Never Again Means Knowledge First: Holocaust Education for Iranians

The Holocaust is not included in Iranian textbooks and little literature on the topic is available in Persian. Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is infamous for the vehemence of his Holocaust denial, but a general mistrust of facts about the Holocaust as being fabricated to protect Israel is widespread throughout Iranian society. Early responses to Tavaana’s online discussions of the Holocaust were not promising: a 2013 Facebook post about the death of Hitler’s bodyguard received multiple comments along the lines of “Blessed be the spirit of the Fuhrer and all his faithful servants.” There was little critical thought, much less positive reception of Tavaana’s focus on the topic.  Comments on some Tavaana social media posts attacked Tavaana for being part of a “Zionist conspiracy.”

In educating Iranians about the dehumanization that culminated in the Holocaust, we found a ready partner in Iranian Jewish writer Roya Hakakian. In 2011, Tavaana featured an exclusive video interview of Ms. Hakakian speaking about issues of individual conscience and commitment to tolerance. Soon after, Ms. Hakakian became the victim of hackers and phishing attacks due to her outspoken calls for liberal values, but neither she nor Tavaana were swayed. We would go on to later include Persian translations of two of her speeches on Iran’s Jewish community and Iranian resistance to anti-Semitism in Tavaana’s resource library, materials we push out regularly on social media, providing Tavaana followers with a counter-narrative to the government message that anti-Semitism is Iran’s natural and enduring state.

Tavaana built a partnership with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in 2013, which allowed for sharing and translation of key resources emphasizing the need for ordinary people to honor their conscience and stand up against hatred, persecution and oppression. Thanks to the Museum and other partners like the German Federal Agency for Civic Education and the Anne Frank House, Tavaana’s library includes inspiring materials such as: the Learning to Live with Difference curriculum, which uses accounts from the Holocaust, the Aboriginal Stolen Generation, the Rwandan genocide, and other mass atrocities to cultivate empathy and initiative in students; the short film Nazi Book Burnings featuring international best-selling author and Tavaana friend Azar Nafisi explaining the beginnings of censorship and cultural repression; and the USHMM’s Holocaust Encyclopedia. Colleagues from the USHMM trained Tavaana’s teaching faculty on integrating themes of tolerance, conscience and Holocaust history into their teaching at Tavaana when Tavaana faculty met for the Tavaana Teacher Summit in April 2014. 

We took a multi-media approach to Holocaust education and produced, for example, exclusive case studies of how everyday Danish citizens united in resistance to the Nazi regime using the arts, media, religious authority, and individual support for those imprisoned; and conscience-driven protection of Jews in the MENA region despite attempts by Nazi forces to divide neighbor from neighbor and keep non-Jews quiescent. The all time most-downloaded Tavaana ebook is our Persian-language translation of War and Holocaust, Michael Wildt’s history (written for our partner, the German Federal Agency for Civic Education) of how the Nazi Party exploited economic crises and political instability to propagate a totalitarian system and repress active citizenship. Also highly popular is our Persian translation of Elie Wiesel’s speech The Perils of Indifference, in which he urges anyone and everyone to engage with their own conscience, learn from the past, and never remain indifferent or silent about the plight of others. Each of these offerings complements the others, as videos introduce Iranians to the Holocaust in accessible and mobile-friendly ways, while translations take knowledge deeper and case studies provide real-world examples of nonviolent resistance and strategies for practical application such as to end the persecution of the Baha’i in Iran.

Because of our focus on the Holocaust, religious freedom and prevention of identity-based hatreds, we were able in 2014 to launch The Tolerance Project, an initiative funded by DRL’s Office to Combat Anti-Semitism, to inspire celebration of difference, pluralism and religious freedom throughout the Middle East region. Through The Tolerance Project, we disseminated resources for youth, educators, and civic-minded citizens to learn and educate others about the Holocaust and the power of individual citizens to enable or resist oppression: pedagogic guides for teaching others, Persian subtitling and airing (and discussion) on satellite TV of the USHMM’s powerful documentary “The Path to Nazi Genocide,” and profiles of 12 young victims of the Holocaust. Throughout this project, we deepened our partnership with the USHMM, which provided extensive cost-free research, photos, and expertise.

