In an unprecedented move, the government of the United Arab Emirates announced earlier this month that it will include the history of the Holocaust in its school curriculum. It is rare for countries in the Middle East to teach—or even acknowledge—that Nazi Germany killed 6 million Jews in World War II (1939-1945). Some of them even work to question this unquestionable fact, like Iran and others.
The announcement was made on the 5th by the Embassy of the Emirates in Washington. On a social network, the government placed this exceptional decision in the broad context of its recent rapprochement with Israel.
Since its founding in 1948, Israel has been the main antagonist of regimes in the region. Its creation involved wars with neighbors and the expulsion and flight of more than 700,000 Palestinians. Conflicts have raged ever since, leading to the occupation of territories such as the West Bank, the Golan Heights and the Gaza Strip.
Even though Israel signed peace treaties with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994, its authorities remain isolated. The scenario began to change in 2020, when the Emirates and Bahrain established the so-called Abraham Accords, normalizing their relations with the former rival.
Other countries, such as Morocco and Sudan, followed suit. The approach was supported by the government of then US President Donald Trump and maintained by his successor, Democrat Joe Biden.
The Emirates decision to recognize and teach the Holocaust goes beyond the symbolic gestures of diplomacy. It also seems to signal a long-term project, which begins to fight enmity at the root, dismantling a still strong denialism in childhood.
In the past, the UAE, like other nations in the region, not only ignored the Holocaust but also erased Israel from its maps. The air, however, is changing. An eloquent example is the opening of an exhibition on the Holocaust in Dubai in mid-2021.
Ahmed al-Mansouri, founder of the Crossroads of Civilizations museum, says he decided to mount the exhibition after noticing the rise of anti-Semitism in the United States and Europe. “I thought that they knew more about the Holocaust than we did and that, therefore, it would never happen again. But I began to see that I was wrong.”
Mansouri says that when he opened the show in 2021, it was initially temporary. “I woke up the next day and when I saw the impact I decided it was going to be permanent.” The exhibition tells the story of Nazism and the persecution of the Jews and also includes the Arabs and Muslims who saved some of them from extermination. Since the creation of the museum, Holocaust survivors have come to the Emirates to tell their stories.
There is no official information about how the Arab country will include the Holocaust in its curriculum, apart from the brief announcement from the embassy. It is not yet known, for example, whether the story of the genocide of Jews will only integrate official teaching or whether it will also apply to private schools. The vast majority of residents of the Emirates —around 90%— are foreigners.
According to Israeli media, the country is working with Yad Vashem (official Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem) in the development of the new curriculum and also cooperates with IMPACT-se (Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education), which It has offices in London and Tel Aviv.
The participation of institutions with Israeli ties in the curriculum reform causes discomfort in the Emirates, given that —despite the government’s gestures— opposition to Israel remains strong there. According to a poll published in July by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 71% of people in the country have a negative view of the Abraham Accords.
For Felipe Arruda, director of the Jewish Museum of São Paulo, teaching about the Holocaust is also fundamental in the Brazilian context. In part, so that the memory of this tragic event remains alive and its consequences are clear. “The past is part of the present,” he says. “It’s something universal. Nazism and the Holocaust are not Jewish problems, they concern everyone, especially at this time when we see the rise of far-right governments inspired by Nazi ideals,” he says.
Talking about the Holocaust, he says, is a way to humanize — as opposed to the dehumanization that led to this genocide. “Any school must cultivate an ethic of alterity, of valuing the other.”
Among the strategies of the Jewish Museum of São Paulo is to link, in the exhibitions, the Holocaust to cases of intolerance in the Brazilian context. On some occasions, he invites survivors to speak with students. The museum plans a series of activities for January 27, Holocaust Remembrance Day, including a shadow play, a soirée and a book launch by a survivor of the extermination.
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