At work, we’re in the process of reviewing applications for which students to accept into the college access program I work for. And nearly every applicant’s graded assignment they shared in their application, was in reference to the Holocaust unit in their 8th grade curriculum.
Every student had a Holocaust poem. At least ten applicants said if they could go back in time they would want to interview Hitler.
And on the one hand, it’s great. Here is a whole generation of incoming high school students who have (at the very least) a cursory understanding of one of the genocides of the 20th century. Some students were even aware that the Nazis murdered queer people, people with disabilities, the Romani, political prisoners, and others.
Learning about the Holocaust teaches compassion, empathy and a tangible way to see how oppression can lead to justifying violence. Students have the opportunity to question their role as bystanders.
But on the other hand, there are not many Jewish students at the school where I work. And I’m concerned that the only exposure to Judaism, comes from a clinical view that labels Jews as victims. If the only way students hear about Judaism is through the Holocaust then schools are erasing Judaism and Jewish students from a larger historical conversation. Jews exist in the past, in this specific box of victim status. Jews do not exist in the present.
If we are not oppressed then we have no place in the history books.
This narrative is limited and harmful and keeps Jews as Others. You can care about the genocide against us because we’re White enough to look like you, but if we are not victims we are nothing. We do not have a history beyond the Allies liberating the concentration camps and (maybe) the foundation of the State of Israel. Students do not know to question the role of Jews today.
As Passover arrives at the end of the week, it’s important to know that Jews are not yet free in many places in the world and at the same time, that we are responsible for restricting the freedom of others. We are not just perpetual victims. We are also perpetrators against Palestinians and Jews of color.
I cannot stomach another Holocaust poem, knowing this unit of history, this poem might be a student’s only engagement with Judaism.