Israel No Longer Leads the World in Holocaust Research, National Academy of Sciences Says

Study cites decline in Israel's basic research on Holocaust, linked to general devaluation of humanities studies

Shira Kadari-Ovadia
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World leaders pose for a family photo during the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, January 23.
World leaders pose for a family photo during the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, January 23.Credit: Abir Sultan,AP
Shira Kadari-Ovadia

Israel is at risk of losing its primacy in the field of Holocaust research, according to a comprehensive report the Israel National Academy of Sciences issued Sunday on the state of Holocaust studies in Israeli universities and colleges.

According to the report, fewer Israeli scholars are delving into the core issues associated with Holocaust research – like Nazism, racism, antisemitism and relevant events before and after the Shoah – and are focusing on more tangential topics, like Holocaust commemoration and representation. While for years Israel was at the forefront of Holocaust research, “In recent years there is a marked erosion in the contribution of Israeli scholars to the international academic discourse in the field,” the report says.

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The academy’s committee to examine Holocaust studies in Israel convened between 2017 and 2019, conducting a comprehensive review of Holocaust research and academic instruction in Israel. The committee comprised Profs. Israel Bartal, Shlomo Avineri, Yehuda Bauer, Havi Ben-Sasson Dreifuss, Shulamit Volkov and Dina Porat.

According to the report’s authors, the erosion of Israel’s status in this field is linked to the general devaluation of humanities studies in the country’s universities; younger researchers are less likely to want to deal with challenges like analyzing archival sources, learning foreign languages and becoming familiar with the broad contexts that Holocaust research requires.

Young Holocaust researchers often “lack the broad horizon of historical knowledge linked to the study of basic European history” of recent centuries, as well as familiarity with European history since the early Christian era, “which leads to a disconnect between the events of the Shoah and the broader historical context.” The report states that the younger generation of researchers “is no longer ‘at home’ with the various European languages and cultures.”

These deficiencies, the report’s authors say, has “led to a preference for ‘softer’ types of discourse ... instead of acquiring professional skills in the tougher methodologies of archival historical research.” They argue that “This phenomenon runs contrary to the scholarly trends throughout the world: The Holocaust – in particular the events themselves – is at the center of international activity and research. ... Scholars abroad nowadays, more than in the past, are studying the Jews’ inner world. Even in this type of research, Israeli academia has lost its leadership role.”

The committee examined more than 250 academic courses related to the Holocaust studied in 19 academic institutions. More than half the relevant courses deal with commemoration and representation of the Shoah, while only a minority deal with the “core topics” of Holocaust research. The report’s authors point out that there are important topics are almost totally absent from the academic courses; for example, there is almost no study of the Balkan, North African, or Allied countries, and there are almost no courses on the Jewish and Zionist youth movements during the Holocaust. Another topic missing is the link between the Holocaust and World War II as a conflict. The authors note that this topic is also poorly addressed abroad. “There is rift between the study and academic instruction about World War II and Holocaust studies,” the report states.

The authors say that it isn’t clear if there is any continuity between the undergraduate and graduate studies in this field that will give students “a full picture” of Holocaust history and research. “None of the academic institutions succeeds in giving its students a broad and comprehensive picture of the field,” they write. Some institutions, they add, don’t have a single faculty member actively researching the Holocaust’s core topics. “This means there isn’t a single Israeli academic institution where one can become proficient in the in-depth study of the Holocaust.”

A display of Holocaust prisoners' uniforms at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, in January.
A display of Holocaust prisoners' uniforms at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, in January.Credit: EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP

The decreasing number of Holocaust researchers on faculties has led to a reduction in the topics studied as well as in the opinions and research approaches to Holocaust research. This has a detrimental effect on students and young researchers. “The training and development of a young, educated and critical researcher requires exposure to a variety of opinions, research methods, worldviews and more,” the authors write, “Only such academic enrichment – which essentially does not exist today in Holocaust research at any of the Israeli universities – can encourage young researchers to pave their own unique and independent research path.”

The committee also examined dozens of recent doctoral theses on the Holocaust. Of the 50 works, 30 dealt topics relating to the period after World War II, like memorializing the victims, recovery from the horrors of the Shoah, and various means of coping with the past, like art. Less than 20 works dealt with core issues, and most of those were also focused on the victims. Only a handful of works dealt with topics like the perspective of the Germans and their collaborators, or World War II on the Asian front. “The research focus on the Jews is understandable, but other questions ... are being pushed to the margins,” they wrote.

The report recommends that students interested in Holocaust research be given guidance that will direct them to suitable courses in different departments and to language training. The authors recommend that the Academy of Sciences approach the Education Ministry and suggest an initiative for language study in high schools, “Studies whose importance go way beyond advancing Holocaust research in Israel.” The also recommend an inter-university program that will give research students exposure to a variety of topics, research methods and opinions in Holocaust research, and to set up a national forum for student researchers in the field. They also suggest that every university allocate three to four faculty positions in the coming years to Holocaust researchers.

The authors also expressed the hope that Israeli researchers “will be careful not to give credence to tendentious distortions of history by governments, government agencies or quasi-government agencies that reduce the direct or indirect extent of responsibility of states or peoples for the Holocaust.”

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