The Holocaust Isn't Just About Jews

The way the Holocaust is taught in Israeli schools does not allow our youth to understand its wider significance.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Last week I flew to Eilat with two young officers of the IDF Spokesperson Unit. One of them inquired what book I was reading. It was Carole Angier's magisterial biography of Primo Levi.

"Who is that?" was her immediate response. I couldn't believe at first that a graduate of one the country's best high schools, who had gone through the rigorous selection process - which favors candidates with a wide breadth of general knowledge - had never heard of the Italian-Jewish chemist and his ground-breaking memoir of 11 months in Auschwitz, "If This Is a Man."

I don't want to sound like an old-timer, but when I was growing up, and it was not that long ago, Primo Levi was a household name in Israel. I was surprised to learn from my companion on the trip that his book is no longer on the compulsory reading list for national matriculation literature exams.

I perked up for a moment when her colleague, three years her senior, said she had read the book.

"Did you do at it school?" I asked. No, she answered, it had been prescribed reading for the preparation course she had to take before joining one of the army's "Witnesses in Uniform" delegations to Poland.

I wasn't sure whether I should be encouraged by this information, but the bottom line is that the only chance young Israelis have today of reading one of the greatest works on the Holocaust is if they serve as officers and get sent on one of the army's organized trips to the concentration camp sites. Somehow, that detail left me dispirited.

Of course, the Education Ministry should periodically shake up its syllabus and there are other ways of learning history besides reading Primo Levi. But in an interview with Haaretz two weeks ago, Prof. Hanna Yablonka of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who has chaired the ministry's advisory committee on history education for the last year, paraphrased Hannah Arendt and described the way the Holocaust is taught in Israeli high schools as "the pornography of evil."

According to Yablonka, "The 'technical' study of the Holocaust, how Jews were murdered, the stages of the final solution, etc., is the least important aspect, from an educational point of view."

These details, she says, "have no educational value, it is too late to teach 10th-grade children that you must not kill human beings."

As a leading historian of Zionism and the early years of the Jewish state, specializing on the way the Holocaust has affected Israel and Israelis, Yablonka's main gripe is that the focus on the technicalities of genocide wrenches it from its historical context and does not leave time for any serious discussion on the founding of the state and the roots of Israeli society.

Next week is Holocaust Remembrance Day and the way it is annually marked, with kitsch and bombastic speeches, certainly demonstrates that the "pornography of evil" is not limited to the school system.

It is a sure bet that the Iranian nuclear threat and the recent government decisions to finally take care of survivors' health care will feature high up in politicians' speeches.

But are these the only lessons we have to learn today from the Holocaust? Israelis and Jews routinely accuse others of trivializing the Shoah; The linkage that President Barack Obama made in his Cairo speech between the destruction of the Jews in Europe and the subsequent suffering of the Palestinians understandably jarred many.

But can Jews honestly demand to reserve sole usage rights of the Holocaust for political purposes? Shouldn't that be off limits to everyone?

I agree with Yablonka. The teaching of the Holocaust in schools should certainly be placed in the wider context of Israeli and Jewish history and it should lead to a better understanding of our present situation. However, a proper presentation of the subject shouldn't stop with history lessons. A wider understanding of the Holocaust necessitates not only a historical or political perspective but also the long overdue admission that this was not just a Jewish, or German, event in history.

The Holocaust may have been the most extreme example of anti-Semitism in a long inglorious record of hatred of the Jews, but it has an immense universal meaning as well. Auschwitz taught us the depths to which men can descend when they dehumanize their fellow beings.

That is what Primo Levi sought to underline in his writing. That is what the Israeli education system has seemed to have lost.

There is a legitimate case for a Zionist reading of the Holocaust but that cannot be the only one young Israelis are offered. Comparisons between the actions of the IDF are crass, stupid and in some cases based themselves on anti-Semitism.

A society which is still trying to maintain a democracy while leaning on its sword, though, can ill afford to disregard the lessons the Holocaust holds for every country pitted in a struggle against another nation and for every occupying power.



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