Thursday, December 2, 2010

Teaching antisemitism

The topic of antisemitism is always a tricky one in the classroom. When approaching the topic, I always wrestle with what is the best way to approach this subject matter and how much emphasis to put on the topic. We teach to different demographics which might need different approaches. My students are suburban and there are very few Jewish students in our high school. Because of this, I struggle with the fact that I might be introducing prejudices and stereotypes to them in which they weren’t previously exposed. At the same time, intolerance seems to breed in areas that lack diversity. But after teaching Holocaust history to my students for fifteen years, it is apparent that they need the historical context. Many students come to my class thinking that Hitler introduced antisemitism to Germany. In studying the history, they quickly realize that antisemitism existed WELL before his time and was only manipulated for the Nazi agenda.

My Holocaust unit (2 weeks total for a World History class) always starts off with the topic of antisemitism. The goal or objective is that using the information and resources provided, students analyze the progression of antisemitism and how it was manipulated for Nazi policy. I lecture over European antisemitism, covering the three stages- religious, secular, and racial. This allows students to see that there is a long legacy of antisemitism in Europe.

After the background knowledge is established, I show a video clip from the movie “Europa, Europa” which illustrates the racial antisemitism that had developed by the Nazi era and was seen as “scientific”. (Chapter 13 - time code 1 hour, 5 minutes, 48 seconds) This scene takes place in a Hitler Youth boarding school class and the teacher is “educating” the students about how to spot a Jew. The main character is a Jewish teen hiding out in this Hitler Youth boarding school. This is a powerful clip and takes no more than five minutes and proves the bogus nature of the Nazi pseudoscience.

Once the history of antisemitism is learned, it is important for student so see how the Nazis took these ideals and developed an increasingly persecutory society while implementing their policies. Students first read through a packet of events, with a small group. Without the dates provided, they try to determine the progression of events using their critical thinking skills- how one event might lead to the next. After they have this complete, we go through the correct timeline and discuss as a class the correct timeline and how one event led to the next.

Addressing this complex history allows me to address one of the important USHMM guidelines for teaching Holocaust history- “Avoid simple answers to complex questions”. If given more time to teach this extensive history, I would provide more examples but with a tight schedule these activities and topics engage the students and provide a context for the events of the Holocaust.

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