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Why an Arab nation has opted to teach the Holocaust in its schools

<i>Muath Freij/Reuters</i><br/>Worshipers attend a mass inside the Church of the Baptism of Lord Jesus Christ in Jordan Valley
Muath Freij/Reuters
Worshipers attend a mass inside the Church of the Baptism of Lord Jesus Christ in Jordan Valley

By Mohammed Abdelbary, CNN

The United Arab Emirates will soon become the first Arab nation to teach the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust in its schools, a historic move that has been praised in some quarters — but also criticized in others.

The UAE plans to include Holocaust education in the curriculum for primary and secondary schools, the country’s embassy in the United States tweeted last week.

The UAE says it will work with the Tel Aviv- and London-based Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education, and Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem to help build a new curriculum, according to a report in the Times of Israel.

“Now we have the opportunity to reach new audiences and Yad Vashem is working on paving the way to bring Holocaust awareness to the Arab-speaking world,” the organization’s spokesperson Simmy Allen told CNN. “Across most of the Arab-speaking world, until recently, there was little to no dialogue with Yad Vashem about the events and atrocities of the Holocaust,” he added.

The teaching of the Holocaust has been largely absent from governments’ school curricula in Arab countries, but the UAE has been doubling down on Holocaust awareness since normalizing relations with Israel in 2020 in a pact known as the Abraham Accords.

UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed visited Berlin’s main Holocaust memorial in late 2020 with his Israeli counterpart. In 2021, the first Holocaust memorial exhibition in the Arab region opened in Dubai, and last year, the foreign minister made a highly publicized visit to Yad Vashem, where he laid a wreath.

In an article published in Israel’s Jerusalem Post in 2021, Ali Al Nuaimi, chairman of the Defense Affairs, Interior and Foreign Relations Committee of the UAE’s Federal National Council for the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, wrote that school curricula in the Arab world “have omitted critical parts of history in the West,” including the Holocaust, for too long. Muslims, he argued, “must liberate themselves from the burdens of history to move ahead toward the future.”

The move is “a natural outgrowth of the Abraham Accords,” Kristin Smith Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told CNN.

“The UAE leadership has been engineering cultural change to support its strategic objectives,” she said. “Embracing ethnic diversity has accompanied the expansion of a global workforce, and interfaith dialogue has aided in countering pan-Islamism and religious extremism.”

It isn’t clear whether the UAE’s move will apply only to government-run schools or the hundreds of private schools in the country. The UAE’s ministry of education didn’t respond to CNN’s request for comment by the time of publication.

Approximately 90% of the UAE’s population of about 10 million is made up of expatriates according to World Bank data, many of whom send their children to privately run schools that teach international curricula that often include Holocaust education.

Emiratis on social media were largely silent about the decision to teach the Holocaust, but Abdul Khaleq Abdulla, a prominent UAE commentator and political science professor, commented on the announcement in a tweet, saying there was no need for it.

“There has been repeated talk about adding the topic of the Holocaust to our school curricula, despite the absence of any national value, educational (benefit), and knowledge need for (it)” he tweeted.

Much of the reaction from Arabs outside the UAE was critical, with some accusing the country of handing over control of its syllabus to Israel, while others questioned whether it would come at the expense of teaching the history of the Palestinians, particularly the Nakba. The Nakba, which means catastrophe in Arabic, refers to the establishment of Israel in 1948, which saw approximately 700,000 Palestinians forced to leave their homes.

“We don’t deny the Holocaust and we sympathize with its victims,” tweeted Dareen, a commenter on Twitter who identifies as Palestinian. “But including it in the curriculum for young students makes it easier for the occupation (Israel) to infiltrate the Arab people.”

The UAE, which has a sizable Palestinian community, has said in local media reports that its normalization with Israel would not affect its commitment to the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Yasser Abu Hilala, a former managing director at Al Jazeera, tweeted that teaching the Holocaust in the UAE was “useful for knowing the history and brutality of the West,” adding that “it is the same West from which Zionism spawned,” referring to the movement to create a Jewish state in the Middle East.

The involvement of an Israeli organization in writing the country’s syllabus brings an added layer of complexity. Polls have shown that the public in the Arab nations that have normalized relations don’t share their governments’ view in their embrace of Israel. A survey by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in July 2022 shows that more than 70% in the UAE and Bahrain hold a negative view of normalization.

The Abraham Accords are also unpopular in other Arab nations. An opinion poll by the Qatar-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies released last week showed that only 7.5% of Arabs supported normalization, with 84% considering Israel to be the greatest threat to the Arab region, followed by the United States and Iran respectively.

