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Teaching about the Holocaust in an Arab-Jewish school

How do you teach the universal lessons from national disasters throughout history, while preserving their uniqueness and respecting the pain of those connected to them?

By Guy Aloni

Children visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, April 17, 2012. (Noam Moskowitz/Flash 90)

Children visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, April 17, 2012. (Noam Moskowitz/Flash 90)

The tension leading up to Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Hand in Hand bilingual school in Jerusalem, where I teach, is the same every year. Teaching about Holocaust remembrance within a shared Jewish-Arab space is a complex and sensitive task; our Jewish students, just like those at a Hebrew-only school, feel that it’s an intrinsic part of their Israeli identity and they hurt on Holocaust Memorial Day.

Our Arab students, meanwhile, feel that the day is reserved for others — that it doesn’t belong to them and that all they are required to do is show respect to the occasion whenever it arises.

This sense of discomfort comes from the duality of this moment in Israeli discourse — to this day, the Holocaust plays a central role in justifying the establishment of the State of Israel for the Jewish people, itself a formative event that Palestinians view as a catastrophe, the Nakba.

How do we overcome this duality? What do we do when it’s clear that Arab students feel empathy and sadness towards the human suffering of the Holocaust’s victims and their families, but cannot ignore the part it played in the devastation of their own people? As teachers, the first step is to process our own dilemmas.

The idea that the Holocaust can teach us a universal lesson has a key role in solving this paralyzing duality, and I suggested as much to my colleagues last year when we were planning the ceremony and classes we would hold on Holocaust Memorial Day in our school. While each collective disaster in history is unique, I argued, if we want to learn from the Holocaust and work to ensure it won’t happen again, we need to understand the historical context in which it took place. In other words, although we need to remember the uniqueness of the Holocaust, we shouldn’t be afraid to draw parallels to other episodes in history in order to identify similar characteristics and to battle those too.

For example, teaching about apartheid in South Africa and making precise comparisons to the current political situation in Israel-Palestine is important — not in order to assess whether there is an apartheid situation here, but rather to see whether similar characteristics can be found here, and to decide if that’s acceptable or not. In the same manner we must learn about colonialism, slavery, genocide, crimes against humanity and other important events. We must learn from them as human beings and at the same time teach students that we have universal responsibilities.

Students at a bilingual school in Jerusalem, December 22, 2005. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Students at a bilingual school in Jerusalem, December 22, 2005.
(Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Out of this universalist perspective we can also teach that Holocaust remembrance does not belong to Jews alone. The destruction of European Jewry during World War II was an extreme event that can teach us much about the importance of fighting racism, no matter who it’s directed against.

But teaching from this perspective is not straightforward. Our national remembrance is informed by profound fear, even post-trauma. Jewish teachers struggle to relinquish the particularism of the Holocaust, fearing that its loss might erode the justification for our national existence.

For all the differences, Arab teachers also struggle with the particularism of their own collective disaster. I recall a conversation that took place as part of a dialogue program, for which we were divided into homogeneous groups so that we could debate sensitive topics in a more intimate space.

In the Jewish teachers group, we brought up the claim that our identity is based on remembrance of the Holocaust, making us fearful, defensive and even aggressive. We also discussed the thought that even our Arab colleagues, if they had the power to, would remove us all from here. My friends helped me understand the depth of our national memories and led me to try and take a more balanced approach to the subject — one which would include both universal and particularist elements of Holocaust remembrance.

Now we look at different collective disasters and their unique characteristics, and only afterwards do we try and draw universal lessons from them. It’s also important to be able to discuss historical disasters in of themselves without saying that they remind us of something else, and without comparing the level of suffering or asking who started it and who was in the right. Our older students have shown us that this approach is eminently possible.

This process of figuring out Holocaust remembrance within a Jewish-Arab space also led to a deeper conversation about both the Holocaust and about collective memory in general. Learning about these events brings up our collective fears, which have fed the conflict for so long. At the same time, we listen to the fears of our colleagues, and we tackle them together — through our partnership. This level of mutual security is not something to be taken for granted.

I’ve been lucky — my educational colleagues, Jewish and Arab teachers, are the bravest partners possible with whom to manage this sensitive, painful and crucial process. As we study our national holidays, I feel that we and our students are taking a step towards national reconciliation together. Together we are trying to recognize each others’ pain without taking ownership of it. Only from this place can we cultivate fresh hope.

Guy Aloni is an educator and teacher of civics and history at the bilingual Hand in Hand school in Jerusalem. This post was originally published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here. Translated by Natasha Roth.

