UNESCO Head to Haaretz: Holocaust Education Should Include Teaching Other Genocides

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A Rwandan refugee girl stares at a mass grave where dozens of bodies have been laid to rest, July 20, 1994. Around 800,000 people were killed during the Rwandan genocide.
A Rwandan refugee girl stares at a mass grave where dozens of bodies have been laid to rest, July 20, 1994. Around 800,000 people were killed during the Rwandan genocide.Credit: Reuters

NEW YORK – UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said Tuesday it is important to discuss other genocides while educating about the Holocaust in schools.

Bokova was speaking at the launch of the first-ever policy guide on Holocaust education, “Education about the Holocaust and Preventing Genocide,” at the World Jewish Congress’ 15th Plenary Assembly in New York.

UNESCO says it believes the study of the murder of 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany can help prevent future genocides.

Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, speaks to reporters at UN headquarters in New York City, March 24, 2017. Credit: MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS

Speaking at the event, Bokova declared, “We must empower future generations with the lessons from the Holocaust, equip our children and grandchildren with the tools they need to vanquish intolerance and hate, bigotry and anti-Semitism, racism and prejudice.”

Bokova later told Haaretz, “We think it is important to know the mechanism of genocide and hatred, and how discrimination builds into denial and destroys human lives.”

She added that when children learn about the Holocaust, it is important they are also told about other genocides such as “the Rwanda genocide and the Cambodian Khmer Rouge genocide.”

In 2016, Israeli historian and genocide scholar Yair Auron criticized how the Holocaust is taught in Israel, saying it avoided exploring other genocides. “We’ve checked – most students don’t know about the genocides in Rwanda or Armenia,” he told Haaretz.

UNESCO says its guide is designed to be a resource for policy makers, curriculum developers and textbook writers to engage in education about the Holocaust.

It also lists reasons to incorporate the subject into the curriculum. For example, it suggests that studying the Holocaust will teach students to be wary of the change in civic institutions and offer forms of resistance. 

According to the guide, teaching the Holocaust “demonstrates the fragility of all societies and of the institutions that are supposed to protect the security and rights of all. It shows how these institutions can be turned against a segment of society.” 

Teaching the Holocaust can also “develop an awareness not only of how hate and violence take hold, but also of the power of resistance, resilience and solidarity in local, national and global contexts.”

While stating the unique case of the Jewish Holocaust (“To date, the Holocaust has been the most researched, documented and widely taught case of genocide”), the UNESCO guide also outlines the benefits of teaching the Holocaust with reference to other genocides around the world, and offers guidelines for comparative approaches while teaching several cases of genocide.

“It is important to incorporate a local or regional perspective into the study of genocide, or more generally of mass atrocities,” suggests the guide. “Many European countries teach about the Holocaust as well as other crimes perpetrated by Nazi Germany and its collaborators. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, often have an interest in examining the 1994 genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda or the 1904 genocides of the Herero and Nama in German South West Africa (today Namibia). Other regions may examine the genocides and mass atrocities in Cambodia, Darfur or Srebrenica."

“Learners may feel that examining events from within their own geographic region offers a sense of connection and more commonalities with their own realities and history than cases from other regions,” the guide adds.

The guide also notes that in communities that have experienced violence, education about the Holocaust may further dialogue about more recent and local conflicts. 

“In countries with a history of genocide or other mass atrocities, addressing one’s own case directly may prove too challenging or controversial. Introducing the topic through the lens of another historical case can provide an opening for examining one’s own history. One can draw on the body of knowledge, experiences and conceptual understanding that have emerged from genocide studies. 

“A study of the Holocaust, for example, can be a good starting point, due to the wealth of high-quality educational resources supported by extensive pedagogical knowledge regarding learning outcomes,” it states.

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