Israel’s education Minister has said he wants children to start learning about the Holocaust in nursery school, sparking a debate about how young is too young when it comes to the Shoah.
There are parents who fear that their children will be traumatised by accounts of history which, for all their importance, are not appropriate learning material for the very young.
There have been some high-profile incidents in recent years of overly-zealous teachers presenting material, such as films, that are too graphic for the children viewing them.
Another criticism of minister Shai Piron’s plan is that it teaches a sense of victimhood too early on. Why interfere with young children’s un-cynical view of the world by talking to them about the horrific realities of Jewish history?
Some would even argue that postponing Holocaust education until children are older is an eminently Zionist thing to do. Israel is full of Jewish children growing up away from day-to-day interactions with antisemitism. Was this not the dream of Zionism — for young Jews to grow up in a “normal environment”? Leave aside the vicissitudes of the diaspora until children are able to emotionally manage such information.
But on the opposing side, there are educators and parents saying that Israeli children grow up in a post-Holocaust society — one that has been very much shaped by the Holocaust — and the young should understand this.
Proponents of Shoah education also point to the power that it has to teach respect for diversity at a time when children are learning to socialise.
Shoah education from nursery school is not being introduced via a sweeping, open-ended directive for teachers to focus on the Holocaust.
Rather, Mr Piron is working with Yad Vashem to establish a programme that is sensitive to the limitations of children of different ages. For example, pre-schoolers will not be taught directly about death and Nazism. For the following two years, the emphasis will be on survivors, not victims.
While Holocaust education is not currently compulsory at a young age, some teachers choose to do it — and the new programme could enable them to do it better, and root out some of the sketchier practices.
The plan is a bold one and confronts difficult questions about the nature of childhood and how to deal with historical memory. If done well, it could be a major pedagogical achievement for Israel, but if it offends parents or distresses children, it could prove a step backwards for Holocaust education.