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    1. i_like_ike52

      I commend the writer for forthrightly confronting these questions.
      I do disagree with the writer’s view that the lesson of the Holocaust is that “we must fight racism”. There is no possibility of that lesson being absorbed. In Syria and Iraq we see different confessional and ethnic groups butchering each other, and the ‘progressive” outside world shows indifference, so we can see that no lesson about “fighting racism” was ever really learned. The only lesson Jews can really learn is that NO ONE will come to our defense and aid no matter how horrific the threat if the outside powers don’t have any self-interest in doing so, which the Allies certainly did not have case during the Holocaust
      The bottom line is that there is no possibility of Jews and Arabs having a joint approach to studying the Holocaust. The gulf between the two groups is too deep and can not be bridged. We certainly must work towards a modus-vivendi but true understanding and joint approaches to such sensitive issues are not possible and we should not assume one can be achieved. The most we can aspire to is simply to have each community show respect to the feelings of the other in a public sense.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        Is there anything the Holocaust does NOT justify?

        Reply to Comment
    2. carmen

      “The only lesson Jews can really learn is that NO ONE will come to our defense and aid no matter how horrific the threat if the outside powers don’t have any self-interest in doing so, which the Allies certainly did not have case during the Holocaust”

      Yes of course.
      No outside power had any interest in coming to the defense of the Armenians.
      No outside power had any interest in coming to the defense of the Ukranians.
      No outside power had any interest in coming to the defense of the Palestinians.
      No outside power had any interest in coming to the defense of the Cambodians.
      No outside power had any interest in coming to the defense of the Hutus.
      No outside power had any interest in coming to the defense of the Bosnians.
      No outside power had any interest in coming to the defense of ____________

      Reply to Comment
      • Bernie X

        @Carmen

        Unlike any other victims of mass murder and genocide, the Nazis sought to exterminate every Jew on the planet.

        Reply to Comment
        • carmen

          “Unlike any other victims of mass murder and genocide, the Nazis sought to exterminate every Jew on the planet.”

          They sought to, and they murdered millions, but they did not nor could not accomplish the evil they had planned. Thank God!

          I have to ask you. What’s more important to you Bern – that they had wanted to kill every jew on the planet, or that they didn’t?

          You acknowledged there are other victims of mass murder and genocide….that’s a start.

          Reply to Comment
        • carmen

          I have to ask you. What’s more important to you Bern – that they had wanted to kill every jew on the planet, or that they didn’t?

          It was a serious question Bernie. There’s always going to be people who hate and unfortunately that can’t be stopped. You know it’s estimated over 10 million africans died during the middle passage. It was written somewhere that sharks developed a taste for human flesh following slave ships heading to america. Most americans know very little about slavery; 15 states out of 34 were ‘slave’ states. Only TEN museums in america are devoted to african american history and only ONE devoted to the history of slavery (1619-1863). The population of jews in the u.s. isn’t clear but between 5.7 and 6.8 million, up to as high as 15 million (out of over 300 million) whereas african americans number about 45.7 million.

          In the u.s., where the only concentration camps that existed (unless you consider plantations) were for its Japanese-American citizens. ‘The Japanese American Internment Museum, also known as the WWII Japanese American Internment Museum and the Jerome-Rohwer Interpretive Museum & Visitor Center, is a history museum in McGehee, Arkansas’ and it appears this is the only one of its kind.

          However, there are approximately 55 holocaust museums/memorials in the u.s. alone, where there was no Nuremburg laws, nazi leadership, death camps, crematoria, etc.
          List of Holocaust memorials and museums – Wikipedia
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Holocaust_memorials_and_museums

          This is an appalling and cynical misuse of the holocaust as nothing more than a zionist prop. No wonder so many survivors are antizionist.

          Reply to Comment
    3. Eamonn riley

      Do you teach both groups of students that Roma and Sinti peoples were also marked out for extermination by the Nazis? This might provide a perspective that they can approach neutrally?!

      Reply to Comment
    4. john

      israel, formed in response to a refugee crisis, could be a safe haven for all refugees – both in order to live up to its moral claims, and its citizens’ jewish values. israel could work for peace and disarmament of the planet in response to the threats they faced. but in reality, ‘never again’ only applies to jews.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bernie X

        Israel has hosted many refugees, from Vietnamese boat people to Sudanese.

        “Never Again!”
        Sticks in your craw, John?

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          Yes, this is how Israel has “hosted” the Sudanese:
          Provide asylum seekers with heaters, rights groups demand in court
          https://972mag.com/provide-asylum-seekers-with-heaters-rights-groups-demand-in-court/101217/

          Israel has not recognized one Sudanese refugee. Not one. It can’t wait to kick them out. Every other day here an Israeli “centrist” shouts “they are leaving!”
          This is the Israeli idea of “hosting”? I’m sure you won’t ever, but please don’t ever invite me to your house, I don’t much care to be so “hosted.”

