What is it that makes possible a horror like the machete attack on a Jewish gathering in New York in December? The outrage overshadowed increased sightings of anti-Jewish graffiti and incidents of boorishly aggressive behaviour towards Jews in public places, here as well as in the United States. Violence always depends on the normalising of bigotry, in which even the most farcically ignorant prejudice plays its part.
During the election campaign, a Labour candidate was obliged to stand down for having used the name “Shylock” as a term of abuse against a member of the Jewish community. In his defence, he claimed that he did not know that the name had any Jewish associations.
This may be chiefly an indictment of standards in British secondary schools. But it also points to an issue about cultural awareness of Judaism and Jewish history. Schoolchildren, of course, study the Holocaust. But what is disturbing —from our own experience and that of many other teachers—is that they often emerge with only the haziest idea of the specifics. We have heard of students who have studied the diaries of Anne Frank with barely any mention of the fact that she was Jewish. Holocaust education, and even events around Holocaust Memorial Day, can come to be focused on generalities about victimised minorities. We have encountered schoolchildren who have visited Auschwitz and returned with only the vague notion that it is bad to persecute people for their religion. This is a worthy enough principle (as Christians in the Middle East or Pakistan would agree); but it signally fails to bring out what is distinctive about the atrocities of the Third Reich and their accomplices, and what is distinctive about Jewish identity and history.
The Holocaust is not a story about deplorably bigoted attitudes. It was a systematic, indeed “scientific”, effort to exterminate an entire population. It is also about a campaign rooted in two millennia of consistent demonisation of that population by Christian theologians, artists and liturgists—and latterly by political extremists searching for a universal scapegoat. The nightmare of the Third Reich is intelligible only against the background of this long record.
What would effective Holocaust education look like? It would certainly have to involve an attempt to trace these historical roots, to look at, for instance: the history of the “Blood Libel” (the myth that Jews routinely kidnapped, tortured and killed Christian children at Passover), with origins that lie in this country in the Middle Ages; at the expulsion of Jews from England in the 13th century, France in the 14th century and Spain and Portugal in the 15th and 16th; at the 19th century pogroms in Tsarist Russia, and at the resulting first large waves of Jewish refugees in Britain and elsewhere. It would need to look at how these communities took root and developed, what they had to battle against and still have to combat in the form of lazy prejudices encoded in British literature and popular culture, even when the latter’s Christian rationale has long been forgotten.
‘The Holocaust is not a story about deplorably bigoted attitudes. It was a campaign rooted in two millennia of consistent demonisation of a population by theologians, artists and liturgists’
Holocaust education must also, above all, involve awareness of what Jewish faith and culture have to say about themselves, not just what others say about them, which often recycles, however unwittingly, the stereotypes of the past. It would introduce students to what the State of Israel actually means for Jewish people: including its chaotic vitality and fierce internal political debates. Whatever a critic may say of the policies of this or that Israeli administration, it is essential not to treat Israel’s reality either as monochrome or as an unfortunate but ignorable extra to Jewish identity.
Educators would do well to take their cue from the methods used in institutions like Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, which include the kind of role-play that helps students understand how “everyman and everywoman” can become complicit in atrocity and can fail to notice when the corruption of a political environment has in effect normalised scapegoating, as well as contemptuous and dehumanising stereotypes. If it is true, as experienced Holocaust educators will stress, that 80 per cent of any sample population will under certain conditions become “bystanders”, looking the other way or passively facilitating the perpetrators of evil, this is in fact a vital point for any kind of education in public responsibility and political literacy. The excuse, common in post-war Germany, that people had not known what was going on, obscures the fact that the Nazi agenda came across to many as a sort of political comfort blanket: few wanted to examine the real cost or to notice who was carrying the load of blame for social dysfunction. This mechanism needs naming. Jewish history is, tragically, one of the best contexts for this.
A good historical education allows students to make connections and to learn how societies degenerate and become dysfunctional, corrupt and ultimately murderous. But contemporary historical education tends to fragment—a module here, a modulethere—without much of a connected narrative. We seek a Holocaust education that engages with this broader question of how societies fail, showing how the culture that sanctioned the Holocaust was corrupted by a long (and religiously sanctioned) tradition of projecting the anxieties and injustices of society onto a minority, despite its history of integration and loyalty. The Holocaust was not only a hideous tragedy for Jewish people. It was a sign of a society collapsing. Or, to put it rather differently, and in terms that have been used more recently in our domestic debates, getting it wrong about antisemitism is a sign of getting it wrong about a lot of other things as well, to do with justice and religious diversity and attitudes to the cultural “other”.
Anne Frank is a good start. But it will not be enough on its own. There needs to be some awareness of the history of how Christian Europe has acted towards its Jewish “other”. At a more advanced level, a wealth of modern Jewish literature—the works of Eli Wiesel or Primo Levi, for example, or even the challenging poetry of Paul Celan—brings into focus the reality of the death camps and the impact of the Holocaust on families throughout Europe.
For now, the controversy in this sphere surrounds a proposed Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in London’s Victoria Tower Gardens, adjacent to the Houses of Parliament. To the surprise and indignation of some, this proposal has not been unanimously welcomed by the Jewish community. Critics have asked whether a large-scale memorial is the best way of intensifying Holocaust awareness.
Public monuments can become a focus for further abuse and vandalism and even open violence, as recent events in Berlin and Brussels illustrate. It would be a horrible irony if a project like this defeated its own purpose by generating more instances of antisemitic behaviour or fuelling misdirected resentment—or indeed simply by becoming yet another big public statement with no means of making its challenge real and existential. That would exemplify a political culture often more interested in cosmetic signals than in real change. At the very least we need to know more about how the educational facility proposed as part of the scheme would work and how it would fit in with a wider national programme.
At the moment, Victoria Tower Gardens offers generous space for children’s play. In Hebrew, there is a happy assonance between banim, children, and bonim, builders. Futures are built by what children learn in play; swings and slides may do as much as, or more than, monuments to advance friendships and break down barriers. It is a picture worth pondering as the future of this project is considered.
Whatever the proposal’s fate, the deepest foundations for a future that may be safer and more self-aware about the role of antisemitism in wider social decay or collapse will be laid by investment in a robust and imaginative programme of Holocaust education of the kind we reflect on here. We must do the necessary fieldwork to find out what works. And we must actively involve Jewish people telling their own story, enabling non-Jews to look at British and European history through this lens. Ultimately this is about choosing life rather than death, for all of us. The question is what best serves such a choice.