Education Minister Shay Piron.
Israeli Education Minister Shay Piron. Photo by Michal Fattal
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The Education Ministry’s recent decision to dedicate a component of the curriculum known as “significant learning” in high school history classes to various aspects of the Holocaust raises the question of what subjects in history are not considered by the ministry to be sufficiently “significant.”

The question arises mainly because even today, before implementation of the new decision, Holocaust studies constitute more than 30 percent of the material studied for the matriculation exam in history, with another dominant area comprising other periods in Jewish history alone.

In recent months Education Minister Shay Piron has been promoting a “national program for significant learning,” which is to be applied throughout the school system. Its purpose is to enable certain subjects, which are squeezed into already densely packed curricula, to be delved into more deeply.

In the framework of this new reform, 30 percent of the curriculum will be studied in greater detail, and the student’s grade will be decided by an alternative form of evaluation, such as research or a test given by the school.

As Or Kashti reported in Haaretz (Hebrew edition), teachers were informed that a ministry official — the one responsible for history education in the state school system — had selected the Holocaust as the subject to be scrutinized in greater depth. Ordinarily, teachers can choose for themselves the subjects to be included in “significant learning.” But history teachers were handed down the decision from above and were not allowed to select a different period of study. Such dictates from above convey a lack of confidence in the teachers, the Education Ministry’s agents in the classroom, and even raises concern that this step was taken entirely for the purpose of engendering patriotic feelings among students.

Preventing students from being exposed to other periods and events in history restricts their view of the world. According to the historian Prof. Hanna Yablonka of Ben-Gurion University, the existing curriculum does not allow students “to ask questions in a real way,” and leads to a situation in which “Israeli society has grown up in a kind of ghetto, where hatred is destiny.”

The frequent use made today by the government, led by the prime minister, of a certain aspect of Holocaust memory to promote nationalistic and political goals, raises the fear that the purpose of the new program is to strengthen nationalistic components at the expense of humanistic and universalist values, which should also be studied, in history in general and in Holocaust history in particular. It would be better to expose Israeli students to other content besides the Holocaust, which is already studied in an in-depth and serious manner today.