          Reply to Comment
          • carmen

            @Ben – +1. And it never ceases to amaze me that anyone would lie about something that is so quickly and easily refuted. Why even bother?

            Reply to Comment
        • john

          and how many muslim refugees, from myanmar or syria or iraq will israel host? or are all muslims, even the poor and dispossessed, the enemy? ‘never again’ should a minority be victimized. stand up for that.

          Reply to Comment
    5. i_like_ike52

      In dealing with Arab responses to the Holocaust, it must be remembered that not everyone in the world has the same visceral response to Nazism that Europeans and North Americans have. It has been forgotten that Nazism presented itself to the non-German world as being anti-capitalist and anti-Imperialist, in particular anti-British and anti-French. In large parts of the world, particularly in Latin America and large parts of Asia that were under British rule (e.g. India, the Middle East) this German claim had great resonance. The Arab world was more or less neutral during World War 2. On the whole, the Arab world waited on the side to see what would happen. Thus, the Palestinians’ historical view of the war and what happened during it is going to very, very different than that of the Jews, so coming to some sort of consensus between the two groups will be a major challenge. One could say that the massive violation of human rights during the War, and the Holocaust in particular could resonate with many people, but as we see at the present time, it is not easy to mobilize “world opinion” against ongoing human rights violations. A good example is the recent chemical warfare attack on civilians in Syria. Not only is the UN paralyzed and unable to condemn it, even the Joint Arab Knesset List here in Israel could not bring itself to condemn it, and in this case the victims were brother Arabs, so imagine how much harder it is to get a joint Jewish-Arab approach to the Holocaust.

      http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.782405

      Reply to Comment
    6. Paranam Kid

      The approach is laudable in principle, that is, if it would concern any other serious world event. The problem with the Holocaust is that it has been monopolised by the Jews to the detriment of all other groups (communists, Roma, homosexuals, etc.) whose extermination in number equals that of the Jews.

      Because of this monopolisation the Jews have become insensitive to the suffering of the other groups & have lost touch completely with what the Holocaust really was about. Instead, the Jews have projected the full suffering onto themselves in order to extract maximum compromise, and, dare I say it, financial benefit, from societies & organisations deemed responsible in one way or another for the Holocaust. What’s more, none of what was extracted has been shared with the other groups pretending that every group has to look after itself, even though the Jews knows perfectly well that they are the best organised & best connected where it counts: the US.

      Focusing on israel now: it is patently obvious that most israelis have become callously insensitive to & deeply hateful of the Palestinians & their suffering, as a result of which they have been voting fascist governments into office for more than a decade. The fascists have turned the country into a UN-proven apartheid state that even goes as far as practicing incremental extermination of the Palestinians.

      Unless & until this is recognised & admitted by the majority of Jews & israelis, any talk by israelis & jews of salvation for the Palestinians is just window dressing, pie in the sky.

      Reply to Comment
      • carmen

        There are jews who’ll agree with everything you wrote (me too). I have to constantly remind myself that not all jews feel the way the majority of israeli jews feel – which is not feeling anything that doesn’t pertain to their best interests, is about them and only them. The opposition isn’t nearly loud enough and must become very loud, vote accordingly and speak with their pocketbooks. Not all jews are zionists or see ‘israel’ as theirs alone, you know the old trope ‘a land without a people for a people without a land?’ One of the more cringeworthy hasbara lines ever.

        Reply to Comment
        • Paranam Kid

          @Carmen
          I agree that not all jews are like the majority of israeli jews or their surrogates elsewhere. In fact, even in israel there are non-zio-fascist jews, who, for me, together with the liberal, open-minded jews elsewhere, represent the REAL JEWS.

          In my view now, ironically Trump is the best that could happen to the Palestinians. The sooner israel annexes the Stolen Palestinian Territories, the sooner it will have to come up with a “final solution” for the Palestinians. The only solution will be apartheid, but then it will be blown wide open for the world to see, and israel will have to succomb to outside pressure & pressure from within, morphing into a real state with equal rights for all if it is to avoid eternal civil war.

          Reply to Comment
          • carmen

            When you say tRUMP, you’re really saying Jared Kushner, the golden boy in charge of everything from stamping out the opioid epidemic to fixing the V.A. and a host of other duties. Solving problems in the middle east? Can this guy do anything but stare into space?

