Education Ministry Expands Holocaust Study in Schools

Prof. Hanna Yablonka: 'For the students, history begins and ends with the Holocaust.’

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Israeli teens on a trip to Poland.
Israeli teens on a trip to Poland. Credit: Moshe Milner/GPO
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

As part of Education Minister Shay Piron’s new “national program for significant learning,” it was recently decided to expand the portion of the school curriculum devoted to the Holocaust. History classes are to focus more closely on the World War II era and its impact on the Jews, without reducing the amount of time devoted to these topics in other classes. History teachers say that as a result the emphasis will be on study of the Holocaust, at the expense of other topics.

Holocaust historian Prof. Hanna Yablonka of Ben-Gurion University was critical of what she described as the educational and historical conservatism of the new plan. “For the students, history begins and ends with the Holocaust,” she said.

The curriculum changes were drawn up about four month after the Education Ministry, in cooperation with the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, unveiled a mandatory program to teach the Holocaust starting in kindergarten.

The “significant learning” program gives elementary schools greater educational and administrative autonomy and institutes far-reaching changes in high schools. It eliminates the bagrut matriculation exams for 10th-graders, and stipulates that 30 percent of each student’s final matriculation grade is to be based on criteria other than the standardized test, such as independent study projects or final exam grades. Seventy percent of the subjects on the matriculation exam will be mandatory, while the remainder will be subjects that will be explored in depth based on curriculum developed by the staff from each school.

“The subject of anti-Semitism, World War II, totalitarianism and the Holocaust have been chosen to be a subject for in-depth study and choice,” Orna Katz-Atar, the Education Ministry official responsible for history instruction in the state school system, wrote to teachers recently. And despite the reference to a number of major school subjects in her letter, she then addressed only Holocaust instruction.

Under the heading “Considerations for Subject Selection,” with regard to the topics that are up to the individual schools to choose, Katz-Atar wrote that Holocaust instruction in the school curriculum “’corresponds with’ and complements” high school trips to Poland that are organized by a large number of schools. “Such a special program will enable schools to create points of interface between the community-school trip and what is studied in class,” she said, adding that the process “corresponds” with social involvement programming for the students and students can be “recruited” to help Holocaust survivors in particular and the elderly in general. “Holocaust instruction entails instilling Jewish and humanistic values,” Katz-Atar said, and will provide an opportunity to teachers to emphasize the values that they find particularly important.

“In recent years, we have had a great deal of positive experience in teaching the Holocaust as a school program,” she stated. “We have a range of excellent teaching materials at our disposal prepared by various entities including institutes for the teaching and remembrance of the Holocaust, academic institutions, and of course the teaching staff themselves.”

In addition to the “significant learning” Holocaust studies, as part of the regular curriculum on the Holocaust and on anti-Semitism and World War II, three curriculum material units will be released within the next several months providing an overview on the period of the rise to power of the Nazis in Germany, the early war years, and the period from 1941 to 1945. They will be part of the 70 percent of the curriculum that is mandatory for the schools to teach and will be tested on the matriculation exams, Katz-Atar stated.

The subjects available for more intensive study include 41 subsections that teachers can use to build their own program for the school and the community, she added, of which the teachers must choose at least six. Most of the subsections, about two-thirds, relate directly to the Holocaust. The remaining ones, dealing with the war more generally in chapters about the characteristics of a totalitarian regime, the Nazis’ use of terror, the establishment of concentration camps, actions taken against the regime’s opponents and the extermination of the Gypsies (or Roma as they are commonly referred to now) are the exception. The largest number of chapters fall under the heading “World War II and the Final Solution from the Summer of 1941 to the German and Japanese Surrender in 1945.” Of this chapter, about 80% relates to the Holocaust.

These are not new subjects in the curriculum but rather a new format through which they are being taught, but they are also expected to increase the portion of history studies devoted to the Holocaust.

“It’s a declaration of principles on the part of the Education Ministry,” said one teacher who asked to remain unidentified. “It’s a clear message that only the subject of the Holocaust is ‘significant,’ while all the other subjects are less so. Up to now, the Holocaust was studied in 11th grade, but many schools will start the “significant learning” program in the 10th grade. The result will be that from the students’ standpoint, a substantial portion of history in general and Jewish history in particular will consist of the Holocaust. We are raising generations of students with a victim’s consciousness. It’s irrational.”

For her part, Yablonka, the Ben-Gurion University history professor, who is a former chairwoman of the Education Ministry’s professional advisory committee on history instruction, expressed disappointment over what she said was the conservatism of the program and its “disconnect from any social context in which it appears.” Racism in Israeli society is apparent to everyone, she claimed, at least within the past couple of years, if not before. “But the program doesn’t deal with it. It’s a wonderful bubble,” she said.

The program also doesn’t provide a format to ask questions such as what obligation the Jews have as a result of their being victims of the Holocaust. “I think more than anything the Holocaust requires me, on a daily level, to look inside of myself, and at the society that I am living in and the actions and words of the politicians,” Yablonka said. “The school system has never dealt with questions like these. And when you don’t ask questions, the result is that Israeli society is growing in a sort of ghetto in which the world is against us, always persecuting us, and always will be, and where this hatred is our sorry fate. It’s a post-Zionism conception because the essence of Zionism is taking our fate into our own hands.”

When asked about the contention that the Holocaust as a subject in the “significant learning” program meshes with the social involvement project, particularly with respect to helping Holocaust survivors, Yablonka responds as follows: “We don’t need to recruit the students to help the survivors. Rather we need to listen to them,” apparently referring to the survivors themselves. “Most of the survivors are well provided for, having established generations of successful children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and having seen the fruits of their lives as people and Israelis. They don’t need charity. Instead of wallowing in catastrophe or cycles of revenge and destruction, the survivors have chosen to rehabilitate themselves and create life. The message is being a winner rather than a wretched soul. The memory of the Holocaust needs to be taught as an empowering human and moral experience instead of an experience encouraging despair, cultivating hatred over being a victim, which alienates Israelis from any one who is not like them.”

Prof. Moshe Zimmermann of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who specializes in German and Holocaust history, had his own take on the curriculum changes, stating somewhat sarcastically: “It reinforces the trauma of the Holocaust and deepens a consciousness of the purported connection between the results of the Holocaust and the need for a strong Israel, of the type that doesn’t pay attention to marginal subjects like justice and law.”

Zimmerman also said he totally disagrees with the assumption that it is only the “significant learning” program that relates to the high school trips to Poland. “There are things related to World War II that don’t belong to the Holocaust, but it appears that in the curriculum, the war is only a mantle for the story of the Holocaust.”

Although asked for comments, the Education Ministry did not respond for this story.

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