The poll, which surveyed more than 33,000 people in 14 Arab nations, didn’t include the UAE.

Analysts say that despite the gap between official and popular views on Israel, the UAE is likely to move forward with strengthening ties with Israel.

“The Emirati public might not be entirely on board, but the leadership has decided this is the path they will pursue and so they will continue to do so,” Dina Esfandiary, senior adviser for Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, told CNN. “They believe that they have greater influence over Israel and Israeli action by maintaining these good ties.”

Some Emiratis will be uncomfortable with coordination with an Israeli institution “in a sensitive area like education” since there is popular sympathy with the plight of the Palestinians, said Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute.

“But this should not negate the value and importance of understanding the historical facts and context of the Holocaust,” she added. “Disinformation is a problem and serves no one.”

With additional reporting by Michael Schwartz in Jerusalem

The digest

Three Palestinians killed in Israeli raids amid violent start to 2023

Three Palestinian men were killed in separate Israeli raids into the West Bank on Thursday, bringing the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces to nine in the first 12 days of the year, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. Israeli forces came under fire in one of the raids, the Palestinian ministry and the Israeli military said.

  • Background: The nine Palestinians killed in the occupied West Bank this year include three teens aged 14, 16 and 17, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. The total also includes a Palestinian man who had stabbed an Israeli civilian in the West Bank on Wednesday, according to the Israeli military.
  • Why it matters: Last year was the deadliest for both Israelis and West Bank Palestinians in nearly two decades, official statistics from the two sides showed. Tensions have been high since Israel swore in its most right-wing government to date last month.

UAE appoints oil boss as president of climate conference, alarming activists

The UAE appointed the head of one of the world’s largest oil producers to preside over the UN’s COP28 climate summit, in a move activists warned could undermine this year’s global conference. Sultan Al Jaber, CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, will oversee COP28, which takes place from November 30 in Dubai. The UAE has however touted his climate credentials, including his position as the country’s climate change envoy and role as founder of the renewable energy company Masdar.

  • Background: Political leaders and representatives from more than 190 countries will congregate to discuss how to put the world on course to meet the Paris Climate Agreement ambition of limiting temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
  • Why it matters: The appointment has caused a backlash among some climate groups, given the role fossil fuels play in driving climate change. Climate organizations have said it would undermine the possibility of achieving climate pledges and some have called for Al Jaber to relinquish his oil industry job to take this post.

Iran sentences former high-ranking defense official to death for spying

Alireza Akbari, a former Iranian deputy defense minister who is also a British citizen, was sentenced to death for spying for the United Kingdom, Iranian judiciary-affiliated outlet Mizan said on Wednesday.

  • Background: Mizan reported that Akbari appealed the decision, and after reviewing the case, Iran’s Supreme Court upheld the death sentence. Iran’s intelligence ministry said it had confirmed that Akbari was an undercover agent for the British intelligence service MI6, adding that he collected “important national information and provided it in a fully aware and informed manner.”
  • Why it matters: Relations between the UK and Iran have deteriorated significantly due to the Islamic Republic’s crackdown on anti-government protests there. UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly tweeted saying that the sentencing is “politically motivated.”

Around the region

The popular American music festival Coachella will feature Palestinian-Chilean singer Elyanna in this year’s lineup, making her the first artist to perform in Arabic in the festival’s history.

Taking place in California in April, Coachella draws hundreds of thousands of visitors every year and features some of the biggest names in music.

“I’m so proud and excited to bring my culture and music to Coachella” wrote the singer in an Instagram post.

Fans were ecstatic to hear the news, with one user on Twitter writing “ELYANNA AT COACHELLA THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

“Makes me want to go to @coachella for the first time!” tweeted another user.

Elyanna’s rise to fame came after her first EP “Elyanna” in 2020.

She describes her music as having a genre of its own “Yes, I have the Arabic lyrics but at the same time it’s not so Arabic, [and] not so American,” she told GQ magazine. “It’s in-between and I want to keep that happening… it gets everybody to listen.”

With millions of streams on music platform Spotify, Elyanna’s music blends instruments and Palestinian melodies, as well as those from elsewhere in the Middle East, Latin America and the United States.

While Elyanna will be the first singer to perform in the Arabic language at Coachella, she is not the first Arab performer.

Palestinian DJ Sama AbdulHadi performed a set at last year’s festival and is credited with introducing the techno scene in her home country. Besides Coachella, AbdulHadi also performed across the US, Europe, and the Middle East.

By Mohammed Abdelbary

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