Prof. Zehavit Gross: Teachers have great difficulty teaching Holocaust education

Scholar analyzes Holocaust education at non-Jewish schools in a range of countries.

April 30, 2014 01:22
4 minute read.
Child survivors of Auschwitz

Child survivors Auschwitz holocaust. (photo credit: Reuters)


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Teachers around the world have huge difficulty teaching about the Holocaust, according to an Israeli researcher who initiated and directed a multi-nation study for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization IBE (International Bureau of Education) publication.

Zehavit Gross, a professor of education at the Churgin School of Education at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, together with Prof. Doyle Stevick, of the University of South Carolina, recruited and directed scholars from around the world to examinenew research projects in Holocaust Education in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Poland, the United States, Estonia, Australia and Canada for the UNESCO IBE publication.

According to Gross, anti-Semitism, the refusal of many European youths to view their continent as anything but the cradle of modern, enlightened civilization, and other factors, all hamper the teaching of the Holocaust.

“There is a need to train teachers to deal with surging waves of violence and racist remarks during mention of, or reference to, the Holocaust in non-Jewish schools,” she said.

Prof. Gross, along with Prof. Stevick began researching this issue in 2007.  Gross was invited to edit a special issue for Prospects the UNESCO IBE journal. As a second generation she suggested to dedicate it to Holocaust education. She invited Doyle Stevick to co-edit this special issue

with her in order to add a non Jewish perspective.They wrote a call for papers which was published by UNESCO IBE and practically initiated an international project and invited different scholars all over the world to conduct research in their countries on this topic and provide them with new data which will be published in a UNESCO IBE journal. This special issue was translated recently into Chinese and Arabic. UNESCO later created a special desk for Holocaust education at the organization.

Gross and Stevick will soon launch a book entitled Holocaust Education in the 21st Century: The Shoah in Practice, Policy and Curriculum. dealing with teaching the Holocaust in a global context.

Speaking with The Jerusalem Post, Gross said that while “all the official institutions in the world are really very interested to deal with Holocaust education, the teachers actually have huge difficulty teaching Holocaust education in practice.”

In many classrooms, especially those with a majority Muslim immigrant population, she continued, teachers have to deal with anti-Semitic and racist comments.

Students have exhibited both “classic anti-Semitism” and “modern anti-Semitism.”

Classic Jew-hatred takes the form of accusations of Jewish complicity in the death of Jesus, while modern anti-Semitism, usually found among Muslim students, takes the form of accusations of Israeli apartheid and statements that “Hitler should have finished” killing the Jews.

Teachers, she said, are “so embarrassed sometimes that they [think they] should stop teaching about the Holocaust.”

Many students “can tell you so many things about Jews even though [they’ve never even] seen a Jew in their lives,” she said.

There is also the issue of what Gross terms: soft Holocaust denial, which relativizes or decontextualized the Holocaust.

“In Estonia where they teach Holocaust education they identify it with Stalinism,” Gross said. “It is true that during the Stalin regime terrible things happened, but it was not a final solution.”

“Another thing which is really very apparent nowadays is to talk about the Germans as the victims of the Holocaust, and in this way sometimes they are making a distinction between Nazis and Germans.

So the Nazis are actually the evil other but the Germans are the poor victims, and this kind of discourse in my eyes is extremely dangerous.”

The dichotomy between the way in which European students view their continent as the cradle of modern civilization and the brutality of the crimes committed on its soil is also a barrier to effective Holocaust education, she said.

The ostensible cognitive dissonance created by this seeming paradox makes engaging students difficult.

“The adolescents in Europe have contested memories,” she said. “Its really something which has to be taken into account.”

Gross said that her research pointed the way to several solutions to the problems faced by Holocaust educators around the world.

The first is an increased focus on experiential rather than purely classroom-based education, “especially visiting memorial sites.”

Moreover, she added, “it was found that Holocaust education is more effective within the framework of civic education than within the framework of history education.”

“Until now we used to think that Holocaust education is mainly history education but due to the racist reaction of the students I think that Holocaust education should be an integral part of civic education because it enables a venue to discuss actual issues, like xenophobia and racism.”

“According to my perception, Holocaust education has to be accompanied with intensive teaching of anti-racism education.”

Increased and intensified teacher training is also necessary she said.

Gross cited a classroom that was studied in Australia, where a teacher complained that her Muslim immigrant students “didn’t let her even open her mouth” and shouted pro-Hitler slogans. The teacher was able to overcome the abuse and teach her students because of a seminar she had attended at Israel’s Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies.

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