You Cannot Teach the Holocaust to Palestinians!

Thu, 11/21/2013 - 9:51am

Mohammed Dajani teaches about the Holocaust to Palestinians although he insists it is impossible to do so.

“In my class is a girl who was recently released from an Israeli jail. When I raised the subject of the Holocaust in class all she could say was, ‘I am still dealing with my own traumatic experiences, I am nowhere near ready to learn about this!’”

Dajani is unflustered by such push back.

“I do not start by teaching about the Holocaust, because it is not a Holocaust course. It cannot be because no one would attend! I teach a program on creative and critical thinking. That's how we eventually get to talk about the Holocaust.”

Dajani encourages students to think through difficult issues and find creative solutions using their critical skills. The eight-part program introduces the Holocaust at around Part 4.

Introducing the subject creates tension in the classroom.

“They push back hard wanting to know why I am talking about the Holocaust and not the Nakbar.” 

He reminds them it is a creative-thinking class that encourages them to have open minds to challenging issues. Instead of leaving, the students become engaged.

Israeli professor of the Holocaust Yehuda Bauer, speaking at the USC Shoah Foundation, recently looked at the same issue from a pedagogical perspective.

“If you want to teach about the Holocaust to Palestinians – as difficult as that might be – you have to start with the Nakbar.”

Bauer, who for over 50 years has anchored the world of Holocaust scholarship, was not born yesterday.

“When I teach African-Americans, I begin with slavery. When I talk to Rwandans, I begin with discussing the genocide in that country. You have to start with the perspective of the class. That is just good teaching.”

With many critical issues between Israel and the Palestinians, one may contemplate that discussing the Holocaust in East Jerusalem or Ramallah will only serve to throw fat on the fire. Dajani does not think so.

“When students say to me, ‘Why are you talking about the Holocaust, when Israelis don't learn about the Nakbar?’ I tell them, ‘It is your responsibility to know about your world and what happened to the Jews whether or not they take responsibility to understand about the Nakbar, because truth is truth, and there is never a downside to understanding the truth.’”

In fact, Dajani bases his approach to teaching about the Holocaust on a series of values.

“It is a sign of respect for the truth. When truth is denied or ignored, it destroys those values one cherishes. It is the right thing to do. Being criticized for doing it does not mean not to do it. Holocaust denial and distortion is historically wrong and morally unacceptable; Lessons of the past help avoid their recurrence in the future. Intellectual knowledge and learning is encouraged in the Holy Quran. Without knowing about evil, we cannot understand the meaning of good. To make this world a better place we need to show empathy and compassion for the suffering of others.”

It seems almost naive to think that this laundry list of ideals proclaimed in the face of extremist ideologies will ever get any traction. 

“What I need is a beautiful space with great resources in our library so that students choose to sit inside learning during their lunch break, rather than outside listening to extremist recruiters on their megaphones!”

As Dajani pleads on behalf of silence, knowledge and learning at Al Quds University, I commit the USC Shoah Foundation to one day provide some of those resources by way of testimony subtitled in Arabic. That's where the Aladdin Project comes in.

The Paris-based translation group believes resources about the Holocaust in local languages are the key to opening dialogue. According to Director Abe Radkin, Aladdin has translated scores of books, films and documentaries to make them available to courageous educators like Dajani, right across the Muslim world.

I try to figure whether it will be a good use of our resources to engage in the Muslim world. After all, translating and subtitling may be a good thing in itself, but if they are not watched, or there are no programs, or the programs yield no tangible results, then maybe we will be wasting our time taking the Shoah Foundation's Visual History Archive into the Muslim world.

I push Mohammed Dajani on whether his students take interest beyond that first lesson.

“It is not easy, but it is necessary.  All I can tell you is that the latest group of Palestinians I knew I could not teach the Holocaust to are preparing to visit Auschwitz next year.”

Stephen Smith
Stephen D Smith is the Andrew J. and Erna Finci Viterbi Executive Director Chair of the USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles, whose Visual History Archive holds 53,000 testimonies of eyewitnesses to the Holocaust and other genocides. He also holds the UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education and is an Adjunct Professor of Religion. He founded the UK Holocaust Centre, The Aegis Trust for the prevention of crimes against humanity and genocide. He was Project Director of the Kigali Genocide Centre, Rwanda. Smith, who trained as a Christian theologian, is an author, educator and researcher interested in memory of the Holocaust, and the causes and consequences of human conflict.