'Education is key to fighting Holocaust denial:' UNESCO head to Post

Audrey Azoulay reveals that the UN agency she heads is partnering with TikTok to stop false narratives of the Holocaust.

 UNESCO DIRECTOR-GENERAL Audrey Azoulay. Regarding Holocaust education, ‘we offer a framework where different partners can talk and work with each other. We speak the language of the local context.’  (photo credit: CHRISTELLE ALIX/UNESCO)
UNESCO DIRECTOR-GENERAL Audrey Azoulay. Regarding Holocaust education, ‘we offer a framework where different partners can talk and work with each other. We speak the language of the local context.’

PARIS – UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay rarely gives interviews, preferring her deputies to communicate with the media, each on his or her specific domain of expertise. But ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, Azoulay, along with Yad Vashem Chairman Dani Dayan spoke with The Jerusalem Post about the Holocaust and antisemitism

The issues of teaching Holocaust history and combating antisemitism are especially important to Azoulay, both on an official and personal level, the French-Jewish senior UN official explained, as is the successful partnership she has developed in the past four years with Yad Vashem. 

As it happened, the double Paris-Jerusalem interview took place while the UN General Assembly approved in New York a historic resolution aimed at combating Holocaust denial, a resolution hailed jointly by Azoulay and Dayan as a milestone in their campaign against Holocaust distortion, trivialization and instrumentalization.

“The resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly is important, not just internationally, but also for the UN itself and for UNESCO, because of the historic link,” said Paris-based Azoulay, who has been UNESCO’s director-general since 2017. She previously served as France’s culture minister in prime minister Manuel Valls’s government from 2016 to 2017.

UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is a specialized agency at the world body aimed at promoting world peace and security through international cooperation in education, arts, sciences and culture. It has 193 member states and 11 associate members.

The establishment of the UN and of UNESCO are linked to the Second World War and to the history of the Holocaust, Azoulay said. 

“We know that the Nazi society valued education, science and culture, and still, this society led to a disaster. The idea of the founding fathers of the UN and of UNESCO was to prevent such horrors from happening again,” she said. “Thus, our mission at UNESCO is making sure that these three elements must never be separated from safeguarding human rights, and always be based on the principles of human dignity.

“The UN resolution is also important because it will hopefully mobilize the international community, not only toward preserving the memory of the Holocaust, but also for fighting against Holocaust denial. It is a call for the member states to support actions on the international level, like the work promoted by UNESCO with its network of partners, Yad Vashem of course being a principal one, and with many others as well around the world.”

 YAD VASHEM Chairman Dani Dayan: There are several layers where Yad Vashem and UNESCO could develop cooperation partnerships.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) YAD VASHEM Chairman Dani Dayan: There are several layers where Yad Vashem and UNESCO could develop cooperation partnerships. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Dayan agreed that the adoption of the UN resolution was an extremely positive step. 

“I had the opportunity to meet with UN Secretary-General António Guterres last November, when I visited New York, and I know that he is personally committed to Holocaust remembrance, and to fighting antisemitism. In this area, we are definitively partners with UNESCO.”

Under Azoulay’s watch, UNESCO has undertaken a mission on Holocaust education. 

“We operate on two levels. First, we work on integrating the history of the Holocaust into history curricula. Second, we focus on using education for hindering antisemitism. These two aspects are sometimes linked but not always. We are working on training teachers and via school programs for integrating the history of the Holocaust into school curricula. We do that very intensively, mainly with our partners at the US Holocaust Memorial [Museum] in Washington. 

“For training education communities in different countries, we have already completed two cycles, and are now starting a third. So that’s on the national level. We also operate on the regional level. We have been working for a while now with Yad Vashem in Latin America, where Yad Vashem is very present and has a lot of local contacts and resources. For instance, we are now preparing together an online course in Spanish for teachers,” she said.

Azoulay continues to explain about one of UNESCO’s flagship projects against Holocaust denial. 

“With Dani Dayan, we discuss often ways to best battle Holocaust denial and distortion. In recent years, especially since 2018, we have focused quite a lot on what is happening online. Together with the World Jewish Congress, we have launched three years ago a website titled ‘Facts about the Holocaust.’ It’s an interactive online tool that provides facts about the history of the Holocaust.” 

