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What Changed When Teaching the Holocaust Became Optional

Despite the Ministry of Education’s decision to make Holocaust education optional in light of the trauma experience by many Israeli students, some teachers decided that teaching the Holocaust is even more important this year | History teacher Meirav Bocian: “From learning about the Holocaust, we learn about ourselves as human beings”

מירב בוסיאן ונחום בסלו (צילומים: אלבום פרטי)
High school teachers Meirav Bocian and Nahum Baslo. (Photos: Private album)
By Michal Marantz

As Israel marked Holocaust Remembrance Day this week, many questions arose about the appropriate way to commemorate the Holocaust after Oct. 7 and amid ongoing war. Which topics should the various ceremonies deal with? Will there be comparisons to current events? Or are there subjects too sensitive to mention? Similar questions have been asked not just around the commemoration of the day, but about studying the subject in history classes at high schools this year.

The Holocaust is typically a mandatory part of the Israeli high school history curriculum, but in October, the Ministry of Education decided to make teaching the Holocaust optional. That decision came in response to parents’ and students’ fears that studying the Holocaust would trigger traumatic memories from Oct. 7.

After this decision caused significant public uproar, Minister of Education Yoav Kish announced the Holocaust would indeed be a mandatory subject on the history matriculation exam, saying “studying the Holocaust is a significant and irreplaceable part of the matriculation exam.” However, because the decision was reversed with too little time remaining before the exams in April, studying the Holocaust remained elective.

“It’s a complex decision, and we debated whether, what, and how to teach the subject this year,” said Meirav Bocian, an 11th grade history teacher at Tichon HaChevrati (“the social high school”) in Haifa. “The fact that our students are from Haifa and the surrounding area, and far away from the war and the attack on Oct. 7, helped us decide to teach it anyway.”

For Nahum Baslo, a teacher at Ort Milton School in Bat Yam, teaching about the Holocaust has become even more important after Oct. 7. “The events of Oct. 7 and the war have deepened the need to understand our lives and existence in this country. The basis for this is understanding the Holocaust,” Baslo, who is in his fifth year of teaching after serving in the Israeli military for 33 years, said.

Both teachers agree that it is impossible to teach the subject of the Holocaust without relating it to the students’ current lives and dilemmas. “Because the war for our existence continues, we are still fighting for our existence against enemies who want to destroy us,” Baslo said. “Of course, I am not interested in the students comparing Oct. 7 to the Holocaust, because the Holocaust is an event unparalleled in human history. But the hatred and the desire to destroy us still exist today, whether it is Iran and its metastases, Hamas and Hezbollah, as in the past the Nazis tried to destroy the entire Jewish people.”

Bocian had a different take on connecting the Holocaust to students’ lives today. “Especially since the war, we as a society and they as teenagers face extreme moral dilemmas such as staying in Israel, enlisting in the Israel Defense Forces, taking a stance on the hostages, and, in general, clarifying our role in the current period,” she said. “The Holocaust gives us an opportunity to learn about humanity and society in extreme situations, and to examine what moral dilemmas there were and how people and their societies chose to deal with them.”

“From learning about the Holocaust, we learn about ourselves as human beings,” Bocian said. “I don’t always have an answer to all the questions. We mainly facilitate dialogue and try to give the students tools to try to answer the questions themselves.”

Until the Holocaust curriculum in 11th grade, many students learn about the Holocaust only from the annual ceremonies and from movies, Baslo said. “There is meaning in learning the facts and the story itself,” he added. “What does differ this year from last year is that the line that runs through Holocaust education in Israel is that ‘if we had a state, this would not have happened.’ This year, there is embarrassment around such a message.”

Both teachers struggled with the question of which images from the Holocaust to show students and which not to show. “I trust the students to be smart enough to separate events from history and now, and on the other hand to relate where it is necessary to relate,” Bocian said.

Baslo said that showing students graphic photos can sometimes be agitating and distract from the lesson. He noted, though, that that dynamic existed even before Oct. 7. “The emotional reactions to the photos are there every year,” he said. “I didn’t feel anything different.”

