In this week’s cover story, inspired by today’s commemoration of Yom Hashoa, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Johanna Ginsberg asks a provocative and perhaps unanswerable question: Should the Holocaust be taught as a unique — and uniquely Jewish — atrocity in human history? Or should the curricula of “genocide studies” be universalized to include other tragedies and crafted to impart lessons in tolerance and moral courage?
The case for broadening the scope of Holocaust studies is made by university centers that have in recent years changed their names and missions to focus on genocides including but not limited to the Nazi war on Jews. They insist that they will be able to interest more people in the topic if they include in their purview the slaughter of millions in Rwanda, Armenia, and Cambodia. As a prominent state Holocaust educator tells us, “We know if we just teach the Holocaust in isolation, we will get fewer and fewer people. But if we open it up and talk about genocide more generally, with the Holocaust as an example, we can get many more people interested.”
Elementary and secondary school educators also worry that were they to focus narrowly on a now 70-year-old genocide, students will lose an opportunity to relate it to themes of prejudice and conformity in their own lives. It is cruel, some say, to ask young people to face the abyss without giving them a message of hope.
On the other side are those who insist that the historical record will suffer if the Nazis’ unique campaign of annihilation is not understood in its proper context. Any dilution of the scope and scale of the Shoa, they say, only plays into the hands of deniers who plot to erase its very memory, or obscure its historicity for political purposes.
Survivors are found on both sides of the debate, as are scholars and educators of impeccable reputation and motivation. As Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg once said in a discussion about balancing the tensions of Holocaust education, “If you pursue the universal too much, you end up denying the dimension of demonic specificity against the Jews. Taken to the other extreme, it becomes so self-contained you can’t learn anything from it.”
Perhaps the only resolution lies in our ability to live, and teach, in the space between the two sides.