UNRWA teachers in Jordan refuse to teach Holocaust

UN's Palestinian refugee agency said Holocaust studies would become part of the elementary school syllabus.

Students at UNRWA school in Jordan 370 (photo credit: Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)
Students at UNRWA school in Jordan 370
(photo credit: Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)
AMMAN – Riyadh’s thunderous voice silenced some 45 noisy students in Bakaa elementary school for Palestinian refugees before he started his history class. The students listened to a lecture about the Roman Empire and conquest of North Africa.
From behind his thick glasses, the long-bearded, 37-year-old teacher vehemently rejects the idea of teaching the Holocaust to his class of Palestinian refugees, all hailing from towns that are now part of Israel since their parents or grandparents fled after the 1948 war.
“It’s impossible that I would teach my students about the so-called Holocaust. UNRWA is planning to impose this on us, but we refuse to teach the history of our eternal enemies,” he insisted to The Media Line.
Earlier this month, officials in UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees in the Middle East, said Holocaust studies would be part of the school syllabus given to students in elementary classes.
But the idea has met with fierce criticism from teachers in Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan and across the Middle East.
“The students need to know about their own history, how their parents were driven from their homes at gunpoint by Israeli gangs and militias, not how the Jews are victims,” said Riyadh.
UNRWA teachers say the UN body is planning to include the topic under the pretext of talking about human rights.
“The UN should show some respect for our tragedy. I would prefer to resign from my job than teach my students to sympathize with the same people who took our land,” Riyadh said.
He declined to give his last name because he faced expulsion from his job for talking to journalists.
Earlier this month, the Executive Committee of UNRWA Teachers in Jordan, a body representing some 4,000 teachers in UNRWA schools around the country, announced it would not allow its members to teach Holocaust studies, following news that the topic would be included in this year’s schoolbooks.
In a nearby elementary school for girls, Huda teaches religious studies to students aged 12 to 15. She said the issue of the Holocaust was very controversial as long as peace with Israel was not achieved, and she called for a final and fair solution to the 60- year-old conflict.
“Peace between Arabs and Israelis must come first. There is the so-called peace process between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, but that process has been going backward rather than forward,” she said.
The head of the Jordanian UNRWA teachers’ committee, Shaker Resheq, issued a statement expressing refusal to teach Holocaust studies.
“We express our strong disapproval [of teaching about the Holocaust] under any name or pretext. At the same time, the UN General Assembly stresses that it respects human rights of all nations, starting with the Palestinian people and their tragic history over the years,” the statement said.
UNRWA officials were not available for comment, but a source in the organization said the plan to teach the Holocaust had been put in place as part of modern history studies. He said the idea had been introduced in 2011 but been shelved following protests from Palestinian communities in Jordan, the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria.
“The Holocaust is included in topics that discuss tolerance, conflict resolution, coexistence and other modern history issues,” said the source, who did not want to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.
Jordanian Education Ministry officials said it was up to UNRWA whether to include the topic in its textbooks. An official source in the ministry said the Jordanian government, which has made peace with Israel, was also contemplating incorporating the Holocaust into its history books. He admitted that the political atmosphere in the region, including the Arab Spring, had discouraged plans to implement the project.
UNRWA runs nearly 700 schools, providing education to nearly half a million refugee students in Jordan, the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria. For over 60 years, it has been the main provider of free-of-charge basic education to what is now nearly five million Palestinian refugees.
In Jordan, the agency operates in 10 officially registered camps and runs 172 schools with 117,274 pupils, while in Lebanon there are 12 camps hosting 68 schools with 32,213 pupils. In Syria there are nine camps with 118 schools providing education to 66,586 pupils, the West Bank has 19 camps with 98 schools providing education to 52,633 pupils, and Gaza, which is home to eight refugee camps with 243 schools, has 218,048 students.
Jordan has nearly 1.6 million students studying in around 4,000 public and private schools across the kingdom, most of which follow the Education Ministry curriculum.
UNRWA says its schoolchildren follow the host authorities’ curricula and textbooks, and that it supplements these with its own materials on human rights in a project launched in 2000, and adopts a variety of theoretical and hands-on techniques to promote non-violence, healthy communication skills, conflict resolution and human rights. UNRWA also emphasizes the importance of tolerance and good citizenship.
In the narrow streets of the Bakaa camp, the largest camp hosting Palestinian refugees in the region, residents have shown their support for the teachers’ position and called for adding the Arab Spring to the history curriculum.
Abu Saleem al-Weheidi, a tribal leader whose family hails from Beir al-Saba, says he does not recognize the Holocaust.
“I don’t think UNRWA teachers will ever accept it. If they do, they will have no honor, nor respect for the tragedy of their people,” he told the Media Line.For more stories from The Media Line go to www.themedialine.org