Using Holocaust Education to Develop Tolerance, Empathy in Schools

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Written by: Ariel Behrman
Sept. 10, 2021
This guest post comes from Ariel Behrman, director of ADL’s flagship Holocaust education program, Echoes and Reflections. Views expressed in guest posts are those of the author.

Holocaust survivor, author and activist Elie Wiesel is quoted saying, “Once I thought that antisemitism had ended; Today it is clear to me that it will probably never end.” Antisemitism has a 2,000-year history and did not begin or end with the Holocaust. Today, nearly 76 years after the end of World War II, antisemitism and hate continue to persist in communities across the country and around the world.  

In its 2019 annual audit of antisemitic incidents, ADL counted 2,107 antisemitic incidents in the United States. (You can find its 2020 audit here.) More than 400 of the incidents reported in the audit took place at non-Jewish K-12 schools. Through increased access to technology and the exposure to the proliferation of misinformation on social media platforms, young people today are exposed to antisemitic images and rhetoric, as well as hate-fueled violence toward many different cultures, religions and identities. Although the Holocaust was a unique historical event, the lessons from its history can be used as a vehicle to not only support students to address and counter antisemitism, but also other forms of hate.  

ADL has been using education as a tool to respond to antisemitism for more than 100 years. Today, ADL believes that Holocaust and genocide education has become more important than ever. Understanding the lessons of the Holocaust and the moral and humanitarian issues with genocide are an important part of any middle and high school curriculum because it empowers young people to understand the history of the Holocaust and apply those lessons to their schools and communities. 

At Echoes and Reflections (ADL’s national Holocaust education program developed in partnership with USC Shoah Foundation and Yad Vashem), teachers and their students use the lessons of the Holocaust to create meaningful action in their own schools and communities. The results of this survey showed that the positive outcomes of Holocaust education do not only reflect gains in historical knowledge but also manifest in cultivating more empathetic, tolerant and engaged students.  

Students who learned about the Holocaust in high school understood the value of Holocaust education and were more likely to agree that people should learn about the Holocaust to recognize the dangers of antisemitism and stop something similar from happening again.  

Additionally, students with Holocaust education had more diverse attitudes and were more open to different viewpoints. The results from this group showed that they were more willing to challenge incorrect or biased information and stand up to negative stereotyping.  

In his testimony clip in Echoes and Reflections, Holocaust survivor Henry Oertelt reflects on personal responsibility, sharing “I am the prime example of what can happen to people that are suffering under prejudicial circumstances and biases, and when nobody speaks up. We have to learn to speak up when we see prejudice and hatred.” Holocaust education has proven its value as a tool to help young people create meaningful change in their schools and communities.  

Policymakers play an important role in curriculum decisions like these. For examples of how state policymakers are approaching this issue, see this earlier blog post from Education Commission of the States.  

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Ariel Behrman

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