Report on the State of Holocaust Studies in Research Universities and Colleges in Israel
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Report on the State of Holocaust Studies in Research Universities and Colleges in Israel

Approved by the Council of the Israel Academy on December 10, 2019
Published 2020

(Click here to download the report in Hebrew)


The Report on the State of Holocaust Studies in Research Universities and Colleges in Israel, published in 2020, summarizes the work of the Committee to Assess the Field of Holocaust Studies in Israel established by the Council of the Israel Academy, which commenced its work in 2017.

The committee’s members were: Academy Member Prof. Israel Bartal (Chair), Academy Member Prof. Shlomo Avineri, Academy Member Prof. Yehuda Bauer, Prof. Havi Ben-Sasson Dreifuss of Tel Aviv University, Academy Member Prof. Shulamit Volkov, and Prof. Dina Porat of Tel Aviv University. 

  1. A review of the field of Holocaust studies and instruction shows this to be a major subject in Israel’s academic institutions, featuring directly and indirectly in various frameworks and areas of activity. This broad range of activities and topics of study pointed to the need for a clear definition of the field and a mapping of the areas it includes. The Holocaust was an unprecedented event in which Nazi Germany and its collaborators tried to destroy the Jewish people and wipe out its intellectual and spiritual legacy and world of values. These actions stemmed from the anti-Semitic Nazi ideology, which viewed the Jews as an existential danger to Germany and a visceral threat to Europe and to all of humanity, but they were also rooted in European history and in the realities of nation-states in the twentieth century.

    The committee mapped activities in this field in Israel’s research and instructional institutions on the basis of information collected on three levels:

    A. Holocaust research – the study of the persecution and murder of Jews by Nazi Germany and its collaborators in the years 1933-1945, and the intensive effort in those years to annihilate Jewish intellectual and spiritual assets and obliterate the influences of Jewish culture from the surrounding societies.

    B. The historical and ideological contexts that must be known and understood for the sake of engaging in Holocaust research: Nazism, racism, anti-Semitism, Europe in the twentieth century, World War II, genocides, and relevant pre- and post-Holocaust events.

    C. Shaping the memory of the Holocaust – commemorative and educational activities pertaining to the retrospective molding of the events of the Holocaust, and study of the representation of the events, contexts and commemorations of the Holocaust in the media and in various other areas. 
  1. Some of the material submitted to the committee reflects a fundamental disagreement in the Israel research community – between those who see the Holocaust as a unique and unprecedented event that should be studied as a separate field, and those who argue for incorporating into the broader field of genocide studies. The committee studied the question of how (if at all) Holocaust research and instruction reflect the scholarly conflicts over emphasizing the subject’s Zionist-national or its universal-general aspects, and between the claim that the Holocaust was unprecedented and its portrayal as one of a series of genocides. A mapping of courses conducted in 2018 in Israel does not provide an unequivocal answer to how these disagreements among researchers are reflected in academic instruction, the committee concluded. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem ostensibly aspires to teach about the Holocaust in the framework of genocides and mass violence, but there, too, the courses focus mainly on the Holocaust itself. In other institutions, the course offerings do no indicate any attempt to place the Holocaust in a broader context, and the overwhelming majority of courses focus on the Jewish aspects. However, it should be emphasized that course titles are not necessarily indicative of their content. It may be that the lessons are more varied and oscillate between the two perspectives. 
  1. The committee found that academia in Israel has engaged extensively in the study and teaching of the Holocaust in recent years. Nonetheless, the report notes the tendency of young researchers to focus more on questions of remembrance and commemoration than on the core subjects of Holocaust research. Likewise, there is only sporadic study of the historical contexts. Research activity at the various Holocaust research institutes, both within and outside the universities, balances this tendency somewhat. The information examined by the committee indicated that most researchers in this field – whether their focus is on remembrance or on the core subjects of the Holocaust – tend to concentrate on rather limited and conventional topics. They refrain from addressing wider questions or theoretical and methodological issues. While the research focus on Jews is understandable, other questions, such as those relating to the perpetrators or to Holocaust victims from different population groups, have been relegated to the margins. 
  1. As noted, the extensive research activity in the field is neither balanced nor deep-reaching. The committee expressed concern that this lack of balance threatens the continued existence of a vibrant academic community of high international standing. For years, Israeli academia was at the forefront of Holocaust research. However, the contribution of Israeli researchers to international academic discourse in the field has significantly diminished in recent years. The reasons for this include the general decline of the humanities in Israeli universities, the particular challenges that Holocaust research poses to Israeli students, such as learning languages, analyzing archival sources, and their lack of exposure to a multiplicity of views and of familiarity with the event’s broader contexts. The impact of a salient trend in contemporary research should also be noted – that of prioritizing study of the representation of historical events over probing “what really happened.” This trend has shaped the ways in which students acquire their research tools and prepare the methodological underpinnings for their research, resulting in the situation described in the previous paragraph, of decreasing focus on the core subject and its historical and ideological contexts, which would demand mastery of languages and study of archival documents, coupled with increasing inquiry into the various aspects of the Holocaust’s commemoration and representation. This development is contrary to research trends elsewhere in the world, which set the Holocaust and what happened in the course of it at the center. Researchers outside of Israel today focus, more than in the past, on studying Jewish life during the Holocaust period. Israeli academia has lost its leading role even in this central focus in the study of Holocaust history.

