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Commentator calls Holocaust education ‘brainwashing’

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“Ignoble and ill-intentioned”, “brainwashing”, “racist content” that “creeps through a syllabus” and “grand lies fed to impressionable children” are some of the phrases that Madoda Sitshange used to describe Holocaust education in this country in an article published on 29 May under the “analysis” section of the Sunday Independent.

The study of the Holocaust was mandated by the department of basic education in 2007 as a required curriculum in all South African high schools. Three Holocaust & Genocide Centres – in Johannesburg, Durban, and Cape Town – support this Holocaust education through teacher training, educational programmes for pupils, and the development of classroom material.

According to the Sunday Independent, Sitshange is an “independent consultant”. Online profiles also show that he has a master of social work and has been a consultant at the Adopt-a-School Foundation.

Sitshange spent most of his article raging that Israeli policies should be included in Holocaust education, and blatantly compared Israel to the Nazis. Much of this was riddled with factual inaccuracies. According to the widely-adopted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis is antisemitic.

He also argued that organisations like Operation Dudula weren’t xenophobic. Earlier this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa called Operation Dudula a “vigilante-like force”. “Dudula” means “to push back” in Zulu. The organisation blames migrant workers for the country’s crime and high unemployment rate. Migrants from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia and other African countries have been targeted by the organisation.

Sitshange then said that [according to Holocaust education] “any protester is portrayed as devoid of all sensibilities and sensitivities that they are on the verge of committing a Holocaust, and rub salt in the wound by teaching school children from the township that their own parents are wanton murderers”.

“What’s the response of Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga when local community organisations are equated to Nazis, and a free pass is given to the Ariel Sharons of this world?” he asked. “It’s grossly insensitive that the same children from the townships that are most affected by the negative impact of open borders and the mismanagement of immigration have their plight intensified with an association with an imaginary genocide.”

He also implied that Jews ignored the views of underprivileged people. “For many critics of community organisations like Abahlali baseMjondolo, Operation Dudula, etc. who live in affluent, gated complexes and work in air-conditioned offices, a sincere belief in the legitimacy of black organisations looks less like the culture of protest than like the culture of psychosis. Protesting people in townships are simply mad. Experts offering the explanation from the highest of motives are more convincing, and underprivileged folks cannot be taken seriously. A view that’s an alternative to the expert explanation isn’t merely counter-normative, but crazy,” he wrote.

Sitshange was responding to an article first published in SowetanLIVE, which described the work of the Durban Holocaust & Genocide Centre (DHGC). That article’s original headline was “SA’s xenophobic attacks bear similarities to Holocaust, say experts.” It was published on 20 May, and written by Lwazi Hlangu. South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) Associate Director David Saks later said the headline was “misleading” as “those DHGC spokespeople quoted don’t in fact compare xenophobic attacks in South Africa to the Holocaust”.

The SowetanLIVE article reported that “Holocaust experts in SA have sounded the alarm over similarities between the rise of xenophobic sentiment in the country and genocides throughout history.”

It quoted Claudia Blythe, the education manager at the DHGC, as saying, “There’s a very natural connection between learning about the Holocaust, thinking about our own country’s past, and confronting this epidemic in our country at the moment which is xenophobia.”

Blythe was speaking to SowetanLIVE at the Nelson Mandela Capture Site in Howick just outside Pietermaritzburg, where the centre was conducting a series of workshops for different schools in the area.

“The DHGC was in no way making a direct comparison between the deplorable Operation Dudula in South Africa and the mass extermination of six million Jews by the Nazi regime during the Holocaust,” says DHGC Director Mary Kluk. “Unfortunately, we felt that this impression was given to readers by the SowetanLIVE article headline, and we have since engaged with the editors of this publication who have agreed to change the headline. SowetanLIVE’s new headline reads: “Genocides don’t start with violence but hateful rhetoric – experts.”

“The DHGC is first and foremost a place of remembrance for the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust and all other victims of Nazism, but also engages in public-outreach programmes about contemporary human-rights abuses and genocide,” says social justice liaison at the DHGC, Alana Baranov.

“The key message of our workshop for pupils in the Howick area was that genocide and hate crimes don’t start with acts of physical harm but with hateful words and othering,” says Kluk. “The language used in xenophobic rhetoric in South Africa today, which blames all of South Africa’s social ills on African refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers, bears some similarities to the ‘othering’ language and scapegoating that the Nazis used against Jews and other minorities they persecuted in Germany in the early years of power.

“These acts of othering paved the way for further atrocities to occur. Our centre works to raise awareness of the lessons of the past, from the Holocaust to the genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda, and even apartheid. Discrimination and hateful words must be addressed before they turn into hate crimes and other acts of violence, even crimes against humanity. Our work helps pupils understand what can happen if prejudice and hatred is left to go unchecked,” says Baranov.

The SAJBD wrote to IOL News (the publisher of Sitshange’s article) requesting a right of reply, which was published as a letter to the editor on 7 June, but it hasn’t been published yet. In this response, Saks wrote, amongst other points, “It’s evident from Sitshange’s response that he hasn’t properly read the piece he’s responding to, but rather appears to have based his reply entirely on its (admittedly ill-chosen) headline. He devotes more than half of his article to ranting against Israel. Since that subject self-evidently has nothing to do with the issues at hand, one can only conclude that his reason for doing so is that the DHGC is a Jewish organisation, and on a number of levels, that’s simply unacceptable.”

“By refusing to engage with the points raised by the DHGC and instead responding with an extended piece of irrelevant anti-Israel vitriol, Sitshange clearly intimates that before they can presume to express a view on human-rights issues pertaining to their own country, Jews must first sign on to the radical anti-Israel agenda he espouses.

“Apart from imposing outrageous conditions on the right of Jews to exercise their freedom of expression, this feeds into one of the staples of antisemitic bigotry, namely that Jews aren’t truly South African but should be regarded rather as part and parcel of a greater, global Jewish entity. This is both discriminatory and racist. It’s likewise racist and discriminatory to hold a Holocaust & Genocide Centre accountable for what Jews on another continent are alleged to be doing.”

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