Devil is in the Details of “Holocaust Education”

As a general principle “education” about racism and the horrors a vile ideology has inflicted upon the world is a good thing and should be encouraged. But as is the case with many things the devil is in details. This is especially true of history.

For example, over many decades children were taught that Scottish Highlanders fleeing clearance by evil landlords and poor Irish fleeing famine found refuge and a new home in Canada. While this history is accurate as far as it goes, teaching it in a way that presents the Scots and Irish as victims but not the First Nations whose land was stolen and given to Europeans enabled colonialism and racism.

History, as any good historian will tell you, is not just about the past. It is often written, taught and distributed for purposes that have more to do with today than yesterday.

Which brings us to “Holocaust education”.

Recently a guest speaker through the English Montreal School Board (EMSB) Holocaust Education Program told Westmount high school students that people say “Israel is a terrible country, [that] they’re abusing the Palestinians – which is a bunch of crap. I lived in Israel. Trust me they’re doing everything but abusing the Palestinians.” CBC Montréal reported on a parent who complained about prominent Nazi hunter Steven Rambam’s remark and, to the journalists’ credit, the news report mentioned Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International’s finding that Israel is committing the crime of apartheid.

The Holocaust educator’s claim is about as coherent as someone saying Hitler had no problem with Jews and more socially damaging since it enables an ongoing injustice rather than denying a historic crime.

The EMSB guest educator crassly denying Palestinian dispossession is an extreme example of what Norman Finkelstein detailed in The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering. Recently Finkelstein joined my Canadian Foreign Policy Hour to discuss how the Nazi’s destruction of European Jewry is used as an ideological cover for Israeli crimes. He linked the rise of the Holocaust industry to the geopolitical service Israel provided Washington when it destroyed pan-Arabism in 1967 and cited the promotion of “uniqueness doctrine” of Jewish suffering as offering Israel cover to violate all manner of international norms. The most obvious current manifestation of the Holocaust industry, noted Finkelstein, is the apartheid lobby’s campaign to convince every educational institution and level of government to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s anti-Palestinian definition of antisemitism.

In response to the anti-Palestinian hate spewed at Westmount high school Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) sent a letter to the EMSB criticizing “the false and harmful remarks”. In an otherwise important initiative, CJPME head Tom Woodley added that “my organization and I heartily encourage Holocaust education in our public schools.” He did not specify what kind of Holocaust education.

But the EMSB’s holocaust education program was set up in conjunction with the Azrieli Foundation. Worth more than $3 billion prior to his death, David Azrieli served in the paramilitary Haganah group during the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948. His unit was responsible for the Battle of Jerusalem, including forcibly displacing 10,000 Palestinians.  A Montrealer who also owned property in Israel, Azrieli paid for an amphitheatre to be built in the occupied Golan Heights to commemorate his Haganah brigade and made a controversial donation to Im Tirtzu, which an Israeli court deemed a “fascist” group. In 2011 Azrieli gave Concordia University $5 million to establish the first minor in Israel Studies at a Canadian university. After attending an Association for Israel Studies’ conference organized by the Azrieli Institute, prominent anti-Palestinian activist Gerald Steinberg described the institute as part of a “counterattack” against pro-Palestinian activism at Concordia.

A major funder of Holocaust education, the Azrieli Foundation recently gave $15 million to build a large new centrally located Holocaust Museum in Montréal. The Project Montréal led city government allocated $1.5 million to the initiative and Project Montréal City Councillor, Alex Norris, a self-declared supporter of the Palestinian cause, applauded the museum’s expansion. But when the social democratic Project Montréal refused to endorse the IHRA’s anti-Palestinian definition of antisemitism in 2020 the museum released a statement criticizing the party headlined “The Montreal Holocaust Museum regretfully notes the Montreal Mayor’s refusal to support the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.” Its statement says the Montreal Holocaust Museum “is proud to have taken part in the Canadian delegation” that helped develop the IHRA definition.