  2. The committee received information on over 250 academic courses on the Holocaust; of these, 218 courses, at 19 institutions, were relevant to the committee’s mandate. A mapping of Holocaust education by subjects indicates that 53 courses were devoted to the Holocaust itself and 40 to the historical contexts of the period, while 125 dealt with questions of commemoration and representation. Thus, the committee found that study of the core subjects received less emphasis than that of the representation of the Holocaust and its contexts. Some of the courses included in the material examined by the committee were intended for undergraduate students, some for graduate students, and some were open to all students. It is difficult to determine the extent of the continuity offered by these courses from one degree to the next within each institution (with reference to the universities, since the colleges offer only undergraduate degrees). However, it is clear that the range of subjects studied in Israeli institutions does not provide the future scholar with a comprehensive and systematic perspective on the Holocaust, nor does it give the students a broad and comprehensive picture of the field. Instruction tends to concentrate on only a few specific content-related, geographical or chronological areas. There is almost no effort to convey a coherent geographical and historical continuum relating to this period of history. In other words, there is not even one academic institution in Israel where it is possible to acquire a thorough and in-depth specialization in Holocaust studies. 
  1. Despite the extensive attention devoted to the commemoration and representations of the Holocaust, the committee did not find significant current instruction or research devoted explicitly to examining the Holocaust’s impact on Israeli society. This subject is only partly reflected in the curricula described in the material examined by the committee – for example, the Holocaust’s impact on Israeli jurisprudence. However, there is a whole bibliography of books and articles published in Israel and abroad focusing on the Holocaust’s impact on Israeli society. The committee has no explanation for the gap between its findings and the wealth of research publications on this topic. The question arises of whether Israel has scholars who are capable of teaching and mentoring research on this subject. The bibliographical material discloses the names of several sociologists, legal experts, and specialists in Holocaust-related art and music who might be called upon to help address this deficiency in the current situation, at least in part. 

  2. An effort is needed to rectify the weaknesses identified by the committee in Holocaust studies and instruction in academic institutions in Israel. We recommend implementing activities aimed at fostering scholarly research on a high level, from the point of view of both content and method, along with in-depth academic teaching in the field. These activities should include:

    A. Imparting the skills, tools and methods – disciplinary, linguistic, regional expertise, etc. – that future Holocaust researchers will need to contend with the complex challenges of the subject at the highest level; and strengthening the infrastructure required for research and instruction in fields essential to Holocaust studies.

    B. Establishing an advisory system for students planning to engage in Holocaust research, so as to offer them a structured program of specialization (including suitable courses in different departments, language training in Israel and abroad, etc.); and allocating the requisite resources.

    C. Establishing an inter-university program to enable research students to take advantage of the various strengths (in programs, methodologies and geographical specializations) of the different academic institutions; and establishing a national forum for research students (for which The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities would be an appropriate venue).

    D. Adding staff positions at the research universities that currently have none for Holocaust researchers or that have reduced the number of such positions in the past three decades.

    E. Leveraging agreements between The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities and academies around the world for exchanges of students, researchers and lecturers in the field; and mobilizing research institutes – first and foremost Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research (while maintaining its complete academic independence) – that host leading scholars from overseas, with the goal of exposing the academic community to a range of opinions and to the latest research methods.

    F. Supporting the research activity of Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research and the preservation of its complete academic and professional independence, and strengthening its scholarly collaboration with the universities.

    G. The committee expressed its hope that Israeli scholars and research institutes in Israel will take care to avoid lending a hand to tendentious historical distortions promoted by governments, governmental agencies and quasi-governmental organizations in the world that aim to diminish the direct or indirect responsibility of states or peoples for the Holocaust. 

(Click here to download the report in Hebrew)