Home  »  GPN ISSUES  »  Issue 4, Fall 2010

Holocaust and Genocide Education in Israel
Yair Auron

Issue 4, Fall 2010
G P N   O R I G I N A L

Including a Sad Story of Exclusivity for the Holocaust, and a Happy Story of One University Program in Israel About the Genocides of Many Peoples

The struggle about knowing and remembering the acts of genocide has a unique significance in the case of the State of Israel - a country of people who were the victims of the Holocaust. Israel must hope and work for finding a more suitable balance between the Zionist, Jewish and universal lessons learned from the Holocaust. Even in teaching the Shoah and inculcating the coming generations with its memory, the basic approach has to be that the value of human life is the same for all humans, whether Jews, Roma (Gypsies), Armenian or Palestinians. I believe that it is essential to develop a greater sensitivity among Israeli youth to the suffering of others and to strengthen universal, humanistic values, which are well grounded in the best of Jewish tradition.

This essay describes a program for teaching about genocide in two university level courses at the Open University in Israel which achieve these goals very successfully. The program includes publication of a series of 12 new textbooks in Hebrew on genocide -- as a process and in respect of different cases of genocides of several peoples.

The struggle about knowing and remembering the acts of genocide has a unique significance in the case of the State of Israel – a country of people who were the victims of the Holocaust. The ethos and the policy of the State of Israel since its creation have moved between two poles. On one hand is the wish to be "a light unto the nations," to support underdeveloped countries, to share progress in science and medicine, and to display the willingness of the new state to achieve its place among the family of nations based on universalistic values of peace and justice.

On the other hand is the feeling that the world, even the whole world "is against us," as was exhibited by anti-Semitism, condemnation of Israel in the U.N., and breaking off the diplomatic relations with Israel by many countries especially during the 1970s. For many years the dominant attitude of the Israeli governments towards genocides of other people was, generally speaking, an ethnocentric, pragmatic, realistic, abusive and cynical one. Israel among others has not recognized the Armenian Genocide. The cynical attitude can be seen also in the attitude of Israel towards the genocides in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, and the ethnocide in Tibet.

The way in which the Holocaust and other genocides are taught in Israel is crucial and it is influenced by the concept which is promoted by many circles in Israel of the uniqueness of the Holocaust in world history.

It could have been simple. Part of the struggle against the occurrence of any case of genocide in the future is education, so that it would "never happen again," although, surely, teaching is not enough. But the reality of education about the Holocaust and genocide in Israel is, of course, much more complex.

Teaching the Holocaust in Israel
Two forces have led to the attitude of the state of Israel and its leading institutions toward teaching and remembering other acts of genocide than the Holocaust: a) the pressure of the Turkish government regarding remembering and teaching the Armenian Genocide, and b) the opposition of several high-powered Jewish-Israeli groups who are afraid that dealing with other genocides could damage the concept of the uniqueness of the Shoah

The terrible tragedies that befell the Jews at the hands of Nazi Germany became, historically, an important element of Jewish and Zionist education. The educational institutions of the secular Jewish community in Israel, both before and after the establishment of the State of Israel, undertook the mission of constructing "the new Jew" as a moral, conceptual and political entity. Building the newly constructed Israeli collective was considered after the Holocaust, the continuation of the struggle for survival. After the end of World War II, Zionist historiography used knowledge about the Holocaust as part of building a Zionist moral education. The hegemonic version of Holocaust memories became the central educative apparatus. Historical memory was mobilized for constructing the new Jew as one whose ethnocentric collective identity would be ensured by a particular historical memory in which the term "Auschwitz" was understood as not realizing the essence of modern Jewish identity – namely, strong, independent and part of a Jewish sovereign national state. The obligation to remember the Holocaust, that served for the justification of Zionist morality and practice was based on the Hebrew biblical word, zachor.

This "Zachor et asher asah lecha Amalek" ( Remember what Amalek did to you) is part of the formation of the secular halutz and sabra myth in collective Israeli identity.

Some Israeli scholars divide the history of dealing with the issue of the Holocaust in formal educational institutions of Israel into periods according to their orientation. Ruth Firrer and Dalia Ofer make the distinction between the "Zionist Period" (1948-1977) and the "Humanistic Period." (1979 till now). In principle, I myself accept the chronological distinction between the "Zionist period" and the "humanistic period," but I have reservations as to the definition of the second period as a "humanistic period". In my opinion, the humanistic values are not represented enough in what is called a "humanistic period."

In 1979 the Holocaust was introduced as an independent unit in the high-school curriculum, and in 1981 it was introduced as a unit of the matriculation exams.

