Studying the Holocaust

I am often asked if the study of the Holocaust is compulsory in Australian, or at least Victorian, schools. Although many schools, as evidenced by the thousands of students who visit our Centre, do study the Holocaust, there is no guarantee that all students will. For some students, their first formal encounter with the Holocaust is in Year 8 or 9; for others it is in Year 11. The reasons for studying the Holocaust and visiting our Centre in conjunction with their studies are varied. Some come because of a text they are studying in an English class which deals with the Holocaust, such as Night, The Diary of Anne Frank, or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Others come because of a history course. Sometimes it is a study of Religion and Society in a Year 11 VCE course which brings students, or a psychology course. Media studies and the study of films like Life is Beautiful or Schindler’s List call for a visit to the Centre. As the reasons vary, so too will the depth and breadth of the students’ learning.

In New South Wales, there is no mention of the Holocaust anywhere in their state curriculum – apart from a quote from a Holocaust survivor about the importance of learning history! (see http:// www.theaustralian.news.com.au/ story/0,25197,23996561-12332,00. html)   Of course, this does not mean that the Holocaust will not be studied, but rather that the decision is up to each school and its teachers.

To complicate matters, many teachers, through no fault of their own, have only a cursory knowledge of the Holocaust. Thus, teaching the Holocaust first requires a crash course in the basic facts, figures, names and events. Even then, the Holocaust demands its own unique pedagogic strategy and methodology. In short, even if all students did study the Holocaust, their learning would certainly be varied.

Considering all this, we might be encouraged by the news that it is the intention of the Australian Government to formulate a national curriculum, which will help ensure uniformity across the nation regarding the subjects and topics Australian students learn. Since our national student body is not even as large as that in some major American cities which would have a uniform curriculum, this seems like a reasonable idea for Australian students.

The draft papers for a national history curriculum indicate that the Holocaust ‘will be studied in its own right’. Our first response might understandably be: ‘Wonderful! No more gaps in students’ knowledge, particularly about the most important and tragic events humanity has experienced.’ However, a reading of the draft for the history curriculum, available at http://www.ncb.org.au/our_work/ preparing_for_2009.htm raises some interesting questions and serious concerns.

In the draft document, regarding Unit 4: Australia and the Modern World (1901-present) we read:

The Holocaust that Hitler and the Nazis inflicted on European Jewry will be studied in its own right. Its enduring consequences will also be considered, including the international turn against racism, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, the establishment of Israel and its effects on Palestinians, and the development of protocols on refugees. Postwar movements of national liberation and decolonization will be considered.

In one brief paragraph the authors of this draft conflate the Holocaust, Israel, Palestinians and refugees. This raises numerous concerns and questions:

• No other mention of Israel exists anywhere in the draft document. The history of Zionism, its legitimacy as a national movement of the Jewish people, no different than any other people’s national movement, is ignored.

• It appears that the only reason for the establishment of the State of Israel is the Holocaust. It is assumed that its creation can only be viewed as a direct outcome of the Holocaust. This ignores the dynamics of the previous seventy-five years, from 1880 onwards, including European anti-Semitism, not to mention the thousands of years Jews have yearned and prayed for a return to Eretz Israel.Will the fate of the survivors, and the Holocaust’s ‘enduring consequences’ on their lives be studied? Or is the Holocaust’s enduring consequence only that of the effects on Palestinians?

• Is the Palestinians’ political and social situation only due to the Holocaust? The dynamics of the establishment of the State of Israel also include the refusal of the Arab world to live in peace with the nascent state, and the subsequent War of Independence. Will this and its consequences be considered?

• We have recently read events in Gaza compared to the Holocaust. The Israeli Defence Force is compared to the evil perpetrators of the Holocaust, and claims of war crimes and genocide are bandied about with impunity. Israel is seen to be a punishment inflicted on Palestinians for the sins of Europe. This diminishes the horror of the Holocaust and prevents rational discourse about the Middle East in its own right.

Thus, while it is encouraging that this draft calls for the Holocaust to be studied in its own right, it is so important that the Holocaust not be used to perpetuate inaccurate or even non-existent connections between this unique tragedy in human history and the complexities of the Middle East.

There is much more to discuss and query regarding this draft document, and together with colleagues from the Jewish Museum of Australia, the Jewish day schools and our universities, a response to the draft is being developed. I will try to keep you apprised of developments.