The UN boss also said her agency has partnered with Facebook on that, so when there are queries about the Holocaust, in 19 different languages, the visitor is automatically redirected to this site.

Azoulay, who was born in Paris to a Moroccan-Jewish family and whose father, André Azoulay, was former adviser to King of Morocco Hassan II from 1991 to 1999 and is current adviser to King Mohammed VI, said she systematically tests this site herself, to be sure that it really works. From her own experience she can tell that this mechanism indeed functions. 

UNESCO’s spokesperson office said that since the start of the partnership with Facebook on January 27, 2021, UNESCO and the WJC’s joint webpage has been accessed nearly 400,000 times from more than 100 countries.

As a result of that success, Azoulay revealed that UNESCO was launching a similar operation with TikTok.

“We are announcing on January 27 a new partnership with TikTok, on the same issue of fighting disinformation, to try combating false narratives on the Holocaust. This new initiative should work the same way as with Facebook. In online conversations, when there are questions or key words that are linked to the Holocaust, the user will be redirected to our website or to other verified sources on the history of the Holocaust.”

TikTok, explains UNESCO, wants to make this mechanism available quickly in 45 countries. It should be very useful, because this social media platform has more than a billion users, and 75% of them are under 25.

In fact, according to UNESCO’s evaluations, 11% of English-language, 10% of German-language and 9% of French-language Facebook posts relating to the Holocaust either denied or distorted its history. When it comes to TikTok, UNESCO estimates that 26% of French-language; 20% of German-language, 16% of English-language and 4% of Spanish-language submissions on the social media platform relating to the Holocaust either denied or distorted its history.

Azoulay also has other projects in the pipeline. 

“Later this year we will publish a study we are conducting in partnership with Oxford University, about the mechanisms of narratives of Holocaust denial. To understand both online and offline mechanisms. 

“In fact, on issues of preventing genocide, we are working with a large network of university chairs, including chairs in France, in the US, in Iraq and in Armenia. Our partnership with Yad Vashem exceeds of course our cooperation in Latin America.”

What about the Abraham Accords? Are they opening new paths for cooperation on combating Holocaust denial? 

Azoulay stresses that UNESCO has been working with Arab partners on such issues even before the signing of the accords. The UN agency, she notes, keeps working on Holocaust issues with different Arab partners, including countries that are not part to the accords.

“This is also the relevance of an organization like UNESCO, where we can reach out to many countries. We have been working in Morocco and in Tunisia on different educational programs, including Holocaust education, already in 2018, 2019. I have mentioned Iraq, where we have one of our university chairs working on genocide prevention. That program is not focused solely on the Holocaust, but there is obviously a link. 

“We bring to the table a scientific approach, with the guidelines we produce, as well as credibility and inclusiveness. We offer a framework where different partners can talk and work with each other. We speak the language of the local context.’’

Dayan notes that Yad Vashem also intends to make good use of the Abraham Accords in order to expand the reach of Holocaust study programs.

“We already hosted in Yad Vashem groups from the United Arab Emirates, from Bahrain and from Morocco, and we expect that the cooperation with these newly formed alliances with Israel will be significant in the area of Holocaust remembrance.”

Dayan adds that together with UNESCO, he is hoping to expand Yad Vashem cooperation also to African countries.

“I have been in my position just a few months, but clearly one of my goals is to strengthen the international presence of Yad Vashem, to cooperate with governments, with international organizations. 

“A few weeks ago, I hosted in Yad Vashem the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, [Félix Tshisekedi], who currently also chairs the Africa Union. We spoke about elaborating Holocaust study programs not just for Congolese teachers, but also for African Union diplomats and staff, and in member states. We could replicate our extremely good Yad Vashem-UNESCO partnership experience in Latin America also to the African continent.” 

Sub-Saharan Africa is also a priority for UNESCO. 

