'Holocaust awareness is essential for our war on antisemitism'

Yad Vashem: Educating on the Holocaust, fighting against antisemitism

Teachers participating in an antisemitism workshop as part of an educational seminar at Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies. (photo credit: COURTESY YAD VASHEM)
Teachers participating in an antisemitism workshop as part of an educational seminar at Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies.
(photo credit: COURTESY YAD VASHEM)
Some 40 leaders of nations from President Putin to Prince Charles will gather at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, on January 23 for an unprecedented event in Israel.
The Fifth World Holocaust Forum takes place on the backdrop of the rise in antisemitism around the world, marking the 75th anniversary from the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and International Holocaust Remembrance Day. All eyes will be focused on the messages emanating from the forum, under the banner “Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Antisemitism,” being organized by the World Holocaust Forum Foundation together with Yad Vashem and the President of the State of Israel.
“Antisemitism continues to exist in a variety of formats and locations around the world and no one seems to be able to prevent its proliferation,” stated Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev. “The leaders gathering at Yad Vashem all share a deep concern with what is happening around the world.”
Over the past weeks, the world has witnessed violent and troubling antisemitic attacks in various countries including France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States. While these incidents do not represent an increase or significant change from recent months, they do represent the ongoing trend of hate crimes targeting Jews across much of the world.
“The ways in which antisemitism has persisted and proliferated since the Holocaust must be identified, studied and understood,” Shalev continued. “We must all be alert to antisemitism’s current manifestations and remain resolute in combating it where it appears. It is the responsibility of all humanity, and especially the leaders that will gather at Yad Vashem, to work to fight antisemitism, racism and xenophobia.”
Antisemitism and Holocaust distortion and denial seem to go hand in hand. Over the same period of time that we’ve seen an increase in expressions of antisemitism, we’ve also witnessed new nationalistic narratives emerging across much of Europe, in an attempt by authorities to distort or dilute the historical narrative of the Holocaust in their own countries. These phenomena are inherently related. As the Holocaust is called into question, segments of society are allowing themselves to once again revisit age-old antisemitic canards and stereotypes.
Dr. Robert Rozett, Senior Historian at Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research, explained that while antisemitism did not disappear with the end of World War II, it became “less politically correct in many segments of society to have antisemitic opinions out in the open.”
However, around the beginning of the 21st century, the situation started to change. “Since then, antisemitic incidents, including violent ones, have come more and more to the surface,” Rozett continued. “In the last two years, violent antisemitism has even reached the United States, considered to be one of the most tolerant democracies in the world.”
In fact, recent surveys in the United States and Europe have documented that longstanding antisemitic tropes are alive and well. Yad Vashem has long understood the need to educate about the Holocaust and the history of antisemitism. Today, as the definitive source for Holocaust remembrance, documentation, research and education, Yad Vashem is working tirelessly not only to ensure that the memory and meanings of the Holocaust continue to be relevant, but also to use its comprehensive knowledge and carefully developed educational tools to fight contemporary forms of antisemitism.
Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev speaking at a symposium on antisemitism jointly organized by Yad Vashem and the Center Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel. (Courtesy of Yad Vashem)Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev speaking at a symposium on antisemitism jointly organized by Yad Vashem and the Center Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel. (Courtesy of Yad Vashem)
“As the Internet, followed by social media, became more and more popular, they became vehicles for spreading antisemitic sentiment to the masses,” said Rozett. “People can spread hate speech rapidly and to a vast audience via these vehicles – and so far, there is little to no oversight regulating the spread of this material.”
Rozett argued that it became clear to Yad Vashem – and to many of its colleagues around the world – that the struggle against antisemitism requires a “toolbox” approach, tackling it from multiple angles: legal recourse, more rigorous policing of the Internet and social media, building bridges between religious groups, and of course, education.
“We see education as the long-term and perhaps most profound tool in our battle against modern-day antisemitism,” he noted, “and we believe it is in this area that we can be most effective.”
As such, Yad Vashem has developed new courses, workshops and online content that can assist teachers, opinion-makers, the media, researchers, religious groups and even politicians and diplomats on how to handle the rise in antisemitism in their own societies.
