Empowering Education: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Adressing Antisemitism and Discrimination

Oana Nestian-Sandu, Program Director at Intercultural Institute Timisoara, shares her insights about human rights-based Holocaust education, how education can transform our societies, promote democratic citizenship, and counter discrimination.


Dear Oana, we are glad to have your organization, the Intercultural Institute of Timisoara, and your expertise as an experienced educator in our network. Your publication on the interdisciplinary approach to Holocaust, human rights, and intercultural education is powerful. I would love to know more about how such an interdisciplinary approach could enhance educational work addressing antisemitism.

Holocaust education has been viewed for a long time as a way to learn about the history of the Holocaust, with emphasis on its uniqueness among historical events. While this remains an integral part of Holocaust education, one cannot overlook the lessons that the Holocaust can teach us for today and the future

The interdisciplinary approach proposed in the handbook Learning from the Past, Acting for the Future – based on the work with thousands of teachers in Europe – combines the approaches and methods of Holocaust education, human rights education, and intercultural education, aiming to guide students to learn about the past, understand how the past is connected with the present and contribute to the development of democratic and intercultural societies in which every individual can live a life of dignity. 

When we look at the past through the lens of human rights, we can better understand how an event like the Holocaust was possible, how the propaganda functioned, and how the rights of Jewish people – and people belonging to other groups – were taken away progressively. At the same time, through the lens of the Holocaust, we can understand that today we need to take action when human rights are violated or at risk of being violated for members of any group living in our societies. This methodology develops students’ critical thinking and ability to challenge populist messages that are becoming prevalent in European societies and elsewhere. It raises their awareness about the unfair treatment of various groups in their society and the need to act. 

An interdisciplinary approach alerts students of the dangers of antisemitism – and other forms of hatred, racism, and oppression – and empowers them to contribute to countering it, as they understand that, in present-day societies, they have both the responsibility to do so and the mechanisms, structures, and allies that can help them in this process. 

Working with teachers a lot, where should educational policymakers support teachers in tackling discrimination issues at schools, including those committed by teachers?

Teachers often face substantial demands, but they receive little training and support. In many countries, teachers have not had any formal training about discrimination, nor do they have any concrete tools to tackle it. 

Tackling discrimination should not be reduced to taking action when incidents appear. The most crucial part of tackling discrimination is prevention. Therefore, developing an organizational culture in the school that promotes human rights and democratic processes is essential. Indeed, changing an organizational culture is not something that happens overnight, and it needs to be encouraged and supported by the Ministries of Education and other related bodies. 

I believe that a few aspects are crucial in this process: 

  •  Involving students in decision-making processes and governing bodies in ways that are meaningful, not tokenistic; 
  • Development of inclusive and intersectional curricula that teach students about diversity in a way that makes them curious and appreciative of it; 
  • Promoting human rights and democratic values not only through words but also through concrete actions;
  • Ensuring collaboration at all levels: between students, between teachers, between school and external experts – NGOs, academia, etc., between school and the larger local community, and between schools from different parts of the country or different countries. 

Reflecting on emotions in human rights and Holocaust education can help change attitudes and behaviors. However, some educators may find it daunting to do so, as they fear triggering the “wrong” emotions or too many of them. What would you advise junior educators to consider in this regard?

In the educational process, it is important to create a safe space in which students can feel that they will not be judged and that their emotions are not something to be hidden or suppressed but welcome to manifest. This means, among other things, allowing time to process and discuss emotions as they arise and helping students to articulate their feelings when they do not have the language to express their emotions, even if or especially if they are the “wrong” emotions. Certainly, there are no “wrong” emotions. People cannot control what they feel, but they can be taught to analyze their emotions, understand what triggers them (often preconceived ideas fueling our emotions), and refrain from acting upon them if they infringe upon the human dignity of other people.

Studying the Holocaust and empathizing with the suffering of Jewish people can trigger strong emotions and can leave students feeling helpless, angry, and frustrated. Acknowledging this fact and addressing these feelings can be a powerful motivation to take action in the present. It can support or guide students toward creating change in present-day societies. This is possible only when students feel that the learning context is safe and stimulating and can connect their identity and worldview with the topics they are studying. 

As an educator, I guess you may sometimes feel desperate, like many in our network. What challenges are you still searching for answers to in your educational work?

I am aware that changing an educational system is a slow process. However, I cannot help but feel frustrated when I see how well the teachers and their students respond to our proposed methods and approaches, yet they are often seen as exceptions. Despite overwhelming evidence by empirical research that interactive methods, experiential learning, student-centered approaches, and promotion of intercultural and democratic values have positive and long-term impacts on students’ competencies, their well-being, and the school culture, traditional pedagogical approaches, along with nationalist perspectives, are still prevalent. 

I wish these so-called new methodologies – which are not really that new anymore – would gain more ground in the schools and in the national curricula throughout Europe and I wish more emphasis was put on respect for human dignity, both in theory and in practice. 

Finally, based on what we have discussed so far, would you like to recommend a movie that has really moved you?

If that is all right, I recommend a book instead, a book which should be turned into a movie. On Austrian Soil – Teaching Those I was Taught to Hate is a teaching memoir by Sondra Perl, whose unexpected journey to Europe as a US visiting professor changed her life. After publishing this book, Sondra developed an innovative pedagogy for Holocaust education. She inspired thousands of educators worldwide, including me, through her work at TOLI – The Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights.

Visual: © HRI