Israel No Longer Leads the World in Holocaust Research, National Academy of Sciences Says

Israel is at risk of losing its primacy in the field of Holocaust research, according to a comprehensive report the Israel National Academy of Sciences issued Sunday on the state of Holocaust studies in Israeli universities and colleges.

According to the report, fewer Israeli scholars are delving into the core issues associated with Holocaust research – like Nazism, racism, antisemitism and relevant events before and after the Shoah – and are focusing on more tangential topics, like Holocaust commemoration and representation. While for years Israel was at the forefront of Holocaust research, “In recent years there is a marked erosion in the contribution of Israeli scholars to the international academic discourse in the field,” the report says.

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The academy’s committee to examine Holocaust studies in Israel convened between 2017 and 2019, conducting a comprehensive review of Holocaust research and academic instruction in Israel. The committee comprised Profs. Israel Bartal, Shlomo Avineri, Yehuda Bauer, Havi Ben-Sasson Dreifuss, Shulamit Volkov and Dina Porat.

According to the report’s authors, the erosion of Israel’s status in this field is linked to the general devaluation of humanities studies in the country’s universities; younger researchers are less likely to want to deal with challenges like analyzing archival sources, learning foreign languages and becoming familiar with the broad contexts that Holocaust research requires.

Young Holocaust researchers often “lack the broad horizon of historical knowledge linked to the study of basic European history” of recent centuries, as well as familiarity with European history since the early Christian era, “which leads to a disconnect between the events of the Shoah and the broader historical context.” The report states that the younger generation of researchers “is no longer ‘at home’ with the various European languages and cultures.”

These deficiencies, the report’s authors say, has “led to a preference for ‘softer’ types of discourse … instead of acquiring professional skills in the tougher methodologies of archival historical research.” They argue that “This phenomenon runs contrary to the scholarly trends throughout the world: The Holocaust – in particular the events themselves – is at the center of international activity and research. … Scholars abroad nowadays, more than in the past, are studying the Jews’ inner world. Even in this type of research, Israeli academia has lost its leadership role.”

The committee examined more than 250 academic courses related to the Holocaust studied in 19 academic institutions. More than half the relevant courses deal with commemoration and representation of the Shoah, while only a minority deal with the “core topics” of Holocaust research. The report’s authors point out that there are important topics are almost totally absent from the academic courses; for example, there is almost no study of the Balkan, North African, or Allied countries, and there are almost no courses on the Jewish and Zionist youth movements during the Holocaust. Another topic missing is the link between the Holocaust and World War II as a conflict. The authors note that this topic is also poorly addressed abroad. “There is rift between the study and academic instruction about World War II and Holocaust studies,” the report states.