In New Initiative, Yad Vashem Tackles 21st Century Antisemitism
JNS.org – It is American teachers like Lori Fulton who, with their commitment to Holocaust education, are poised to be potent forces for holding back the current tidal wave of antisemitism in the US for the next generation. Many of the tools empowering Fulton and thousands of other teachers in striving to accomplish this Herculean task come from a hillside in Jerusalem, thousands of miles from her classroom in Mattawan, Michigan.
Fulton, a high school English teacher who discovered the Holocaust as a teen when she happened upon The Diary of Anne Frank in her local library, spent two weeks last summer at Yad Vashem. There, together with dozens of other teachers, she learned how to bring these terror-filled years alive for her students.
“I thought I knew about the Holocaust, but I realized I was missing something,” she says. “Sure, we can read Wiesel’s Night and watch The Pianist, but only when you have the human stories — what it was really like to live through that hell — does everything change.”
Not only does Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies host 7,000 teachers annually at its Jerusalem center, but its programs train thousands more in 50 countries. And it provides a full menu of online teacher resources, including survivor testimonies, photos, rare film footage, and lesson plans in 20 languages, destined for classrooms around the globe.
These offerings could not be more timely, given the uptick in antisemitism in Europe and around the world coming from the right and increasingly, the experts say, from the left as well, marked by the demonization of Israel on many campuses and in the media.
In light of 21st-century antisemitism, the Holocaust is humanity’s canary in the coal mine. Its lesson: The unimaginable horror was only born when “garden variety” antisemitism was permitted to fester, turning murderous while the world’s global powers turned a deaf ear to six million screams.
The one million visitors each year who move through the powerful Moshe Safdie-designed structure of Yad Vashem may not realize that the adjacent school is a veritable beehive of activity. In the last two decades, 50,000 teachers from 12,000 schools have returned home inspired and ready to share what they’ve learned, impacting more than five million students over the years. Fulton, for one, is organizing a Holocaust-education training symposium in March for 50 teachers from across Michigan, each one destined to influence hundreds or thousands of students over the course of a career.
“Our job is to tell the historical truth based on documentation,” says Avner Shalev, who for a quarter-century has been Yad Vashem’s chairman. “And the most important thing we do here is train teachers.”
“My students have no clue what Yad Vashem is, but after hearing survivor testimony and reading about their lives and the world they lived in, each one is going to own someone’s story,” says Fulton. “I told my principal that this is important enough to devote a semester to, and you know what? He agreed.”
Braxton French says learning about the Holocaust in Fulton’s class changed the way he sees the world. “We read books and watched videos, and we visited a survivor. I don’t know what it’s like to be in her situation, but it’s crazy to think about how this could have happened,” he says. “I’m a Christian, but when my friends say history isn’t important, I say, ‘Yes, it is’ or ‘It could happen again.’”
One of the tools Fulton and her fellows use is “Echoes and Reflections: Teaching the Holocaust, Inspiring the Classroom,” a curriculum Yad Vashem created in partnership with the Anti-Defamation League and the USC Shoah Foundation, with North American teachers in mind.
“We’re helping teachers convey the important truth that the Holocaust is both a historical event and the result of human factors — something that can happen anywhere and anytime,” says project director Sheryl Ochayon. To get this key message across, the course introduces such foundational concepts as stereotypes, propaganda, dehumanization, hate crimes, and antisemitism, along with the deadly Nazi ideology, and the real-life stories of survivors and heroes like Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.
“We also invite them to look carefully at the role of the bystander in antisemitism and other forms of hate, and in the unit on contemporary antisemitism, at their own culture for signs of these things.” (To learn more about the program, teachers are invited to visit echoesandreflections.org.)
“The Internet is where we all look now for information,” says Futon. “But when my students go online to research Holocaust topics, they find lots of sites saying it never happened.”
When they return to class thoroughly confused, Fulton tells them, “Yes, there are Holocaust-deniers, and there are people who think the world is flat. You have to be careful who and what you believe. And when they ask why the Poles didn’t realize what was going on, I say, ‘Of course, they knew: The stink of burning bodies 24-7, the ashes, the trains full of people.’”
And that, she says, leads naturally to a discussion of the “innocent” bystander.
And, though one could argue that teens are especially susceptible to hate-filled online influences, no age group is immune. So Yad Vashem is fighting fire with fire.
To meet people where they are, particularly younger folks, Yad Vashem posts information on a variety of platforms using a variety of languages, explains Dana Porath, director of the digital department. “More and more, we’re leveraging the power of technology using new media and social-networking tools to deliver information in customized ways.”
“Though there are those who choose to use the unprecedented opportunities that social media offers to share antisemitic and hate-driven messages,” adds Porath, “rather than react to sensationalist comments, we believe that knowledge is the best way to combat ignorance and hatred, and prefers to be proactive in its messaging, sharing meaningful, timely, and relevant content about the Holocaust.”
In addition to educating students in their formative teen years about the Holocaust and the dangers of hate run amok, Yad Vashem raises the consciousness of adults too.
“It’s not enough to have students learning the lesson of the Holocaust in school,” says Shulamit Imber, who’s in charge of education for Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies.
“The Holocaust demonstrates clearly what antisemitism taken to the extreme becomes,” says Imber. “And I do believe that when people see the connection words have on actions and what those actions can lead to, it can inspire a greater awareness of the potential danger of hate both personally and communally.”
To heighten this awareness, Yad Vashem offers a free online course: “Anti-Semitism From Its Origins to the Present,” exploring how and why antisemitism rears its ugly head in every generation. Taken by more than 10,000 people in the year since its release, the course features 50 of the world’s top experts’ insights into antisemitism — from ancient times to today’s BDS movement.
“My students are very much aware that they are the last generation who will see survivors alive,” says Fulton.
That’s why they write books and spend hours reliving their experiences on videos, adds French. “And they leave their memories to ensure it won’t happen again. I want my children to know this so they can pass it on too.”
“Once there is no one left to tell, it’s going to be harder to convince people,” says Joseph David Farkas, 84, who remembers the day in 1944 when German soldiers knocked on the door of his family home on the Romanian-Hungarian border. “My father offered them a drink, and they told him that the SS was coming the next day, and we would all be killed.” Within hours, the family had fled their home, moving deeper into Romania, where they were hidden until the Russians liberated them that summer. “I was 10, and I remember it all,” says Farkas, who now lives in Jerusalem. “But when we are not here to tell about it, how will anyone understand what happened?”
It’s something that drives much of what is done at Yad Vashem, says senior historian Dr. Robert Rozett. But, he cautions, Holocaust history alone cannot protect the world from the dangers of antisemitism.
The other piece of the formula is planting in each heart “the value of how we respect people different from ourselves and make room for them in our world,” says Rozett.
But when a school district has three hours over the course of an academic year to teach the Holocaust, he wonders how educators can possibly give students a true sense of what happened, and why it’s so important to avoid hate speech and learn to police themselves and their communities.
That is why Holocaust education is so important.
Fulton understands that well. “I believe education is the only way to stem antisemitism in the world today,” she says. “It’s unfortunately quite easy for those who do not understand a different culture or religion to feel prejudice. But when students show real emotion because of the stories of real humans who lived and died at the hands of the Nazis, they have an epiphany about others unlike themselves.”