Dialogue about the Holocaust became more meaningful in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1989, the Ministry of Education initiated a program for high-school students, which included a site visit to Poland and the extermination camps. The program has become common in the last few years – about 25,000 high-school students travel every year to Poland, and a number of studies have demonstrated the strong impact these visits have had on students' understanding of themselves and their Jewish identity.

Essentially, the major dilemmas facing the teaching of the Holocaust in Israel are similar to the dilemmas generally faced by all pedagogues in all subjects: why to teach, what to teach, how to teach, what the student has to remember, how to help him to remember, when to teach, and when to remember. In all cases, the danger is in transforming the Holocaust into an instrument, a means, rather than an end in itself. In my opinion, the Holocaust is not over-taught or over-commemorated in Israel. Rather it is being used for too many goals of Zionist ideology, i.e., renewing the sense of Zionism and Israeli pride among young Israelis. Therefore, the other victims of the Nazis and other genocides are rarely mentioned in Israel.

Concerning teaching other occurrences of genocide in general, and the Armenian Genocide in particular, there has been practically no change over the years, at least in the official attitude. Nothing has been done. I will discuss this further now.

Teaching about Genocide in Israel
Over the years there was one initiative to introduce teaching and remembering other genocides in the Israeli educational system in a program entitled "Awareness of World's Suffering – Genocide in the 20th Century."

It was the conviction of those of us who prepared the study program that Israel has a special moral and political responsibility to place the issue of genocide on the world agenda. We also believe that it is essential to develop sensitivity among our youth to the suffering of others, and to strengthen universal humanistic values.

At first, our proposal was warmly received by the Ministry of Education in Rabin's government (this was November 1993 and the minister was then a member of the Meretz human rights party). The Ministry proposed also that the program be expanded to include the genocide of the Gypsies during the Second World War, and one of the more recent acts of genocide, such as Bosnia or Rwanda. I was also requested by the Ministry to develop a special educational program, designed for high school, seminary and college students, and to plan a supplementary instructive program for teachers. All was set to begin teaching the program in mid-December 1994, with both the blessing and support of the Ministry of Education.

A few weeks before the program was to commence, we were informed that the Minister of Education would personally have to approve the program and that meanwhile it was to be be put on hold. The decision was to depend upon the decision of the Academic Committee on History or by its Chairman. In December of 1994 the Chairman of the Committee decided to reject to proposed program. The official statement was that "from a professional point of view" the program was unsuitable and should be immediately abolished.

The protest in the press was stormy. The Ministry of Education was accused of succumbing to political pressure and using a thin "fig leaf" of pedagogical reasons to justify its action. Things became more apparent when the protocol of the meeting of the Academic Committee became available to the press. At that meeting, which had been held on 19 January 1995, one professor rejected the course claiming "We do not foster sensitivity, we teach," and that the place for education of values is in the youth movements and not in the schools. The main thrust of the criticism was that the presentation of the Armenian Genocide was not balanced. [
Ed note: The Chair was a Professor Abitboul. In reading the text of his decision to cancel the program, I was stunned to find he had copied very directly from the writings of an arch French denier of the Holocaust, Giles Veinstein. To add insult, as well as ignorance to the injury, he also cited no less than an outstanding scholar of the Armenian Genocide, Vahakn Dadrian, as a source to justify the conclusion that the telegrams of Talaat, Turkey's Minister of State, authorizing and urging on the genocide were forgeries. -- Israel W. Charny]

At the high school level, as a result of the criticism directed at the Ministry of Education, the minister was quick to state that although the proposed study program was rejected, a different and better program would be prepared and would be ready to be taught in the following school year. Instead of "Awareness of World Suffering," a textbook was prepared entitled "Minorities in History – the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire." This book did not take a stand on the question "Should the murders of the Armenians in the years 1915-1916 be called 'genocide'?" Two views were represented and the question was left open. Ultimately, because of sharp criticism the second program was not implemented. The Ministry of Education then promised that the second program would be corrected, but nothing has been done during the 14 years (in the year 2000 then Minister of Education, Yossi Sarid promised that the Armenian Genocide and the subject of genocide will be taught, but then he lost his post, though not because of this public declaration).

Nonetheless, some history teachers in high-schools teach about the Armenian Genocide on their own initiative when they teach the period of WWI. There are others who teach "Genocide in the 20th Century" as a special subject in one way or another. More than 100 students in two high-schools in Kibbutzim have learned the subject in the framework of their enlarged history courses in the years 1996-1998. Some high-school teachers also choose to use another section of "Awareness of World Suffering," which has a section about the Gypsies overall, practically nothing about the genocide of the Gypsies appears in the curricula in Israel, or in the many textbooks and educational programs about the Holocaust.

