Family & Education

Don't blame campus antisemitism on a failure of Holocaust education

The head of a Holocaust educational programme in Scotland defends the work going on in schools


In her response to last month’s NUS report on persistent antisemitism within the student organisation, Baroness Deech concluded that Holocaust education in schools had failed and that it needed to be reshaped.

She made two valid points. It is important to recognise the IHRA Working Definition of antisemitism and school students should be taught about modern antisemitism. Both points were explicitly made by the government’s independent adviser on antisemitism, Lord Mann, in a report entitled Anti-Jewish Hatred last year.

However, her critique of Holocaust education is wrong.

Firstly,  Holocaust education, comprising learning about and from the Holocaust,  can never be an antidote to antisemitism. The former focuses on the  historical narrative with the  Jewish experience of the Holocaust at its very core; the latter focuses  on  broader issues related to active citizenship.

Lessons “about” include the attempted genocide of the Roma and Sinti,  and the persecution and discrimination of other  distinctive groups as well as the genocide of the Jews  lessons “from” include learning about human rights, genocides, discrimination and hate crimes today.   

From my experience,  secondary teachers in Scotland (where Holocaust education is not mandatory, and whose students are also NUS members) who teach the Holocaust, will  focus lessons  on human rights in areas such as the plight of today’s refugees, LGBTQ or Black Lives Matter issues rather than on modern antisemitism.

Secondly, the Holocaust is mandatory in the national curriculum, in history. One could well argue that history is not the place for teaching modern antisemitism, and that this teaching should take place elsewhere in the curriculum. This point is supported by Unesco, which has recommended that antisemitism is taught within a framework of human rights and global citizenship, in addition to being taught in the context of the Holocaust.

Finally, is it not possible that  the political left  often use the Holocaust as a tool to promote their views because of the success of Holocaust education? I would argue that the success and impact of  Holocaust Memorial Day, the Lessons From Auschwitz Project, survivor talks and other Holocaust educational initiatives, demonstrate that  not only is Holocaust education successful but that it is constantly “reshaping” and adapting  to society’s needs, using  new technologies and applying new pedagogies.

As we are graced with  few survivors, and work in an unfriendly environment of antisemitism, Holocaust distortion and denial, consistent ongoing change in Holocaust education  is vital.   

Examples of this change are the establishment of Vision Schools Scotland (2017), an organisation that supports teachers in Scotland in their Holocaust teaching and whose  schools  consider Holocaust education to be beneficial to their schools’ values; the  IHRA Toolkit Against Holocaust Distortion (2021); and the UK Holocaust  Memorial at Westminster, which  will convey a comprehensive and unique narrative of Britain’s response to the Holocaust.

There are many reasons for the National Union of Students’ behaviour. Inadequate teaching of antisemitism in contexts other than Nazi antisemitism may well be one of these, but Holocaust education is not to blame.

Paula Cowan is director of Vision Schools Scotland

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