Since Tavaana’s launch, and despite early backlash against our Holocaust education posts, we have maintained consistent outreach on this topic via all our social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Telegram, Google+), sharing our own exclusive work on the subject alongside those of parallel groups. Regular social media favorites include, for example, Aladdin Online Library’s Persian translation of the Diary of Anne Frank and the USHMM’s Nazi book burnings film, which have consistently engaged an average of over 5,000 users per post since their 2014 introduction to the Iranian people by Tavaana. We have normalized discussion among Iranians of this politically censored subject fraught with much misinformation and misunderstanding, providing a space for those who read, watch, and learn from Tavaana’s case study, library and video offerings to explore their implications in community and evolve new social norms by so doing. Users now regularly push back against anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, with comments such as the following reflecting greater self-reflection and intellectual engagement: “It’s a shame—a nation that doesn’t recognize its own culture can be easily abused;” “I am sorry for the Jewish community because of the disaster and I hope the world can heal some portion of the pain;” “The injustice the Nazis created was terrible; Hitler and Stalin are among the most brutal creatures on earth in the 20th century.”

This public education effort could not replace the intellectual rigor of a full course that would allow the most committed Iranians to study with and receive direct feedback from an expert on the Holocaust. In June 2015, ECCE took this next step, collaborating with esteemed Iranian political scientist Mohammad Reza Nikfar to launch the e-course “Lessons from the Holocaust.” Mr. Nikfar is one of very few Iranian scholars to have written about the Holocaust, and Tavaana had circulated his works on the subject prior to offering the course with him, one of our most established and esteemed faculty members.  In the course, Mr. Nikfar began with inquiry into the basic question of why Holocaust education is important, moving on to place the Holocaust within the larger framework of intolerance of the “other” and to examine the mechanisms and ideologies which spread this particular hatred, persecution and uniquely grotesque genocide. The course concluded with contemporary Holocaust debates, including the proper role of education, and the propaganda of Holocaust denial. Students of the course saw more clearly the pernicious dangers of the most everyday acts of intolerance and connected the lessons of the Holocaust to their own current situation. One student said she “learned tolerance in this class…how it is that some of our ignorant words and actions can cause humiliation, hatred, loathing, and at length, bloodshed.” Another student who worked on education for Afghan migrants in Iran wrote that they realized the danger of “the illusion of a pure Aryan government…and will take action in the discussion” of this illusion. A third commented that, given the role of eugenics in the Holocaust, they will write about the dangers of homophobia, a topic in which pseudo-science still plays a negative role in Iran.

Most e-course students reported that they had shared or intended to share the educational materials they accessed. This spreading of knowledge was reflected in increased interest in the topic: an April 2016 panel on Iran and the Holocaust was well attended and followed closely on social media, with each live tweet reaching nearly a thousand people, Facebook posts about it reaching 20,849 and receiving 199 engagements, and an Instagram post receiving 420 likes and 9 comments. The panel included Ladan Boroumand, Ms. Hakakian, Mr. Nikfar, and Nima Rashedan and was moderated by Co-Director Mariam Memarsadeghi. Speakers exchanged insight with each other and the live audience on the value and importance of Holocaust education, especially for Iranians living under an ideological government; the relationship between knowledge and dialogue about genocide and the cultivation of tolerance and democratic citizenship; and the reasons for Iranian state Holocaust denial and disinformation about Jews and Iranian Jewish history. Mr. Nikfar noted that genocide is repeated all around us; 135 people engaged with this tweet (a 9.9% engagement rate), showing readiness among Tavaana followers to apply the lessons of the Holocaust to their causes today, such as the war in Syria. Another 60 people engaged with a tweet of Mr. Rashedan’s comment that discussion of the Holocaust leads to broader tolerance, while 20 engaged with Ms. Hakakian’s assertion that studying the Holocaust allows Iranians to better understand their own history as Iranians.

The Tavaana community’s rhetoric and reactions to discussion of the Holocaust have shifted.  A 2013 post in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day received only 58 likes and two comments, while a similar one in 2015 garnered 5,100 likes and 319 comments. Slowly but surely, members of the Tavaana community began to confront Holocaust denial, rebutting those users who insisted that brutal photos of concentration camps were fabricated, and to apply the lessons of the Holocaust to the need for inclusion in their own country of religious minorities, especially the persecuted Baha’i, as well as marginalized ethnicities and migrants. The top (most liked) comment on a 2016 Facebook post about Nazi propaganda in the Arab world read: “The fundamental rights of all persons, including those of life and well-being, certainly ought to be respected. It makes no difference whether they’re Jewish or any other religion, race, language, or sect. History condemns the slaughter of Jews.” Looking to the important role played by everyday Iranians in opposing political and societal persecution of religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities today, such an assertion cannot come too soon.

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