We can estimate that on the whole hundreds of high-school and college students are learning in one way or another each year (since 1995) about the genocide including the Armenian one. They and their teachers became aware of the subject, at least partly, because of the public discussion about the program and about the Armenian Genocide in general which does receive a fair amount of recognition in Israeli media.

What can an Israeli high-school student know about the Armenian Genocide through his regular textbooks? The answer is quite clear: practically nothing.

Under these circumstances it is not surprising to discover how little knowledge Israeli students have about other peoples' genocides. A survey which was conducted in 1996 about attitudes toward genocide (the first study that was conducted in Israel on this subject). 800 B.A. students from seven universities and colleges in Israel were asked about their knowledge, feelings and attitudes. Among other questions, they were asked to assess their knowledge about the Armenian Genocide. 42% answered that they did not have any knowledge, 44% that they had little knowledge, 13% that they had some knowledge, and 1% that they are well informed about it. Their answers about their degree of knowledge concerning the genocide of the Roma (Gypsies) were almost the same (36% no knowledge, 49% very little knowledge, 14% some knowledge, and 1% quite a bit of knowledge). I am almost sure that in many other countries the level of knowledge about genocide is also very low, but would have expected -- certainly desired -- that it would be clearly higher in Israelis.

In the last ten years I have given this questionnaire during the first lesson of my course on genocide (an optional B.A.-level course), which was attended by approximately 650 students. The degree of knowledge expressed by the students over the years was practically the same: 85%-90% said they know nothing or very little about the genocide of the Armenians. About the same figure, between 85% and 90%, said they know nothing or very little about the genocide of the Roma.

One of the achievements of the program, from my point of view, is the fact that students are shocked when they discover and internalize the fact that they actually did not know a single thing about the Armenian Genocide. Usually they are shocked and shaken more when they begin to understand, even partly, why they did not know about it. They are even more appalled when they learn about the attitude of the State of Israel toward it.

Certain significant changes have occurred over the years regarding Holocaust education in Israel. Practically no changes have occurred over the years in teaching the other genocides in general, and the Armenian one in particular, at least officially. Furthermore, the formal educational system has claimed in the past that this avoiding of other genocides is what could be defined as "innocent." Actually, after many years of struggle, which has not achieved any practical change, it is clear that the official attitude is a conscious one that wants to insist on the uniqueness, maybe also on the exclusivity, of the Holocaust.

The chances that there will be any changes in the official educational attitude are now more remote than ever. The fact is that the key political forces in Israel that supported the humanistic approach (among others, recognition of the Armenian Genocide and teaching it) have lost their influence. The educational system in Israel is very dependent on the political system. The failure of the Israeli academy in dealing with these issues is of course another reason for the failure in Holocaust and Genocide education in Israel.

Open University's Program of Courses and Textbooks on Genocide

Nonetheless, as noted, there are also encouraging private initiatives of teachers and directors of schools, who have decided to deal with other genocides in their schools. On the one hand, their influence is limited, yet on the other hand they exert long-term influence.

Furthermore, there is an outstanding achievement at the university level - two university-level courses are being studied in the Open University of Israel.

The Pain of Knowledge: Teaching the Holocaust and Genocide in Israel and the World - is an M.A. course in which we have every year more than 20 students. This course has been taught since 2001.

The second, Genocide, has been taught since 2005 and includes analysis and theories concerning the different aspects of the phenomenon of genocide, as well as an analysis of case studies of many genocides. Every year about 600 students have been chosen to study this course, which is an elective. The genocides studied include a variety of cases including the Armenian Genocide, Rwanda and more.

The following appears in the Open University catalogue:

Credits: 6 intermediate credits in Political Science or in International Relations or in Sociology and Anthropology
Prerequisites: none
Academic Editor in Chief: Prof. Yair Auron
Authors [of textbooks published by the Open University in Hebrew]:Prof. Yair Auron, Dr. Alek Epstein, Lydia Aran, Prof. Arnon Gutfeld, Dr. Eitan Ginsburg, Dr. Ariel Horowitz, Prof. Israel Charny, Dr. Gilad Margalit, Prof. Benyamin Neuberger.