In a similar dynamic I recently wrote about the pro-Palestinian Canadian Dimension finding itself on the same side as Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, B’nai B’rith and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) in defending Ottawa’s National Holocaust Monument against an op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen. In Canada’s preeminent left-wing publication Jeremy Appel angrily defended a Holocaust monument instigated by anti-Palestinian Conservative MP Tim Uppal. But when the National Holocaust Monument was debated in Parliament multiple MPs connected the planned monument to Israel and after it was unveiled in 2017, Amira Hass noted the monument would be used against Palestinians. In criticizing the monument, the Ha’aretz columnist highlighted Ottawa’s preference to memorialize the Nazi’s bid to exterminate European Jewry over Canada’s genocide, writing that “out of the 30 official monuments in Ottawa, there is only one devoted to First Nations, and even that one commemorates only the war veterans among them.”

The situation is similar in Montréal. There is a major museum devoted to Nazi crimes, but no museum or monument focused on Canada’s dispossession of First Nations. The $90 million — nearly half is provincial and federal funding – expansion of the Montréal Holocaust Museum should also be looked at through another lens. Even though there are more Haitians than Jews in Montréal there’s no monument, museum or official “day” devoted to the horrors suffered by that community. Somewhere between 10-20% of enslaved Africans died crossing the Atlantic and within a decade nearly half of those who survived the horrible journey died working on Saint Domingue’s barbaric plantations. During the 1791-1804 Haitian Revolution half the population was killed (Haitians then spent 122 years financially compensating their French torturers with the final payment made to a US bank in 1947).

Few Canadians know about the Haitian tragedy, yet most know 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis. Additionally, Haitians and its émigré communities in the Dominican Republic, across the Caribbean and North America continue to be disenfranchised while Jews in North America have above average incomes and Israel’s GDP per capita is equivalent to Canada’s.

This is not to say Holocaust education is not important. The Nazis’ bid to destroy European Jewry should, of course, be studied and taught. But knowledge production and dissemination is not apolitical and the devil is definitely in details.

Speaking to how ideas can be used Noam Chomsky, noted: “Honest people are just going to have to face the fact that whenever possible, people with power are going to exploit any actions which serve their violent ends. So when American dissidents criticize the atrocities of some enemy state like Cuba or Vietnam or something, it’s no secret what the effects of that criticism are going to be… I mean, if a Russian intellectual had started publishing articles denouncing very real atrocities committed by the Afghan resistance forces at the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, knowing that his accurate criticism would have helped enable the Kremlin to mobilize popular support for further atrocities by the Red Army, I do not think that would have been a morally responsible thing for that person to do. Of course, this often creates difficult dilemmas. But again, honest people have to recognize that they are responsible for the predictable consequences of their acts. So perfectly accurate criticism of the regime in Cuba, say, will predictably be used by ideologists and politicians in the United States to help extend our absolutely barbaric stranglehold on Cuba. Your criticism could be perfectly correct… But even so, an honest person will always ask, ‘What are the likely consequences of this going to be for other people?’”

Israel nationalists have weaponized the term antisemitism to attack anyone who defends Palestinians. They promote the IHRA definition to define supporters of Palestine as antisemites. These sorts of accusations were used to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the British Labour Party. Institutional supporters of Israel and promoters of Holocaust education attack the left by using accusation of antisemitism.

How should the left and Palestinian supporters defend themselves in those circumstance? Pretend Holocaust education is neutral and has nothing to do with supporting Israel no matter what horrors the “Jewish Power” party is about to inflict on Palestinians?

Seems to me, at a minimum, there’s no need for pro-Palestinian groups to “heartily encourage” Holocaust education, which is wrapped up in Israel lobby campaigning. Seems to me, at a minimum, questions about the detail of Holocaust education need to be asked.

Yves Engler is the author of 12 books. His latest book is Stand on Guard for Whom?: A People's History of the Canadian Military . Read other articles by Yves.