If the Holocaust was greatly facilitated by world apathy, an opposite trend is now in progress, with Holocaust study programs flourishing in many countries.
Even Arab teachers and students in Israel are currently studying the Shoah and its causes.
It’s been three years now since Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies began offering a seminar for Arab teachers in Arab towns. And participating educators are saying positive things.
“A year ago I visited Yad Vashem for the first time,” history teacher Hanan Mahmid of Umm el-Fahm (Israel’s third largest Arab city, between Afula and Hadera) told Ynet, “and I was in shock…. I think Arab students should visit Yad Vashem once a year.” What made her take part in the seminar?
“I think the younger generation needs to know and learn what happened there. The Jewish people have also been through much pain and suffering. As a teacher, I feel a responsibility to teach them about this subject.”
The three-month seminar for Arab teachers is conducted in their hometowns for ten monthly hours. Another Yad Vashem program for Arab teachers was held last year at Yad Vashem itself and brought together one hundred forty teachers from around the country. The first-person testimonies the teachers hear from survivors apparently make the greatest impression.
“I had never been exposed to testimonies and the experiences of real people who where there,” said Mahmid. “All these are proof that the Shoah took place and that there is no room to deny it.”
To understand the sea change in thinking suggested by the interest in such programs, consider that in 1982 Mahmoud Abbas, now the president of the Palestinian Authority, wrote a doctoral thesis in which he raised doubts about the existence of Nazi gas chambers and suggested that the number of Jews actually killed was about one million; the common figure of six times that amount, he maintained, was disseminated by the Zionist leadership in order to “attain larger gains” after the war and to “divide the booty.”
Can Shoah studies actually help neutralize Arab hatred for Israelis? Some of the Arab teachers reported that their students frequently “compared the Shoah to the Israeli-Arab conflict” – an indication that it is hard for them to sympathize with Jewish suffering under current circumstances. One teacher said she tries to explain that the Holocaust was “a tragedy that must not be repeated, not a regular war,” and that the students “understand.”
Many of the Arab teachers request additional Holocaust learning materials and teaching aids.
“The topic of the Holocaust in the Arab sector is complicated,” said Dorit Novak, who heads the International School for Holocaust Studies, “and sometimes may give rise to mixed emotions – but a direct encounter and exploration of the content such as this opens the door to a dialogue that reaches beyond Holocaust education.”
Yusuf Hasan, a teacher from Kfar Mashhad in northern Israel, said that “It is not easy explaining to Arab kids the Jewish Holocaust.” He agreed, though, that personal testimonies are very powerful: “When you hear it from someone who was there at the time, it is as if you are experiencing it with them.”
The worldwide scope of Holocaust study programs run by Yad Vashem is impressive. Over the past several months seminars have been held for citizens of China, Taiwan, Germany, Hungary, Finland, Poland, Ukraine, England, Slovakia, Holland, Australia, New Zealand and Latvia, among other places.
More than three thousand educators from around the world participated last year in Yad Vashem conferences and seminars, learning how to teach students about the Holocaust. Holocaust education in China is particularly fascinating. Until the 1980s China basically followed the Soviet approach, lumping the genocide against Jews together with other war crimes of fascism and capitalism.
But when China began opening its doors to the outside world, the Chinese were thirsty to learn – and Jewish studies started to flourish.
Gideon Bachar, head of the Foreign Ministry’s Department for Combating Anti-Semitism, said that organized Holocaust studies will be extended this year to countries that have never had them before, such as South Korea and Cyprus. A group of twenty educators from India, Australia and Singapore are currently studying at Yad Vashem, and similar contingents from New Zealand and Korea are on deck.
“This goes to show just how many people in the world are interested in the subject of the Holocaust,” Bachar said. “It is definitely still relevant at the beginning of the 21st century.”
Not all is rosy, of course. Though in 1996 the UN set Jan. 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, “many history teachers in Europe don’t mention the subject of the Holocaust,” Dutch history teacher Manon Wilbrink told Israel’s Yisrael Hayom daily. “Many classes are multicultural, full of immigrants, and [teachers] who teach about the Holocaust are often met with resistance.”
Shulamit Imber, also of Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies, says that Nazism and totalitarianism are taught in many countries, but not “critical topics like anti-Semitism and concentration camps. In most cases, the World War II syllabus barely contains a single chapter on the Holocaust.”
As recently as 2009, a University of Haifa survey indicated that 40.5 percent of Israeli Arabs said the Holocaust never happened. The percentage will probably never reach zero, but thanks to the new initiatives and the openness of some Arab teachers, it could very well see a marked decrease in the near future.
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