The course presents the ongoing and recurring phenomenon of genocide as on of the key perspectives of analyzing history since the beginning of the European colonial expansion. The course outlines major outbursts of genocide beginning with the annihilation of the indigenous populations of the Americas during the 16th century up to the end of the 19th century. The course analyzes the destruction of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during World War I; the attempted extinction of the Jews, Gypsies and people with disabilities by the Nazi regime; genocide and politicide in the U.S.S.R.; genocide and politicide in Cambodia; the destruction of Tibetan Buddhism and traditional way of life by the Chinese, and concludes with the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

The aim of the course is to show the common features of what are at the same time very different case studies and to analyze them according to different theories. In the process of the study basic sensitivities are developed: sensitivity regarding processes of inclusion and exclusion of populations during the formation and reformation of modern political communities; sensitivities regarding function and dysfunction of third-party participants in outbursts of genocide; and sensitivities regarding the dynamics of collective memory of past genocide events in the formation of national communities and a moral international conscience.

In our experience students have found this course on genocide extremely interesting and enlightening. It was also discovered to be a way of filling in gaps in the students historical knowledge - gaps regarding unknown regions of the world (Africa, the Far East) and gaps regarding unknown process of modernity (colonialism, third world revolutionary movements). Although the phenomenon of genocide is a "dark" prism through which we look at history and political human conduct, the students find it to be a realistic one, as it gives a perspective that comes to term with the dark side of modern dynamics, and it is also a way of becoming familiar with "accidents" of the historical process. An important and meaningful concern is the way in which the international community - the sole moral agent that is capable of reacting and responds to genocide - is constructed.

Open University will have completed publishing a unique series of 12 textbooks on genocide, in Hebrew, for the courses and these books are also made available to the general public. The 12 books (200-250 pages each) deal separately with each case study (the Indians of North America, the Indian people of Spanish America, the Armenian Genocide, Nazi Germany and the Gypsies, the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide 1994); while 3 books are dedicated to analytical and comparative perspective: one to the UN Convention regarding the international crime of genocide; one to psychological understanding of perpetrators; and the last one to the phenomena of saviors and active third party participants entitled, "So That I Would Not Be Among the Silent." Each of the case study books is written by a specialist in the history of the specific genocide or the topic of analysis. The diversity of writers also helps to introduce the students to a variety of attitudes and ways of history and academic writing rather than enclosing the students in a narrow perspective and narrative.

Although the course was designed for the Israeli student, most of the texts and issues discussed in the course will require only slight adaptations for the English reading students. The course and the books do not assume prior knowledge, and every one of them can also be read independently (every book has a general introduction about genocide). One exception is the book regarding the Holocaust which naturally takes for granted the students familiarity with the basic narrative. The books are also bought and read by the general public.

Proudly but sadly, Open University is the only university in Israel which teaches genocide studies. We published 12 books on genocide in Hebrew and the university is now seeking to translate the books into English, as it seems that the integrated series on genocide is also quite unique in the world. Last year we conducted a survey among the students, who had finished the course. A majority – 67% said they had learned a lot. Quite large number (39%) said they have changed their understanding of the Holocaust. 46% said that the comparative study of the Holocaust and other genocides changed their conception of the Holocaust and brought them to understand it more than before as a universalistic event. The majority of the students said they understand now much more better the phenomenon of genocide and are more sensitive to suffering in the world. They understand much more the dangers of racism and of genocide. 92% of the students also said that the moral and educative issue of the bystander is a crucial element in the occurrence of acts of genocide and in their prevention.

Students were highly satisfied with the course (an average of 4.3 in comparison to an average of 3.9 in all the courses in the department -- the maximum is 5.).

Below are some letters received from students after they finished the course and passed the examination.  These letters were initiated by students who also filled out an official feedback form given by the university about the course.

  • An amazing course, excellent teaching
  • An amazing semester
  • I looked forward to the lesson every Sunday afternoon
  • An incredibly fascinating semester, interesting and amazing. I think it also helped me find a general direction for a second degree
  • I took this course quite by chance, and was unfamiliar with the subject of genocide until now. My daughter, who is in the army, has also developed an interest in the subject
  • May there be more lecturers and tutors who are able to teach such a difficult and painful subject to the population of students and to provide them with insight into a subject they are unfamiliar with
  • I have no words to describe how fascinating, interesting and thought provoking this course was
    I waited every week for this lesson
  • I have not stopped recommending this course to as many people as possible, whether to students who can take the course in the framework of their studies, or to others who are not students but simply want to learn a subject that arouses their curiosity and interest
  • The course Genocide deals with sensitive issues that play upon deep emotional chords. I have personally gained a lot from the course and it has lead to many discussions and conversations with friends and family on the subject of genocide
  • I have been meaning to write to you for a while now, to express my deep appreciation for all the volumes of your course at the Open University. There is no doubt that the choice of texts and contents, together with their presentation within the volumes of the course, worked very successfully. Well done! (A lecturer from another university)
  • I’d like to thank you for the course. (Even though I have written this in the feedback form, it was important for me to tell you more personally in an email.) The fascinating and moving course dealt with topics about which I was unfamiliar (or only had a vague idea about); I am completing my master’s degree in Computer Science, a completely different field altogether
  • This was one of the most amazing, fascinating and stirring courses I have ever taken (especially in light of the fact that I took the course by default).
  • During my studies at the Open University I have had – and still have – about 20 different tutors. You are without a doubt one of the best (if not the best) among them.
  • Thanks to you the course turned into a great learning experience which is not easy to expect from a course on Genocide.
I believe that it is essential to develop a greater sensitivity among Israeli youth to the suffering of others and to strengthen universal, humanistic values, which are well grounded – I believe – in the best of Jewish tradition. The Shoah constitutes an important and central component – as we have seen – in Jewish identity.