Baslo’s students took the matriculation exam in history this month, facing the test with “the highest level of readiness.”

Bocian’s students are preparing a project within an alternative program of the Ministry of Education that allows students to receive a high school diploma and matriculation certificate without taking the regular standardized tests. Instead, students prepare projects that are graded by the school according to Ministry of Education criteria.

“The students chose different people from the war, such as the Righteous among the Nations [non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust], rebels in the ghettos, etc., and learned about their lives with an emphasis on their moral dilemmas before, during, and after the war,” Bocian said. “Then they presented in front of their classmates, and on Holocaust Remembrance Day itself they will conduct workshops on their chosen historical figures for grades 9 and 10.”

Focusing on moral dilemmas refined the connection to the students’ lives, Bocian said.

“First of all, the students themselves chose the figure they were interested in learning and presenting about,” she explained. “By allowing them to choose the figure, it is possible to understand which dilemmas are more interesting to the student: are they interested in dilemmas around empathy and a real act to protect minorities, such as with the Righteous among the Nations? Or are they more interested in dilemmas around leadership during a crisis, such as the rebels in the ghettos? Each of these choices reflects the student’s moral engagement in our society today, which is also at war.”

Moral dilemmas such as enlisting in the Israeli military also arose among Baslo’s students following the study of the Holocaust. “Thinking more deeply about this question makes sense, since they are going to enlist in another two years,” he said. “I think that, more so than in other years, the motivation for significant service, especially combat, has increased, and I see the connection to Oct. 7 and studying the Holocaust.”

Traditionally, studying the Holocaust in Israeli high schools also includes a trip to Poland. In the past few years, have been canceled outright or attended by very few students, for a variety of reasons: travel restrictions during the pandemic, disputes between Israel and Poland around the curriculum, sanctions from the teachers’ union as part of a salary dispute, and now, the ongoing war.

In March, the Ministry of Education announced the trips to Poland for young Israelis would resume this summer. Bocian, who has been guiding trips to Poland for 15 years, wondered if this is the right move. She noted that students who had been evacuated from their homes as a result of the war would presumably not take part in the trips.

“So students from Sderot won’t travel and students from Haifa will? It’s already a trip that suffers from sectionalism, and this would add another division,” she said. “The difficulty is greater in light of the fact that there have been no trips for four years.”

Baslo supports the return of the trips. “I see importance in the journeys to the extermination camps and ghettos in Europe, and there is no doubt that, only when you walk in those places where the Holocaust took place, do you feel and understand the weight of history,” he said.

Bocian has alternatives in mind for the trip to Poland. “I am aware that the students are very much looking forward to seeing things there. On the other hand, I cannot ignore what happened and is happening here, and maybe it is right to have a journey here in Israel as it is now,” she said. “To see and meet our society, to volunteer where necessary, to deal with the big questions of our society and to know various stories from Oct. 7 and the reality of people since then. It may be that these days it is more important than the trip to Poland itself.”

For Bocian, the main importance in studying the Holocaust this year was refining the moral lessons, which are also relevant to wartime. “I’m glad we didn’t give up and learned about the Holocaust and World War II. It deepened our learning about ourselves as human beings, as a nation, and as a society,” she said. “Learning refined the importance of being empathetic to others, that our choices and our ability to take responsibility have great significance in shaping reality.”

Baslo sees the study of the Holocaust this year as an opportunity to deepen the broad context of the events of the war. “When I served in the IDF, I studied the history of the Middle East in order to understand the environment in which we live,” he said. “But another layer to this understanding is to know the essential connection between what happened over there in Europe, and life here in Israel.”

Bocian brought up the plight of Alex Dancyg, 76, a historian who trained hundreds of tour guides for the journey to Poland. Dancyg was kidnapped from Kibbutz Nir Oz on Oct. 7 and is still held in Gaza.

“It’s impossible not to mention Alex,” Bocian said. “Alex is the son of Holocaust survivors and has been leading the issue of trips to Poland and the legacy of memory for many years. I hope that by the time the article is published all the abductees will be released. This is our highest human duty to them.”

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