Addressing anti-Semitism in classroom contexts

The 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings has just been marked. The landings eventually led to the liberation of Europe from occupation by Nazi Germany, including the “concentration camps” in which Jewish and other groups of people were systematically killed in pursuit of an ideology of Aryan racial purity. In this blog, Professor Paul Weller, research cluster lead on Culture, Religion and Belief at the University of Derby, discusses classroom challenges for teaching and addressing anti-Semitism today.

In the UK, since 2001, the Holocaust Memorial Day, which is held on the 27 January anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, has officially marked remembrance of those who suffered in The Holocaust, under Nazi persecution, as well as in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur.

Official memorial events, such as those above, do a lot to help maintain in the public consciousness the memory of what happened in Europe when a culturally and historically deeply rooted anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism was translated into the political ideology of a modern state and pursued with machine-like ruthlessness. But there is less general public consciousness concerning the continued presence and significance of anti-Semitism at all levels and across all institutions in society, although from time to time, concerns about this surface and become focused in the media.

Thus in September of last year, for the first time in its history, partly in relation to concerns about the use of anti-Semitic tropes in the rhetoric of the Vikto Orban’s governing party in Hungary, the European Parliament voted on whether to trigger an article 7 procedure against the Hungarian government. If passed, that could have led to the country being stripped of voting rights on the basis of a charge that it posed a “systematic threat” to democracy and the rule of law.

In the UK, the Labour Party is currently undergoing a formal investigation under section 20 of the Equality Act 2006 by the Equality and Human Rights Commission to seek to determine whether, in relation to anti-Semitism, unlawful acts have been committed by the party and/or its employees and/or its agents; and whether the Party has responded to complaints of unlawful acts in a lawful, efficient and effective manner.

Challenges within education

Universities also face challenges, and in May the UK Universities Minister Chris Skidmore sent a letter to all higher education institutions calling on them to be more proactive in tackling anti-Semitism. This challenge is important but, as with other matters, what happens or does not happen in schools also has an impact on wider society. But until recently there has been relatively little published research on anti-Semitism among young people as such, and even less that has specifically focused on teaching about anti-Semitism and/or addressing it in classroom contexts.

However, in May, the research report by myself and my University of Derby colleague, Dr I. Foster, on Classroom Challenges for Teaching About and Addressing Anti-Semitism in the OSCE Region was published. The report makes clear that, while the incidence, frequency and forms of anti-Semitism may vary over time, it remains a reality in Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) participating States.

The report provides background information about the history of anti-Semitism and statistics on reported anti-Semitic incidents in each of the countries directly studied – which includes Belgium, Germany, Greece, Moldova, Poland and the United States of America. The University of Derby team itself conducted the research in Germany, Greece and the USA, having been commissioned in 2016 by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to take forward this work as part of ODIHR’s overall programme on Turning Words into Action to Address Anti-Semitism.

The report draws on primary research data collected between December 2016 and May 2018 from focus groups, interviews, questionnaires, observations, as well as desk research based on published literature. It makes a contribution to identifying and tackling anti-Semitism through providing a pattern of evidence for understanding anti-Semitism as it currently exists in a number of OSCE countries. It also identifies the key challenges that are involved in teaching about and addressing anti-Semitism in classroom contexts across the OSCE region as a whole.

Finally, the report provides recommendations regarding resources that could be developed for teachers to help them to address anti-Semitism, as follows:

Challenge identifiedRecommendation
Coming to terms with the specificities and varieties of Jewish identityThe teacher resources should promote an understanding of the diversity of contemporary Jewish identities and also critical engagement with varying definitions of anti-Semitism and propose measures to counteract anti-Semitism within the context of the diversity of Jewish identities.
Treating classrooms as an extension of the wider community with its specific challenges/opportunitiesThe teacher resources should include materials and guidelines for approaches that support classroom-focused teachers and their considerations of how both to teach about and address anti-Semitism in the classroom while also taking account of the interaction between the classroom and external environments.
Ensuring that students are aware of abuses of the Internet and social mediaThe teacher resources should assist teachers in developing the research, analytical and reflective skills necessary to help students recognize biased, false and inaccurate information while using the Internet as a helpful source of information on Jews and anti-Semitism, and to empower young people/students to deal with anti-Semitic targeting on social media.
Ensuring alignment along the axis of education about anti-Semitism and education to address anti-Semitism The teacher resources should support teacher reflexivity in relation to the sometimes tense relationship between their professional obligations to communicate and develop objective learning among their students, on the one hand, but to instil human rights values, on the other.
Differentiating between manifestations of anti-Semitism, while identifying potential linkages between themThe teacher resources should provide material that helps in both distinguishing and showing the potential connections between more casual, settled and fully developed anti-Semitic ways of thinking, speaking and acting.
Establishing and understanding the connections between the Holocaust and contemporary anti-SemitismThe teacher resources should include some guidance on how teachers can prepare young people to understand the continuity between verified historical forms of anti-Semitism and evidence of the nature and extent of modern anti-Semitism.
Understanding relationships and differences between the Holocaust and other forms of hatred, other genocides and other national traumasThe teacher resources need to equip teachers to be able to develop among their students a balanced and empathetic understanding of the elements of commonality and difference in both the content and the dynamics involved in anti-Semitism and other forms of injustice and hatred, and the Holocaust and other genocides or national suffering.
Uncovering and acknowledging hidden historiesThe teacher resources should identify examples of where this has been done and how it can be managed in ways that disrupt the perpetuation of such hidden histories, while supporting students in the process of asking questions that can be disturbing in the context of family, community, social or national inheritance, but which are required for proper critical assessment.
Discussing issues related to the Israel-Palestine conflictThe teacher resources need to empower teachers to feel that they are ready to attempt to deal with the difficult issues arising from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which will also likely have an impact on how teaching about, and engaging with, anti-Semitism can be pedagogically addressed in classroom environments throughout the OSCE region.
Extending teacher knowledge and the use of existing curricula and associated teaching materialsThe teacher resources should inform teachers about how to be better aware of, to access and to appropriately deploy existing curricula and related resources from multiple country contexts and languages into those aspects of their classroom environments within which they can bring direct pedagogical influence and interventions to bear in addressing anti-Semitism.
Supporting greater teacher professional/personal confidence, critical self-awareness and skillsThe teacher resources should provide both tools and evaluative indicators by which teachers can recognize, review and address their own professional, cultural and personal awareness, competencies, biases and needs in relation to anti-Semitism and addressing it pedagogically.

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