Family & Education

Over 1,000 pupils at non-Jewish schools take lessons in Jewish history

The Sir Martin Gilbert Learning Centre’s new course is showing that Jewish history did not start with the Holocaust


Dr Bethany Gaunt from the Sir Martin Gilbert Learning Centre teaching about Jewish history (Photo: The Sir Martin Gilbert Learning Centre)

The jury may be out on whether the introduction of a Jewish History Month would be a good idea. But while it currently remains up in the air, one organisation has sprung into action and begun teaching Jewish history in non-Jewish schools.

The Sir Martin Gilbert Learning Centre in Hampstead, north-west London, which was set up seven years ago in memory of the celebrated historian, began its work with courses and lectures for adults. But in January this year, it branched out into schools.

By the end of June, associate director Dr Bethany Gaunt will have led sessions for well over 1,000 children in schools across the country, which can be supplemented by online resource packs produced by the centre that both teachers and students can access independently.

The centre’s director, Professor Shirli Gilbert, confides that after October 7, they worried about how schools might respond to the idea and whether they would “not want to touch Jewish things with a bargepole”. But, she says, they have been “pleasantly surprised about how open they are to it”.

“My sense is that because it’s not about Israel, [teachers] and students are interested, but they have no idea of how to approach anything to do with Jews and they are quite scared about it. This is a way in.”

The first two topics deal with the experience of Jewish refugees to Britain in the Nazi period and, in particular, the story of the Kitchener Camp in Kent, which housed refugees in 1939.

In the pipeline for the coming year are Jewish soldiers in World War One and Jewish suffragettes and suffragists.

“It’s important that we overcome the obstacles we are hearing from teachers. What is preventing teachers from teaching Jewish history is lack of time and knowledge and a lack of confidence,” says Dr Gaunt.

“What we are creating are resource packs which distil academic research and historiographical debates and which really bring everything together [so] the teacher has everything they need at their fingertips to include in their teaching.”

The 60-page pack on migration, for example, includes maps, illustrations, citations from primary sources and covers such subjects as this country’s response to refugees.

Many children’s only classroom encounter with Jews might have come in the teaching of the Holocaust, which is a compulsory part of the secondary curriculum.

“The audience we need to reach are people who have never heard of Jews or don’t understand why Jews, all of a sudden, were being persecuted in Europe in 1933 when they have no idea of who these people actually are,” says Gilbert, who is a modern Jewish historian at UCL’s department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies.

Gaunt explains: “What underpins our schools programme’s work is that Jews are an integral part of British history, and they should be encountered in that way, not just appearing as victims out of nowhere in 1933.”

To spur interest, the centre also has launched a schoolchildren’s essay contest with winners in three age groups – and has been encouraged by more than 70 entries in its first year.

Gilbert says: “At the back of our minds has always been the way in which our work can contribute to the larger challenge of antisemitism. This has really come to the fore since October 7.”

The assumption that antisemitism can be tackled just by teaching about it is “probably too narrow”, she says, but what the centre does try to do is “embed teaching about Jews so they are seen alongside other minorities as part of a holistic society”.

At present, she works just one day a week for the centre and Gaunt three. With greater resources, their schools’ work could be the start of something much larger.

“I think we have been bowled over by how positive the response has been,” Gilbert says. “Now the thinking is on how we can best scale this up to have the most impact.”

Before and after each session she runs, Gaunt does a survey to gauge attitudes. When she asks what the word “Jew” brings to mind before the start of a class, words like “Israel”, “persecution” or “Holocaust” come up. But afterwards, it’s more likely to be “resilience” or “community”.

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