I argue that Israel must hope and work for finding a more suitable balance between the Zionist, Jewish and universal lessons learned from the Holocaust. Even in teaching the Shoah and inculcating the coming generations with its memory, the basic approach has to be that the value of human life is the same for all humans, whether Jews, Roma (Gypsies), Armenian or Palestinians. The way to work towards this goal is to combine basic principles which seem apparently contradictory: on one hand, emphasizing the unique historical characteristics of the Shoah and its uniqueness for us as Jews; on the other, sensitively and even emphatically relating to the catastrophes of others and to other genocides in history. This is the integration between the unique and the universal for which we must struggle.

Yair Auron is a professor in the field of genocide and contemporary Judaism at the Open University of Israel and the Kibbutzim College of Education.

Professor Auron has published numerous books and essays, mainly on genocide and on Jewish identity in Israel and Europe. He is the author of books in Hebrew such as Between Paris and Jerusalem (Selected Passages of Contemporary Jewish Thought in France); Jewish-Israeli Identity; Sensitivity to World Suffering: Genocide in the 20th Century; and We Are All German Jews: Jewish Radicals in France During the 60s and 70s (also in French). His book The Banality of Indifference: Zionism and the Armenian Genocide was published in both Hebrew and English (Transaction Publishers, 2000). His book, The Banality of Denial: Israel and the Armenian Genocide was published in Hebrew and English (Transaction Publishers 2003).

Most recently, Auron is co-author of A Perfect Injustice: Genocide and the Theft of Armenian Wealth (Transaction Publishers, 2009) with Hrayr S. Karagueuzian. He is currently editing for the Open University a series of twelve books in Hebrew entitled Genocide, which includes theoretical volumes concerning the phenomenon of genocide as well as an analysis of case studies such as the Holocaust, the genocide of the Gypsies, the Armenian genocide and other historical and contemporary genocides such as Rwanda, Tibet and Indian population of the Americas. In this series, he published in 2009 Reflections on the Inconceivable: Theoretical Aspects of Genocide Studies, and in 2007 The Armenian Genocide: Forgetting and Denying. In 2006, his book Genocide: So That I Will Not Be among the Silent, was also published in this series. His book Israeli Identities: Jews and Arabs Facing Mirror and the Other in 2010 is published in Israel by Resling and in a few months will be published in English in the United States by Berghahn Books.

List of the Books in the Open University Series on Genocide Studies

Volume 1: Yair Auron, Thought on the Inconceivable: Theoretical Aspects of Genocide Studies
Volume 2: Yair Auron, Issac Lubelski (Editors). Racism and Genocide
Volume 3: Arnon Gutful, Genocide in the "Land of Free" - The Indians of North America 1776-189.
Volume 4: Eitan Ginsburg, Conflict and Encounter: The Destruction of the Indian Peoples of Spanish America
Volume 5: Yair Auron, The Armenian Genocide: Forgetting and Denying
Volume 6: Ariel Hurwitz, Hurban – The Destruction of the Jews by the Nazi Germany
Volume 7: Gilad Margalit, Nazi Germany and the Gypsies
Volume 8: Benyamin Neuberger, Rwanda 1994 – Genocide in the "Land of Thousand Hills"
Volume 9: Lydia Aran, Tibet 1950 -2000: Destroying a Civilization
Volume 10: Alek Epstein, Political and Ethnic Cleansings in USSR, 1912-1953
Volume 11: Israel W. Charny, "And You Must Destroy the Evil Inside of You": We are the Human Beings who Commit Holocaust and Genocide
Volume 12: Yair Auron, So That I Wouldn't Be Among the Silent

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Executive Director: Prof. Israel W. Charny, Ph.D.
Director of Holocaust and Genocide Review: Marc I Sherman, M.L.S.
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