“This is one of the things that we are preparing for 2022, and I am sure that the experts of Yad Vashem will be asked to participate. UNESCO has a teaching training center in Addis Ababa for Sub-Saharan Africa. We are working on a teachers training guide [for the Sub-Sahara region] on the history of genocide and of the Shoah. Of course, we also work with Rwanda, on the memory of the Tutsi Genocide.” 

ANTI-VAXXERS in the United Kingdom, across Continental Europe and in the United States have invoked the Holocaust to paint themselves as victims, and their governments as persecuting regimes, donning yellow stars reading “not vaccinated” as a means of demonstrations. For Dayan and Azoulay, this is a very worrying trend. 

“We have seen this all too often in times of crisis and anxiety. The scapegoating; looking for someone to blame; conspiracy theories. And shortly after this, attacks against Jews could follow, and sometimes it’s linked with distortion of the Shoah,” Azoulay said.

“It only goes to show that there is a lot of work to be done. We have been working on information about health and vaccines with the WHO, but we are also working on education in media and information literacy. Social media often works on emotions, on attracting attention via divisive and provocative speech. One way to address this phenomenon is through regulation and by setting up limits. Many countries struggle with that. We try to support governments by opening discussions over the transparency of the Internet and the algorithms used.

“Young people need to be better equipped, with skills to safely navigate through this information and media age,” notes Azoulay.

With young people in mind, Azoulay talks about the screening she initiated last month at UNESCO Paris headquarters of the animated film Where is Anne Frank by Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman.

“For me as a young girl, for many little girls in Europe, the Diary of Anne Frank was very important. It was how we discovered the individual reality of the Shoah. And it is also very important for UNESCO, which is why we have added it to our Memory of the World Register. 

“I was very moved and touched by the film, and even wrote a preface for a new edition of the book that accompanies the movie. I like this new kind of interpretation that Ari Folman offers, though I know there is a debate going on about that. It is a new approach that is accessible to many.”

Azoulay said it is also a good example of education outreach.

“We worked together with the Anne Frank Foundation to produce educational material that teachers can use when they screen the film to their students. It’s the kind of approach that we encourage, using movies, exhibitions and other [media].”

Yad Vashem has also come out in recent years with several campaigns targeting younger generations and social media users. One of them is the online commemorative activity titled “IRemember Wall,” where one links his or her name to the name of a Holocaust victim from Yad Vashem’s database, and then posts them together on a virtual wall. 

Dayan recounts that for the past eight years, UNESCO has been adding Yad Vashem testimonies to its Memory of the World Register. 

“There are several layers where Yad Vashem and UNESCO could develop cooperation partnerships. The first one is documentation. We are glad to acknowledge that Yad Vashem-collected pages of testimonies are, since 2013, part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. We intend in the coming years to enhance our activity of collecting documents of different archives all over the world, and that is an area in which I am sure we will be able to cooperate with UNESCO. 

“The other thing that is very important for us is Holocaust research. We are seeing these days a decline in Holocaust academic research, and in that field as well we could cooperate with UNESCO. And on top of that, obviously come the educational activities that are part and parcel of what we do at the International School for Holocaust Studies. I intend for us to focus on educational multipliers, meaning educators, diplomats, politicians and celebrities. And again, this is a field in which the expertise of UNESCO would be invaluable.”

Much like Azoulay, Dayan warns against COVID-related phenomenon of Holocaust distortion and trivialization, which has become even more dangerous perhaps than Holocaust denial, relegated to the more lunatic fringes of social media. 

“We saw in the American media the outrageous comparison between [US CDC head Dr. Anthony] Fauci and the infamous Mengele from Auschwitz. We cannot accept that. The worst distortion and trivialization are the obviously outrageous comparisons that we see in some places between Israel and Nazi Germany. This is both antisemitic and completely historically false.”

Back to the UN General Assembly resolution, Azoulay says she hopes it will convince more member states to join UNESCO in its anti-denial campaigns and financially support its educational programs. 

“History is not just a thing of the past. It is a very powerful motor of geopolitics... We have been extremely clear on antisemitism and the way we define it since 2018, when we published our reference guide on the fight against antisemitism using the IHRA definition. Systematic attacks against the existence of Israel qualify for antisemitism. This is clearly a part of the definition we use, and part of the policy guides we publish.”