Politicisation of Yad Vashem trip insensitive and ignorant

  • RowanPolovin
It is appalling that Khalid Sayed, the African National Congress (ANC) shadow MEC for education and chairperson of the ANC Youth League in the Western Cape, politicised an educators’ trip of officials from the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) to Yad Vashem in December 2019.
by ROWAN POLOVIN | Jan 16, 2020

Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel, is the world’s most important institution for Holocaust remembrance, commemoration, education, and learning. It contains personal artefacts, video testimonies of Holocaust survivors, photographs, artworks, monuments, ceremonies, and databases of victims.

Sayed, a supporter of the anti-Semitic BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement, which is opposed to Israel’s legitimacy and right to exist as a Jewish state, labelled it a “propaganda trip” to Israel and wondered “why a trip to Germany was not assigned instead”.

Visiting Germany (and Nazi concentration camps) is certainly important, but a call to exclude an educational trip to the most important Holocaust centre because it’s based in Israel is alarming.

Sayed clearly has no problem with Germany’s legitimacy or right to exist, even after the unspeakable atrocities committed during World War II, and thinks educators should rather go there to learn about the Holocaust. He prefers to reserve his criticism and judgement for Israel, the one and only Jewish state, and a living testament to the tenacity of the Jews who survived and thrived in spite of the Holocaust.

By politicising the educators’ trip, the ANC demonstrates profound insensitivity to the South African Jewish community which lost family members in the Holocaust, and ignorance about the purpose of the trip and the importance of Holocaust education and curriculum in South Africa.

Yad Vashem (“a memorial and a name”) plays a universal role both in the remembrance of the genocide and to teach how it came about that six million Jews were systematically murdered by the Nazis and their accomplices. It’s a powerful living memory of an event that no one dare forget. It carefully curates and preserves each victim and thread of memory of this apocalypse that almost destroyed the Jewish people of Europe, and irreparably altered the future of humankind.

As Holocaust survivor and Noble Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel said, “To forget would be not only dangerous, but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”

In South Africa, study of the Holocaust forms part of the compulsory Grade 9 syllabus, and for those pupils who elect to study history in Grade 11. Teaching South African schoolchildren about how racism, hate speech, propaganda, and rhetoric can become codified and systematised into laws and ultimately murderous crimes has obvious relevance for post-apartheid South Africa. It’s vital that South African educators of the Holocaust syllabus learn how to teach such a complex and harrowing topic to schoolchildren effectively.

An educators’ trip to Yad Vashem in Israel is a transformative experience that helps teachers turn mere words in a history textbook into a powerful lesson of the dangers of prejudice and the virtues of tolerance.

There is no more fitting and appropriate location for an institution such as Yad Vashem than its situation in Israel, the eternal homeland of the Jewish people. Jews had no state of their own that could save and shelter them before, during, and immediately after the Holocaust.

The British White Paper of 1939 restricted the immigration of Jews into British-controlled Palestine. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees were thus left stranded in the killing fields of Europe where they met their fate. More than a hundred thousand Jews who managed to escape Germany and Austria were subsequently murdered when the Germans caught up with them in the countries they had escaped to.

The United States was fearful of an influx of Jewish refugees and shockingly allowed only a small quota of Jewish immigrants during this period. Ultimately, millions of Jews could have been saved if only Israel had been re-established sooner.

Israel’s rebirth in 1948, its survival and continued existence ensures that no Jew will ever be a refugee again, nor suffer persecution without consequence at the hands of other peoples or nations. It’s a historical and moral imperative that Israel’s gates are open to all Jews, and her law of return ensures this.

It appears that the ANC displays little empathy, knowledge, or understanding of the Holocaust or its memory. If it did, the organisation would have censured Sayed’s statements and apologised to South African Jews.

It follows that ANC members are themselves prime candidates for this trip to Israel and Yad Vashem that they consider “propaganda”.

The ANC’s representative, alongside the South African Teachers Democratic Union (SADTU) Western Cape took particular issue when an official of the WCED had a picture taken with Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Those soldiers ensure that Jews are able to pray freely at one of their holiest sites, a privilege that was not afforded to them until the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, and also that Christians and Muslims have unfettered access to their holy sites.

If the Jews had an army like the IDF to protect them during the Nazi massacres in Europe, the Holocaust would never have taken place.

One wonders whether the ANC would have a problem with South African officials posing with Hamas or Hezbollah operatives, whose modus operandi is the destruction of the Jewish state through terror and violence.

The Holocaust’s memory must be preserved around the world, taught at our schools, and ingrained in our memory. We must continue to ensure that our educators are free to visit Yad Vashem and Israel in order to understand this epochal catastrophe against the Jewish people and the importance of Israel. They must be allowed to teach it properly to non-Jews as a lesson for all humankind.

  • Rowan Polovin is the national chairman of the South African Zionist Federation.


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