            Reply to Comment
          • Paranam Kid

            @Carmen
            Kushner may always seem to be staring in space, but he is dangerous. He, as his family, is orthodox jewish, and they have been supporting settlements in the West Bank financially. One thing is for sure: he will not solve the israel/Palestine problem, but will just encourage israel to further enshrine its apartheid in law, annex the Stolen Palestinian Properties, and encourage incremental extermination of the Palestinians.
            By the way, here is an open letter from Israeli-Jews, who express theirr deep respect and solidarity with the Palestinians on hunger strike:
            http://mondoweiss.net/2017/04/israelis-palestinian-prisoners/

            The Mondoweiss website is very informative with News & Opinion About Palestine, Israel & the United States. I can recommend it. It has an RSS feed.

            Reply to Comment
          • carmen

            Mondoweiss is a treasure. Agree that Kushner is dangerous as is the entire white house staff. ‘Ain’t nothing more dangerous than a fool with a cause’. A Time to Kill (1996). This quote applies to so many, like the republican party, national front, nationalist movement party, golden dawn, likud, habayit ha’yehudi, etc.

            Reply to Comment
          • i_like_ike52

            Forgive me, but who appointed YOU to decide who is a “real Jew” or what “real Judaism” is?

            Reply to Comment
          • Years

            “Forgive me, but who appointed YOU to decide who is a “real Jew” or what “real Judaism” is?”

            Who died and made YOU Queen of all the Arabs and Jews, Anti-Semite?

            Reply to Comment
          • Paranam Kid

            I decide myself who I respect & regard as the real representatives of the Jews, nobody else can nor is allowed to do that for me.

            Neither the zio-fascist israeli government, nor its surrogates in the US elsewhere, represent the REAL JEWS, much as they pretend to. They are vulgar racists who are a disgrace to the REAL JEWS, and to the memory of the REAL JEWS who suffered & died in the Holocaust.

            Reply to Comment
        • i_like_ike52

          So Israeli Jews supposedly only care about themselves? You mean unlike the Palestinians who refused to condemn Assad for gassing their brother Arab/Muslim children? Or who even refuse to condemn the massacre of their fellow Palestinians in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria? Or the Palestinians who define their Palestinian entity as being “Arab” and making Islam the state religion which ends up discriminating against non-Arabs and non-Muslims? Are you saying we Israeli Jews should be like them? Or the rest of the Arab/Muslim world which has shown total indifference to the fratricidal slaughter going on in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, etc, etc.?

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Ike you really should get of your incessantly mounted high horse. For reasons of pure self-interest Israel has for seven decades now refused to recognize the Armenian genocide and at this point is one of the only democratic countries in the world to refuse to do so. Israel provided arms and expertise to apartheid South Africa. To Myanmar. For profit. Etc.

            Reply to Comment
          • i_like_ike52

            IT was the French who sold most the most weapons to South Africa, including jet fighters. You know, the “liberte, egalite, fraternite” French. The Turkish government for years has intimidated most of the world to avoid recognizing the Armenian genocide.

            Reply to Comment
          • Years

            “IT was the French who sold most the most weapons to South Africa, including jet fighters.”

            IT was the French who sold most of the technology to your zios for the suicidal Zionist nuclear weapons program. You know, so your zios can Samson you when the s*it finally hits the fan.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            @Ike: Yet more whataboutery from the saddle of that high horse. Israel is not “intimidated.” When it wants to it knows how to stand up to Turkey. Pure self interest motivates it.

            Reply to Comment
          • i_like_ike52

            Same applies to all the other countries in the world…self interest, particularly the Arab countries. Do they recognize the Armenian genocide? How is Israel different? Israel is a small country, and even if we were to recognize the Armenian genocide, what difference would it make?

            Reply to Comment
          • carmen

            Ike – if your arugment is ‘what difference would it make’ I would say it would make all the difference in the world to Armenian survivors and their families. Duh. Is compassion and respect only a one-way street with zionists? More likely a dead end.

            Reply to Comment
          • Years

            “Are you saying we Israeli Jews should be like them? Or the rest of the Arab/Muslim world which has shown total indifference to the fratricidal slaughter going on in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, etc, etc?”

            More than half of your “Israeli” Jews are Arabs from Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, etc., etc., who were bombed over to Palestine by your Zionist terrorists, you ignorant anti-Semite.

            Reply to Comment
          • Paranam Kid

            1. Your rant is totally irrelevant to the discussion.
            2. Hasbara trolls like you & your masters in Tel Aviv always try to justify israel’s injustices by comparing it with other injustices elsewhere, as if those other injustices give israel the god-given right to behave in the same way. 2 injustices do not make justice.
            3. The simple issue is that ever since its establishment israel has been flouting international law while continuing its subjugation & incremental extermination of Palestinians. Complying with the law just requires 2 simple steps: 1. get off the Stolen Palestinian Territories & Properties, 2. sit down @ the negotiating table & hammer out an agreement that is just & equitable for Israelis & Palestinian Arabs alike. The ball is in israel’s court.

            Reply to Comment
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