Often, the Holocaust is the first, and only, piece of Jewish history taught in schools; it can also be the only context given to students regarding Jewish experiences and anti-Semitism.
However, antisemitism did not start with the Holocaust, nor did it disappear at the end of the Second World War. Antisemitism is not a result of ignorance or lack of education. It is a complex and insidious form of hatred that is deeply ingrained in many societies, including our own.
During the past few years, antisemitism has made a significant re-emergence across Canada, with the appearance of Nazi flags in Ottawa at the trucker convoy; Jews are sometimes being blamed for COVID-19; and antisemitic acts of vandalism in synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in many cities including Guelph, Winnipeg, Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto.
The rise in anti-Semitism has galvanized calls for systemic change, and the Ontario government responded with its announcement of mandatory Holocaust education for Grade 6 students.
But while the Holocaust is recent history’s most extreme example of anti-Semitism, to 11-year-olds who think Facebook is ancient and can’t imagine a time without a screen in their hands, the Holocaust might as well be the French Revolution.
There is a common assumption that Holocaust education is the key to fighting anti-Semitism. As antisemitic acts increase, the logical response is to increase education. Teaching about the Holocaust is important; it is what we do through the Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program. Yet we must remember that Jewish experience cannot and should not be reduced to a single moment in history or be relegated to the past.
In January 2020, the Azrieli Foundation surveyed teachers across Canada to discover what challenges they faced when teaching the Holocaust. We learned that the Holocaust was taught as a case study of racism and antisemitism 68 per cent of the time, and only 27 per cent of educators taught about pre-war Jewish life. Although they discuss the topic of the Holocaust, they do not teach important contextual and basic facts: Who are the Jews? Do Jewish people still exist? Holocaust awareness is different than knowledge about the Jewish people and their history.
As educators prepare to bring the topic of the Holocaust into their Grade 6 classrooms, they will need access to accurate resources and supports. Our research proves it. The recent curriculum announcement will only have the desired impact if educators truly understand how to teach the subject.
So, what should we do?
We should teach about Jewish life. We should teach about the vibrant mosaic of the Jewish people and the long history of their traditions. We should use age-appropriate resources that provide local context and understanding. This is one of the reasons the Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program created Education Disrupted, an interactive digital platform that immerses students of today in the experiences of students who — before, during and after the Holocaust — had their education interrupted, and shines a light on Jewish values, culture, resilience and yes, also oppression.
When you teach about the Holocaust, you learn about the Holocaust. Holocaust education is not the key to fighting anti-Semitism. Learning about who the Jewish people are and humanizing the “other” is the only way to make people more sensitive to the oppression these others have faced for more than 2,000 years.
Holocaust education has an important role to play in promoting awareness and understanding of the historical roots of anti-Semitism, but it cannot be the sole solution to a problem that is deeply ingrained in our society. We must acknowledge and address the fact that anti-Semitism is not only a historical phenomenon, but also a contemporary one. Challenging and changing old teaching patterns can be difficult, especially when dealing with sensitive subject matter, but it is necessary for accurate and meaningful education.
As we navigate this new age of teaching about the Holocaust, we must remember that before we can talk about how Jews died, we need to talk about how they lived.
Jody Spiegel is director of tthe Azrieli Foundation’s Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program (and outgoing chair of the Education Working Group to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, IHRA).
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