Antisemitism in Schools

*This was given as Keynote Speech at the 2nd Meeting of the Working Group on the Implementation of the Council Declaration on the Fight against Antisemitism European Commission to the Working Group on Antisemitism & European Jewish Congress December 2019, Brussels.*

Antisemitism is not just one form of discrimination among others. It is not just one of many kinds of prejudice. It often occurs together with other forms of discrimination, yet as a combination of ideology and passion, it is fundamentally different from them. And in the context of schools, this is perhaps the most important thing to know about it.

Antisemitism can be associated with other forms of discrimination, such as racism, sexism, or homophobia. But it fundamentally differs from them because it is a combination of ideology and passion. It is used to make sense of everything that does not make sense, or does not want to make sense, in politics and society. Antisemitism makes a claim to exclusively explain the world, cognitively and emotionally: as a worldview, it offers an all-encompassing system of resentments and conspiracy theories whose concrete articulation has changed over time and continues to change. These are always directed against Jews, since antisemitism is based on projections and, as Theodor W. Adorno put it, “rumors about the Jews.”[1] That is also why the actual behavior of Jews has no influence on the antisemitic world view, since this world view constructs itself specifically around the emotional needs of antisemites: antisemites believe in their antisemitic world view, not in spite of the fact that it is false, but because it is false—because it is meant to create emotional added value for those who believe in it. We must understand antisemitism as a specific way of thinking and feeling.

The specific moment that antisemitic attitudes translate into action depends strongly on each individual: specifically, on how strongly or weakly their passionately held world view is integrated into structures that are supportive or critical of their own beliefs. In this respect, it is also crucial that antisemitism in schools always be clearly, consistently, and unmistakably contradicted in order to prevent words from becoming deeds. Over the course of history, antisemitic resentments have been articulated in various forms: in particular, as religiously anti-Jewish, as ethnically or nationally racist (the German term would be völkisch), as secondary and defensive, as anti-Zionist and anti-Israeli, or as motivated by Arabic-Islamic beliefs. The fact that antisemitism has emerged in different forms, in different historical contexts, and that all of these forms continue to have an effect to the present day is not taken into account often enough in the context of schools.

In my opinion, the successful prevention of antisemitism in the context of education must be based on the insight that antisemitism is not simply a prejudice, as is sometimes believed outside the scholarly community, but a world view bound up with passions that differs fundamentally from other forms of discrimination.

With this in mind, I would like to highlight three central aspects for dealing with antisemitism in the context of schools on which we should focus our work: first, the issue of Antisemitic discrimination in everyday life; second, the issue of textbooks; and third, the issue of teacher training.

Issue 1: Antisemitic Discrimination in Everyday Life.

When antisemitic incidents occur in schools, teachers often feel helpless. Unfortunately, in the context of education, there is a lack of awareness about the necessity of reflecting on both the limits and possibilities of pedagogy in schools. Antisemitic incidents can sometimes be solved by pedagogical measures, but often this is not enough. There is a need to combine prevention, intervention, and suppression. Moreover, we can observe problematic tendencies in the field of pedagogy that emphasize students being guided by competences rather than learning facts. This allows antisemitism to be tolerated based on a falsely conceived acceptance of multiple perspectives, for example, from a Muslim context. All kinds of antisemitism in schools must be rejected as false regardless of the political, social, or religious context of the persons who express it. Pedagogical approaches, too, must reflect the fact that it is possible to disagree on many questions. But some opinions—and antisemitism is one of them—are objectively false and beyond all debate because they are based on untruths. When antisemitic incidents occur in schools, there is an urgent need for a mandatory and binding reporting system for incidents.

Issue 2: The Importance of Textbooks

Issue 2 is the most important for me: textbooks. The crux of the problem lies in textbooks that are often severely abridged and, in the case of Israel, drastically and one-sidedly pro- Palestinian. This has been shown to be the case, at least in Germany, by several extensive studies. Ideally, however, we need European-wide comparative studies.[2]

Textbooks are the crucial carriers of authority in school pedagogy: regardless of how competent or incompetent a teacher is, students look to textbooks as the primary source of authority. And the main reason why is that grades in schools depend on textbooks. Whether we are talking about class tests, lectures, or a school leaving examination: students are primarily expected to reproduce what is printed in textbooks. As international comparative studies show, this source has a much higher normative relevance from the students’ perspective than does the knowledge conveyed by teachers or even literature from outside the school.

Previous empirical studies of textbooks have found fundamental shortcomings in three areas, in particular: the treatment of antisemitism, the portrayal of Judaism, and the treatment of Israel.[3]

Allow me to first turn to the question of whether, and in what way, antisemitism is actively addressed at all in textbooks. This refers, in particular, to the aspect of the Shoah and to a related double problem. Or to put it more concretely: in many textbooks the Shoah is not portrayed as the central moment of National Socialism but as just one aspects of this history alongside others (such as the Nazi seizure of power, warfare, etc.). This conceals the fact that the ideological goal of National Socialism was the annihilation of the Jews, and that all other

Nazi aims were subordinate to this goal. At the same time, however, antisemitism is also externalized in textbooks through its historical connection with National Socialism: since these books present antisemitism as belonging to National Socialism, antisemitism appears to lack not only a prehistory but also any post history after the Nazis. Antisemitism as a worldview is indeed the central element of National Socialism; but it is also a key ideology in other political contexts. And when we reduce antisemitism to an ideology of National Socialism, we also externalize it, reflecting a double misperception. On the one hand, this is a misperception that paradoxically results from the entirely correct realization that antisemitism formed the core of National Socialism. But if antisemitism is addressed in textbooks only in light of National Socialism and not in other contexts, then textbooks make it seem that antisemitism exists only as part of the political right wing. But this conceals the fact that antisemitism can also be found in the political left wing and in the center of society, or that there is Islamic antisemitism. On the other hand, antisemitism thereby also seems to be a construct that “suddenly” appeared in history (that is, with National Socialism) and then just as “suddenly” disappeared. And this viewpoint ignores both the pre- and post- history of antisemitism. It ignores the many manifestations of antisemitism before and after National Socialism, which continue up to the present day.

