Empathy through education is key to address antisemitism

A simple barber’s station, on display at the Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia in the Republic of North Macedonia, teaches profound lessons about history that are relevant worldwide. Through such everyday artifacts, students and young people are invited to learn about and imagine the lives of ordinary Jews before the Holocaust – and, in turn, reject age-old antisemitic myths about Jewish wealth and power that continue to breed hatred and discrimination in the present day.

These personal artifacts invite curiosity and help to develop empathy, intercultural understanding and critical thinking, as learners ask questions about the lives and stories of individuals who owned and used each object. Such critical thinking is urgently needed, and not just in North Macedonia.

Recent reporting on digital hate has shown antisemitism flourishing on social media and the internet, affecting Jewish young people as well as adults, threatening their safety and well-being, and undermining human rights for all of society. The COVID-19 pandemic has propagated and reinforced these deeply rooted prejudices and conspiracy theories about Jewish people and communities, with bigotry and misinformation thriving during moments of instability and fear.

As antisemitic and other forms of hate speech are on the rise globally, UNESCO and partners are committed to addressing antisemitism as an immediate concern and long-term educational investment. Within the framework of global citizenship education, these efforts build knowledge and awareness about antisemitism, including its origins, nature and history, as well as common tropes, stereotypes and conspiracy theories, empowering learners to recognize antisemitism and counter it in all of its manifestations.

In the first of a series of regional capacity-building conferences on 26 and 27 April 2021, UNESCO and the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) trained more than 65 policy-makers, teacher trainers and members of civil society organizations on how to address antisemitism through education in Southeast Europe, followed by a national workshop for educators in North Macedonia on 28 April.

The conference and workshop highlighted how education about antisemitism helps to counter prejudice by engaging learners’ sense of belonging to a common humanity and building respect for both differences and similarities among peoples. ‘Education has a fundamental role to play in this respect: education that sharpens young people’s critical thinking against violent extremist ideologies and hate speech; education that promotes young people’s constructive political and ethical engagement in their societies,’ Ana Luiza Thompson-Flores, Director of the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science and Culture in Europe, said.

UNESCO and ODIHR jointly developed the first guidelines for policymakers on addressing antisemitism through education in 2018, followed by four training curricula for school directors and primary, secondary and vocational educators in 2020. Work in this area contributes to the UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech, which enhances UN efforts to address root causes and support the empowerment of a new generation of digital citizens, prepared to recognize, reject and stand up to hate speech. 

The pandemic and associated ‘infodemic’, often riddled with antisemitic and other hateful tropes, further highlights the importance of critical thinking and media and information literacy in building resilience against so-called ‘fake news’, misinformation and conspiracy theories online, and the role of education to provide practical strategies to counter their dissemination. ‘Educators can “pre-bunk” antisemitic conspiracy theories by encouraging rational thinking, questioning and fact-checking, and alerting learners to the arguments behind the most common conspiracy theories,’ Dr. John Cook, a postdoctoral researcher at Monash University, told the conference.

As antisemitism continues to threaten Jewish individuals and communities and advance violent extremist ideologies, it is imperative that the international community support the development of educators’ knowledge, skills and confidence to teach about and counter antisemitism.

The regional conference was attended by representatives from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Malta, Montenegro, Republic of Moldova, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Slovenia. It was funded by the Government of Bulgaria and through ODIHR’s Words into Action to Address Intolerance project with funding from the Governments of Canada, Germany, the United States and other OSCE-participating Member States.


Photo: An exhibition depicts bystanders watching the introduction of anti-Jewish measures and deportation of Macedonian Jews during the Holocaust. © Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia