Israel and that many Jews actively disagree with Israeli Governmental policy. Moreover if they are made aware that on Israel’s inception in 1948 it declared itself a “Jewish State”, would it really be that inappropriate for students to investigate whether any Israeli policies have anything remotely in common with those of Nazi Germany in the context of The Holocaust? This isn’t to single Israel out for any solitary scrutiny, even though the London Declaration states “that criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic “. The actions of the 2010 French government and any other country where applicable, could be included also, but if the Holocaust is essentially a Jewish tragedy as per the Holocaust Educational Trust’s definition, then the scope would be legitimately narrowed.
So what do the lessons of the holocaust serve to remind us of and what should the lessons of the holocaust serve to remind us? It is evident that The Holocaust (capital T capital H) is fiercely guarded as an anti Jewish phenomenon and as such its horrors should never be revisited on the Jewish people ever again. However, most right minded people would concur that such an atrocity should never happen again to anyone and that where any parallels are to be found with the actions reminiscent of Nazi Germany (whether through the passing of restrictive or prejudicial laws to whole scale murder) they should be identified and discussed. In fact the English history curriculum expects nothing less “Considering the significance of events, people and developments in their historical context and in the present day.” Thus the reaction recently to teaching material found on a Belgian educational website, by offended “Jewish groups” whilst predictable, fails to acknowledge a wider perspective.
The story was initially reported in the Belgian ‘Joods Actueel digitale edition’ and then carried by various other similar newspapers and lobby groups. The Jerusalem Post reported that a lesson plan included a cartoon by Carlos Latuff (which the JP claimed was drawn for the Belgian educational website) and a role playing exercise which appeared in the JP having been translated into English. However, it would appear that the cartoon and the script were from two different lesson plans not directly associated with the teaching of the holocaust. The exact educational context for the two aforementioned items cannot be ascertained in this article as they have since been removed from the parent website.
The lesson concerning the ‘role playing exercise’ is clearly a lesson in empathy and is also a method long employed in British schools. A task in a 1985 British school book which referred to the formation of the State of Israel in 1948 provided an opportunity for ‘creative writing’: “It is 1948 and you are a Jew. Say what you think of the British and Arabs. Now pretend to be an Arab and say what you think of the British and the Jews”. (History through Maps and Diagrams P.F Speed 1985 Pergamon Press p57).
Being able to put yourselves in someone else’s shoes, no matter how alien or difficult is a vital key to beginning to understand them and building bridges. Perhaps if more of the interwar German people had been able to do this, rather than viewing other peoples as inferior or even sub human, then the holocaust could have been avoided.
The Latuff cartoon is clear enough. It portrays a WW2 era Jew and a modern day citizen of Gaza as victims. For some it is anti Semitic for others an accurate depiction, though perhaps exaggerated for effect as cartoons often are. But is it really so outrageous that it should have been withdrawn from the Belgian educational website? Within the right teaching environment and with context provided, this cartoon could have made for a stimulating and informative debate. Some students may concur that the cartoon is not an accurate reflection of the current situation but, and perhaps this is the real fear, students may begin to question Israeli governmental policies in Palestine.
Simon Wiesenthal Center referred to the lessons as a ‘classic example of Holocaust inversion in which the descendants of the victims of the Shoah are portrayed as the new Nazis’. I would disagree; the holocaust was a real and terrible tragedy for all of its victims and it should be commemorated, but not by an unquestioning obedience to their own limited narrative. As the Gatestone Institute remarked about the Belgian educational materials “Teachers indoctrinated with teaching material provided by an organization that is sanctioned by the Ministry of Education, in turn indoctrinate the school children in their care.” Well that can work both ways. Just as today’s German generation are far removed from the generation that perpetrated the holocaust, so are its victims. Our present and future generations need to be vigilant and acquire the skills and knowledge to be able to recognize any possible similarities in the actions of Governments today, whomever and wherever they may be. Ensuring never again does not happen over again would be the best legacy.
– Zarah Louis contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.