The second question, after that of how to deal with antisemitism, concerns properly representing Judaism in textbooks.

Antisemitism is without doubt a problem that lies with antisemites. It cannot be explained in terms of the history and culture of Judaism, but only as originating in the projections of antisemites themselves. Nevertheless, in order to comprehensively prevent antisemitism, it is absolutely essential that we present the history, culture, and religion of Judaism as an unquestionable part of European history and individual national histories, and of the present day. Particularly for age groups in which antisemitism has not yet solidified into a world view, but perhaps remains completely unknown as a way of thinking, it is possible to immunize knowledge against antisemitic resentments even before students come into contact with them.

And finally, the issue of how Israel is discussed is also crucial here, because contemporary antisemitism is primarily directed against Israel. The portrayal of Israel in textbooks is important in this regard. Yet the country is often presented exclusively as a party to conflict while, at the same time, there is one-sided sympathy for the Palestinians within the constellation of conflicts in the Middle East. For example, maps are wrongly labeled or captioned in geography textbooks; military reactions to Palestinian terrorism are presented as equally problematic or even more problematic than terrorism itself; and knowledge about the long history of Arab antisemitism, including Arab antisemitism that aims to eradicate Jews, is completely ignored. Knowledge about Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East, as a pluralistic society, as a society of immigrants, or in its relevance for many key technologies is largely absent.

It is without doubt important that antisemitism represented the core ideology of National Socialism. But antisemitism existed and continues to exist, before and after the Nazis, across the entire political spectrum. We must therefore not refuse to engage with the entire phenomenon of antisemitism by exclusively reducing it to National Socialism.

Discussing antisemitism in schools as the core of National Socialism (which is entirely correct) while also ignoring its other aspects (which is entirely incorrect) produces a paradoxical kind of emotional relief. Emotionally, it is easier to ignore the history of antisemitism before and after the Nazis, or to ignore its Christian and Islamic elements, or attempts to deflect responsibility for National Socialism and the Shoah, or antisemitic hatred of Israel as consequences of Nazi antisemitism.

In this respect, it is important for school pedagogy in general to emphasize that discussing Nazi history and antisemitism, as well as the Shoah, are indispensable elements of school curriculum. At the same time, however, merely discussing these topics in schools is not enough for students to develop an understanding of the entire phenomenon of antisemitism, which means it is also not enough for developing school-based prevention strategies. In short: we urgently need textbooks that are up to date when it comes to information about antisemitism, Israel, and Judaism. As a first step, a special textbook on antisemitism might serve as an instruction topic across several subjects by summarizing information and material on antisemitism and making it usable for different types of schools and age groups.

Issue 3: Teacher Training

Finally, issue 3, teacher training: Teachers are always as good or as bad as their education. The quality and professionalism of school education fundamentally depends on the theoretical and practical training, at universities, of those who are studying to be teachers. Unfortunately, I can only speak about Germany here with empirical certainty, but I fear that the situation in other European countries is not really different. Let us look at the school subjects central to this topic. For history and political science, the situation is extremely challenging. In a Germany-wide comparison, one study by the FU Berlin recently showed that it is possible to become a history teacher without having to deal with National Socialism or the Shoah as part of one’s studies.[4] In political science, topics such as right-wing extremism or antisemitism are only selectively anchored in the study regulations for teachers; and no university in Germany focuses on higher education in this area. This is reflected by the number of professorships in Germany in political science that are dedicated to research on right-wing extremism or antisemitism: not even one. There is not a single chair in political science for research into right-wing extremism or antisemitism.

Given this fact, two levers of change must be employed at universities. First, study regulations must be changed. And second, new topics must be included as mandatory parts of the curriculum for all those who are studying to be teachers. In addition to the topics of the Shoah, the history of antisemitism, and National Socialism, teacher training must include antisemitism, Judaism, and Israel. And third, it is necessary to create professorships to teach these topics at universities, especially in the field of political science—because it is precisely through integrative education in the subject of politics that the central competences for other school subjects are established.

Professor Samuel Salzborn is a Senior Fellow at CARR and an Adjunct Professor of Political Science, University Giessen. See his profile here.

© Samuel Salzborn. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

[1] Adorno, Theodor W. 1951: Minima Moralia. Reflexionen aus dem beschädigten Leben, in: Gesammelte Schriften Vol.. 4, Frankfurt 1997, p. 125.

[2] See for an overview: https://www.tu-berlin.de/fileadmin/i65/Dokumente/Antisemitismus-Schule.pdf

[3] See: http://www.gei.de/publikationen/eckert-expertise/ee-einzelband/news/detail/News/deutsch-israelische-schulbuchkommission-deutsch-israelische-schulbuchempfehlungen.html.

[4] See: https://refubium.fuberlin.de/bitstream/handle/fub188/22444/Naegel_Kahle_University_teaching_about_the_Holocaust_in_Germany.pdf?sequence=7&isAllowed=y.