Educating people about the Holocaust is a noble and, many would argue, crucial endeavour for any liberal democratic society. As such, in terms of intention, it is commendable that since 1991 it has been part of the national curriculum. Considerable government funding has also been directed to organisations involved in assisting schools and teachers in Holocaust education such as the Holocaust Educational Trust and the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education.
Again, the overall intentions of these organisations and of government in funding them are noble, and surely a key intention must have been for Holocaust education to educate children and young people about the dangers of antisemitism, and thus make them less likely to engage in it.
The problem, of course, is that this is not happening. Antisemitism in schools, and in society in general, is significantly increasing, not decreasing. More education about the Holocaust does not seem to have equated to better understanding about Jew Hate.
Lord Mann’s recent report on antisemitism in the UK has recognised this and recommended that schools should teach directly about antisemitism separately from teaching about the Holocaust. However, the report does not really consider why there has been this failure. But it’s not that difficult to work out what has gone wrong. Classic pedagogical theory (and common sense) suggests that if you want people to learn something, then being clear about what you want to teach them is a necessary first step. It’s this that seems to be missing in Holocaust education, in England and more widely — it’s not that clear in actuality what it is aiming to teach or why.
As many others, including recently Dara Horn and Ben Freeman, have noted, Holocaust education can tend to focus on dead Jews and the process of their murder rather than celebrating the vibrancy of Jewish life. It also has tended, often, to universalise the Holocaust as a way of illustrating what happens generally when people engage in inhuman behaviour.
This robs the Shoah of its specificity both in terms of recognising the singular magnitude of its horror, and in relation to the fact that it was the culmination of centuries of Christian and Western hatred of Jews. Not hatred of the universal other, but of the specific Jewish people.
Sometimes, sadly, it seems as if this universalising tendency has been, by some organisations involved in Holocaust education — even if indirectly — a response to non-Jewish concerns about too much attention being focused on the suffering of Jews. And herein lies the nub of the matter. Holocaust education has not been about the specificity of antisemitism but about the universal. Of course, since emancipation non-Jewish society has been pre-occupied with requiring Jews, as a price of acceptance, to shed their specific nationality and ethnicity. No more so than when it comes to the idea of a Jewish national homeland — and an account of anti-Zionism and how it can position Jews in antisemitic ways tends to be absent in many cases in Holocaust education.
Lord Mann is right that things need to change and the government needs to take his report seriously. Holocaust education’s failures are a warning about the need for clear pedagogical aims focused on effective teaching about antisemitism — including, crucially, its modern forms.
However, this may not be easy to achieve given how much of the education establishment is infiltrated by radical anti-Zionism. The outgoing general secretary of the National Education Union, in response to Lord Mann’s report, rather than recognising the specificity of anti-Jewish hatred, responded (as we hear so often from the hard left) by focusing on racism in general. The incoming general secretary has been accused of antisemitism after a video emerged of him calling for the globalisation of the intifada. Our universities are becoming even more of a hostile environment for Jews than they were in the past.
In such a context, the government needs to make sure that the organisations it chooses to partner with in — hopefully — implementing Lord Mann’s recommendations are committed to and actually able to meet the very considerable challenge, given the hostility throughout the education sector, of ensuring that schools effectively address the issue of how Israel is positioned in modern forms of antisemitism.
Joseph Mintz is Associate Professor of Education at University College London