One of the tools developed by Yad Vashem in recent years is a MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) tackling historical and contemporary antisemitism. The six-part course, entitled “Antisemitism: From its Origins to the Present,” showcases 50 scholars from all over the world who explain the history, development and new forms of this oldest hatred, emphasizing the common themes that may be easily identified in antisemitic expressions today.
So far, some 15,000 people have enrolled in the course, which is offered on both the UK FutureLearn and US Coursera educational online platforms. Of course, every country has its own particular histories, and consequently its own particular sensitivities and needs. Together with local educators and community leaders, Yad Vashem Societies worldwide have played a crucial role in identifying these needs and communicating them back to Jerusalem, where experts at Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies have been working hard to develop courses and programs aimed at clearly identifying and exposing antisemitic expressions around the world.
To this end, Yad Vashem recently developed a workshop for educators about contemporary antisemitism as part of its tailor-made seminars for teachers worldwide, which allow educators to easily identify dangerous stereotypes and the “language of hate” as triggers for discussion. Dr. Noa Mkayton, Deputy Director of the European Department at Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies, helped developed this workshop.
She explained that while Yad Vashem is careful to avoid entering into political debates, “due to the complexity and confusion surrounding the topic, we realize that we must tackle contemporary antisemitism in order to help teachers identify and confront it in their classrooms.”
Mkayton noted that in order to make this topic more relevant, she uses examples particular to the geographic location of the specific educators.
“When teachers are confronted with what they fear is antisemitism, they feel lost and helpless,” she continued. “But it doesn’t have to be this way. Yad Vashem offers special tools and techniques to help teachers define and address antisemitism. Through this ‘toolbox’ approach, we now have clear criteria for what is considered antisemitism. We are now sensitive to the type of language that draws on traditional antisemitic tropes developed and used for thousands of years – and can declare that these statements are indeed antisemitic.”
Education today is not restricted to the classroom, but occurs more and more online. Yad Vashem’s websites in eight languages and its active social media presence are all invaluable assets to teachers in Israel and abroad. This is a way for graduates of its seminars to remain up to date on new research in the field.
Aside from the dozens of international educational seminars Yad Vashem holds each year, it continues to advise policy-makers on the development of curricula for their individual country’s Holocaust educational activities.
“Understanding that Holocaust awareness is essential for our war on antisemitism, Yad Vashem has acquired the knowledge and reputation as being experts on the subject. As such, we are sought after to teach the teachers and provide tools to ensure that accurate and meaningful Holocaust studies are being taught around the world,” said Richelle Budd Caplan, International Relations Director at the International School for Holocaust Studies.
Yad Vashem’s educational influence is not restricted to activities in the International School. In 2005, the organization expanded its role in the North American educational sphere with the creation of the “Echoes & Reflections” multimedia program, together with partner organizations, the ADL and the USC Shoah Foundation. This flagship program geared especially for US educators, aims at empowering US middle- and high-school educators with dynamic materials and professional development to confidently teach about the Holocaust.
In addition to nine other comprehensive units, “Echoes & Reflections” contains insightful content on both historical and contemporary antisemitism. Sheryl Ochayon, “Echoes & Reflections” program director, explained that “it is very important today for teachers in the United States to have a game plan: How should you react when you find a swastika daubed on a school or community center wall? What happens when graves are knocked down in your community? ‘Echoes & Reflections’ helps teachers identify antisemitic acts and consider practical steps in the event of such an incident.”
Additionally, the program provides teachers with materials that encourage youth not to be bystanders in the face of antisemitism. “Our educational programs place a great emphasis on responsibility,” Ochayon said. “We want to inspire and support students to take action in the face of racism and xenophobia. We teach and encourage pupils to make the choice to step up and speak out against antisemitism.”
Fundamental differences exist between the state-sponsored and endorsed antisemitism of pre-Holocaust years to the antisemitism and violent attacks being experienced today. Yet, smaller acts of violence can lead to large acts if left unchecked. Hateful words lead to incitement, which can cause larger, violent actions. The message from Yad Vashem is that the world must stand up and take notice before that is allowed to happen. 
This article was written in cooperation with Yad Vashem. For more information about partnering with Yad Vashem’s educational initiatives, contact [email protected]