Going Beyond the Holocaust

Can we teach our children a broader view of history?

"I'm a bit sad now," said Gilad last night. What was wrong? Had something happened? "No, everything is okay, it's just that I spent the last two hours studying the Holocaust." My eldest took his matriculation exam yesterday in history - just about the only school subject on which I can be of any use to him. Which is, of course, a good thing, but the curriculum was so depressing.

Early Zionism, Holocaust and the birth of the state of Israel and its early years compressed into a hundred pages made easy for test cramming. His enterprising teachers have added other subjects over the last two years, such as the French Revolution and the origins of Christianity and Islam, and earlier they learned about ancient Greece, but none of that is in the exam. At least as an art major he gets his history through other subjects.

A plaque is placed by March of the Living participants on railway tracks at Auschwitz near Oswiecim, Poland, May 2, 2011.

I'm not sure what is more depressing, the limited scope of history taught in Israeli schools or the knowledge that is not going to get better. With schools being asked to equip children with practical skills that will prepare them for tomorrow's marketplace, and so much of the time that is devoted to the humanities going to Jewish subjects, there just are not enough history hours in high school to give even a basic grounding in the major periods of world history. Political considerations dictate the syllabus more than anything else, and of course it would be unthinkable to teach anything but the required subjects.

Certainly when my great-grandchildren get down to studying the history of this generation, it won't be very exciting either. When I was my eldest son's age I was trying on a gas mask on the eve of the Gulf War, just before Saddam Hussein's Scuds began raining down. This week at a briefing at the Home Front Command, when we heard of the numbers of warheads currently trained on Israel, from four different directions, and plans to distribute gas masks to the entire population, I reflected that in over two decades nothing has changed except for the size of the missile payloads.

On the other hand, why should I be so dispirited by the Holocaust forming the central part of the history exam? I write about it all the time. But then let's be honest; the Holocaust is a natural subject for this column, despite it being a minefield wherever you turn, because it is a minefield wherever you turn. But while I feel that its relevance to our daily and national lives always challenges me to look at events from different perspectives, the response these columns get is depressingly predictable.

In the past few weeks I wrote about it twice. Once criticizing Bibi Netanyahu for making such cavalier use of it in his Washington speeches, and the emails accusing me of being a Nazi filled my inbox just as could be expected. The next week I wrote about individual survivors fighting for their parents' life insurance policies while being hampered by the American government and the big Jewish organizations; this time I was on the side of the angels, with people writing to urge me to carry on the good fight. I want to believe that somewhere out there are more discerning readers, capable of appreciating nuance and willing to challenge their own thinking. I console myself that I never seem to hear from them because they have busy, fulfilling lives, so they have not developed the habit of writing emails to columnists.

What hope is there that the next generation of readers will be better at dealing with a more complex view of the Shoah? I had a look through Gilad's textbooks and not all I found there was one-dimensional. The students are asked to reflect on moral dilemmas, such as whether it was right to revolt in the ghettos, as fighting was hopeless and perhaps even counterproductive.

More lives could have been saved if the ghetto undergrounds had focused on escape instead. But how can they be expected to develop a real understanding of an event such as the Holocaust if all the perspective and context they have are a few decades of Zionist history leading up to World War II (they barely learn anything about the non-Holocaust aspects of the war ), and the foundation of Israel and its first few years after that?

This week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and eight members of his cabinet flew to Rome for a joint meeting with the Berlusconi team. Among the long list of agreements ceremoniously signed was one between Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar and his Italian counterpart Mariastella Gelmini that will establish a program whereby Italian teachers travel to Israel to receive special training to teach the Holocaust back home in Italian high schools.

There is nothing wrong with that, of course, but I couldn't help wishing that there was an additional clause in the agreement requiring Israeli students to learn some chapter in Italian history. Anything - ancient Rome, the Renaissance, Galileo and the Vatican, Garibaldi and the Risorgimento, whatever - it would get them out of the bubble.

And then we could carry on and decide that Israeli kids would learn something from the past of every country that includes the Holocaust in its national history curriculum.

Of course, there is a good case for teaching the history of nations that do not teach their children about the Holocaust, but this is just the facetious kind of idea that could get both the necessary political backing and the funding. At least it would give the next generation of Israelis a better idea of the world they live in, outside of the prism of "everyone wants to kill the Jews."

Who knows, maybe that generation will even be the first to break that prism and ensure their children can grow up without thousands of missiles trained on them.