When JTNews caught up with Mark Weitzman this week, he spoke to us from Turkey, where he was taking part in a seminar on Holocaust education.
“It’s organized by a French non-governmental organization that works particularly with Arab and Muslim organizations, in conjunction with the Turkish Foreign Ministry,” said Weitzman, director of government affairs and director of the Task Force Against Hate and Terrorism for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in New York, as well as its associate director of education. His biography also includes serving as the Wiesenthal Center’s chief representative to the United Nations and a member of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief for Europe’s Organization for Security and Co-operation, among other national and international committees.
Weitzman will visit Seattle on Thurs., Oct. 31 as keynote speaker at the annual luncheon for the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center.
Turkey, it turns out, is very interested in joining the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, a 30-country body dedicated to promoting educational opportunities about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. The nation is one of five with observer status seeking entry. Weitzman, appropriately enough, is the IHRA’s chair of anti-Semitism and Holocaust Education.
The IHRA was formed in 1998 and began to gather steam after the Durban, South Africa conference in 2001, “when the Jewish community realized it had been essentially ambushed at the Durban World Conference Against Racism, and that international organizations were more important and had a role to play on these issues,” Weitzman said. “A number of us began focusing on this because it affects not only getting our issues heard, but it also affects policy.”
Countries must satisfy three requirements before they will be admitted to the IHRA: A national day of commemoration for the Holocaust, committing to a national Holocaust education curriculum, and opening sealed World War II archives. Germany, for example, opened its archives at Bad Arolson to the public only as recently as 2007.
“That was very difficult, but that’s really been helpful for many of the scholars,” Weitzman said.
Weitzman said both the organization and teachers at the grassroots have to take active roles in ensuring the countries follow through on the education requirement and not just pay lip service.
“We see in places like Hungary, for example, over the last couple of years where there were significant issues in terms of education and the national curriculum and Holocaust museum there,” he said. “That became, politically, a controversial issue.”
The Hungarian government has been able to get past the issue over the past few months, Weitzman said.
Though he will be speaking most specifically about Holocaust education during his Seattle visit, Weitzman said the Holocaust is just one symptom of the spread of hate.
“The issues related to the Holocaust are the issues related to prejudice on a lot of levels,” he said. “There are still issues around the world related to this in general, [not only] on the Jewish anti-Semitism issue, but, for example, dealing with freedom of religion and belief in general.”
He cited as examples attempts to ban Jewish and Muslim religious practices, such as circumcision and ritual slaughter in Europe, as well as the persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt.
Dee Simon, executive director of the Holocaust Center, said she invited Weitzman “because his résumé is just filled with positions that he’s held in international organizations talking about bigotry and hate,” she said. “He was just the right person to talk about global Holocaust education and the trends that are happening.”
Among those trends are honesty about the Holocaust, Simon said, which she finds heartening. However, “we’re seeing other countries who are just experiencing the opposite effect, where Holocaust education is waning.”
At the luncheon, which is expected to draw a crowd of 650, Simon said the event is focusing on its outreach programs by honoring her mother, Frieda Soury, a Holocaust survivor who has been educating students in the Eastern Washington town of Grandview, population 10,862. Longtime executive director Laurie Warshal Cohen and her husband Michael Cohen will be honored as well.
An exhibit beforehand will showcase artwork by students from around the state who have been affected by their Holocaust education. That includes the work of Kaylee Kim, a senior at Charles Wright Academy in Tacoma whose entry on the Roberts Commission took fourth place in individual exhibits in this year’s National History Day contest.