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20 March

What can be done to combat anti-Semitism in schools?

No one is born anti-Semitic. The factors that during the course of socialization cause individual resentments to transmute into a coherent anti-Semitic worldview are many and varied. One thing, however, is clear: when anti-Semitism has coalesced into more

What can be done to combat anti-Semitism in schools?

No one is born anti-Semitic. The factors that during the course of socialization cause individual resentments to transmute into a coherent anti-Semitic worldview are many and varied. One thing, however, is clear: when anti-Semitism has coalesced into a worldview, it can no longer be reached by education, but only by sanctions and repression. Until then, political education has to supply the elementary orientation required. More even: for children and young people, it is the key factor in the struggle against anti-Semitism.
The paramount role here is played by the school, which is the central institution for communicating knowledge and the paramount focus for social learning.
This is precisely why the status of the struggle against anti-Semitism at schools is also so fatal: only in a few of the German states is a reporting system in place for anti-Semitic incidents. The pressure on schools to act in reporting anti-Semitic incidents has so far got off to only a hesitant start in some of the German states; there are basically no sophisticated structures on the level of upper and lower school inspectorates – with the exception of Berlin. The problem here lies not only in anti-Semitic attitudes among the pupils, but also among the teachers. A comparison of two prominent cases involving anti-Semitic teachers in Oldenburg and Berlin shows that the problem of combating anti-Semitism in schools lies not only on the legal and structural levels but also on the question of whether there is in fact any willingness to act on the part of the state governments: the framework conditions involved in school legislation are similar in Lower Saxony and Berlin; in fact, the disciplinary options in Lower Saxony might even be assessed as more favorable for combating anti-Semitism among teachers, but the behavioral outcomes are diametrically opposed: while Berlin took prompt and unequivocal action in the case of an anti-Semitic teacher, Lower Saxony is ignoring the problem and leaving the anti-Semitic teacher in employment. If the governmental protagonists are not prepared to enforce the existing rules, then that is tantamount to capitulating in the face of anti-Semitism.

Many ministries of culture thus perceive themselves as not meaningfully responsible and, moreover, shift the problem to educational facilities outside the school environment. At schools, there is a propensity to recommend referral to extra-curricular learning facilities – the suggestion is not in itself wrong, but often functions de facto as an abnegation of responsibility. The school is and remains the paramount socialization agency of German society, besides the family, and cannot and must not be permitted to evade its key responsibility for combating anti-Semitism by delegating the problem.

The key problem, however, continues to be the textbooks, which exhibit extensive flaws. The responsibility for this lies primarily with the state governments, who check the books inadequately or not at all, and with the textbook publishers, who for crucial subjects like history and politics far too seldom create textbooks that take due account of the current state of knowledge about anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is often perceived as deserving of mention only in the context of National Socialism and the Shoah – but pupils do not often learn much about what came beforehand, and even less about what came afterwards: and thus the question of how and to what extent anti-Semitism forms an elementary part of their personal everyday life and also of their family history. In addition, the image presented of Israel is extremely one-sided: numerous textbooks deploy pro-Palestinian argumentation and affective hyperbole, i.e. instead of facts, anti-Israeli emotions are fueled. Jewish religion and culture as an integral part of German and European history are conversely almost entirely absent.

The crux of the problem thus remains the textbooks, which often lag behind the framework guidelines and curricula (these themselves can in many cases definitely be classified as too rudimentary), are seriously abbreviated, and, in the case of Israel-related issues display a flagrantly one-sided pro-Palestinian stance. On the one hand, the German states that do not (any longer) have approval procedures for textbooks can and must urgently rethink their practices, because school administrations and expert conferences de facto do not possess the competence to decide on the quality of textbooks in the context of school-related legislation. At the same time, however, the textbook publishers, in particular, are called upon to review the quality of their teaching materials in the relevant fields, or have them reviewed (by competent experts), because the main problem is that many textbook authors possess insufficient competence and knowledge in the fields of anti-Semitism, Judaism and Israel. Basic knowledge in the school is always communicated by textbooks. Since anti-Semitism constitutes a cross-sectional task for all grades, school types and subjects, it is worth considering, for example, whether a specialized textbook on “anti-Semitism” should be initiated by the Culture Ministers’ Conference in the context of their joint work with the Central Council of Jews in Germany, providing essential educational material and information on the issue, and thus serving as background for other textbooks.

Moreover, there is definitely an overall deficit of problem-awareness in a pedagogic context when it comes to reflecting not only the possibilities, but also the limitations of in-school pedagogy. Anti-Semitic incidents can sometimes, but often not solely, be resolved by pedagogic measures; a supporting combination of prevention, intervention and repression is also required. Moreover, worrying tendencies are discernible in the pedagogic field, prioritizing competence orientations over fact-learning, and tolerating anti-Semitism, e.g. from a Muslim context, out of misunderstood multi-perspectivism. Any form of anti-Semitism in an educational context has to be rejected as false and untruthful, irrespective of the political, social or religious context of the person formulating it; pedagogic approaches, too, have to reflect that one can disagree over many issues, but that some opinions – namely when they are anti-Semitic – are objectively false, because they are based on untruths.

Prof. Dr. Samuel Salzborn, Berlin University of Applied Science