The United Arab Emirates has announced plans to officially introduce the Holocaust as a subject in classrooms — a rare decision in the Middle East. However, details about what will be taught and when remain unclear.
The news made quite a splash. In early January, the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Washington announced on social media that the Arab country would include the Holocaust in its educational curriculum for primary and secondary schools.
According to the statement on Twitter, the plan comes in the wake of the Abraham Accords — the normalization agreement with Israel — signed some two years ago by the UAE and also by Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.
Earlier peace treaties were signed by Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. However, many other Arab countries reject any official contact with Israel to this day.
Now, the UAE is apparently taking a leading role in addressing the history of the Holocaust. The Holocaust as a regular school subject is rare in the Arab world.
Last November in Washington, Ali al-Nuaimi, a member of the UAE Federal National Council, had already declared that “memorializing the victims of the Holocaust is crucial.”
The Israeli Foreign Ministry reacted positively to the news from the UAE. It praised the “historic decision” in an Arabic-language tweet.
The US’ special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, Deborah Lipstadt, also highlighted the plan on Twitter, saying she expected other countries to follow suit soon.
So far little is known about the content that might go into the school lessons.
According to a report in the UAE-based newspaper The National, the concept is being developed in cooperation with Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center and the Israeli-British Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education, or IMPACT-SE.
But not many details have been made public. In an interview with DW, Marcus Sheff, head of IMPACT-SE, said they were happy to provide advice and information that they hoped would be useful in teaching about the Holocaust. And, he added, a review of the teaching materials on the Holocaust that have been made available to them so far has shown that they meet the standards for peace and tolerance defined by UNESCO.
The institute has not yet seen the final draft of the teaching materials.The final draft is not yet available to Yad Vashem either.
UAE newspaper The National stated that a final version of the curriculum is in the process of being drafted, but a publication date is yet to be announced.
Nobody knows when any school lessons with Holocaust learning materials might begin, either. A proposed interview with the UAE’s embassy in Berlin on this issue did not take place, and it was not possible to obtain information from other sources at the time of publication.
The small Jewish community in the UAE has welcomed the project. It is “proud” of the plans, Alex Peterfreund, head of the community, told news agency AFP.
“By teaching the Holocaust, the UAE wants to show what can happen when people of different religions and cultures cannot live together,” said Peterfreund, a Belgian who has lived in the UAE since 2014 and whose grandparents were murdered in the Holocaust.
It is also encouraging that Hebrew courses in the UAE and other Gulf states have been in much higher demand in recent years.
Jewish people have lived in what is now the UAE for more than 1,000 years. Today’s Jewish community — estimated at around 3,000 people — is made up of their descendants and immigrants who moved there for professional reasons.
The Jewish community is quite visible in the UAE. There are several synagogues and kosher restaurants, and a Jewish center has opened. “Jewish life here is flourishing,” Levi Duchman, the UAE’s chief rabbi, told Israeli newspaper The Jerusalem Post in September. A few years ago, the UAE even had Yemeni Jews arriving who had been persecuted by the Houthi group . They took refuge with relatives in the UAE.
Ebtesam al-Ketbi, director of the think tank Emirates Policy Center in Abu Dhabi, praised the decision. “The initiative is part of the Emirates’ efforts to promote tolerance and coexistence,” al-Ketbi told DW. “It is important to teach students about such an event to prevent the repetition of such painful historical experiences.”
The Holocaust, she said, is the “most significant example of racism against people who are different, whether religiously or ethnically.”
Ahmed al-Mansoori, founder of the Crossroads of Civilizations Museum Group in Dubai, which includes a historical exhibition on the Holocaust, has a similar view. The Holocaust is still widely denied, al-Mansoori said in a recent interview with AFP: “If we want people to sympathize with us, we have to sympathize with others.”
Not everyone agrees. According to AFP, the exhibition’s guestbook also contains negative comments, including slogans such as “Down with Zionist imperialism.”
A tweet by Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent Emirati political scientist, also gained attention. The Holocaust has “neither national nor educational value” as a subject, he wrote on Twitter. Abdulla said he hoped the announced plans were not real.
The Palestinian militant Islamist organization Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip and is classified by the European Union as a terrorist organization, also made a statement. Teaching the topic was an “endorsement of the Zionist narrative,” a spokesman said. In 2009, Hamas said the Holocaust was “a lie invented by the Zionists” after the group suspected that the United Nations was going to teach Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip about the Holocaust.
It remains to be seen to what extent school-based education will be able to counter Holocaust denial or relativization in the future.
Emad Hassan contributed to this article.