Hamas, UNRWA, and human rights education

Posted: December 20, 2010 by Rex Brynen in Gaza, UNRWA

As some readers will remember, a dispute arose last year over UNRWA plans to integrate mention of the Holocaust into its human rights curriculum (the link is to Wikipedia, which doesn’t have the story exactly right and is liable to change from day to day, but which provides a summary of sorts). Some Hamas figures criticized the Agency both for addressing the Holocaust and for its teaching on human rights more generally, although the Hamas government in Gaza didn’t officially interfere in the issue.  UNRWA was then incorrectly reported to have backed off its plans. This, and some inaccurate quotes attributed to UNRWA officials, led to the Agency being attacked by the Simon Wiesenthal Center (without the Center having checked with UNRWA first to determine the truth of the matter).

The controversy eventually died down a little, and UNRWA pressed ahead with its development of a human rights curriculum that included discussion of the Holocaust. While most Palestinians seemed unconcerned by the issue,  a few condemned the Agency for being part of a broader Zionist conspiracy:

Some circles within UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Work Agency, have been trying to introduce “the holocaust” into Palestinian school curricula in the Gaza Strip. In so doing, the organization is trying to appease certain Zionist-minded groups in North America, and to a lesser extent in Europe, which have been lambasting the UN body for “conditioning” the Palestinian school system to Arab ideological and political trends.Needless to say, the rationale behind such calls for introducing the conspicuously controversial and highly-propagandistic subject into the world of Palestinian youngsters has very little to do with any educational merits. But it has every thing to do with a virulent Zionist propensity to brainwash Palestinians, particularly young generations, into accepting or at least understanding Zionism, a hateful fascist political ideology that has much in common with Nazism, both in terms of theory and practice.

We have been so tormented by these irredeemable liars, the world’s premier merchants of death and mendacity, so much so that we must be constantly vigilant in the face of   anything and everything they try to get us to do either directly or via international bodies such as UNRWA.

In the final analysis, UNRWA itself has no right to tell our children what to learn and what not to learn. According to its mandate, it has no political role to play. Its job is to facilitate, not indoctrinate.

Meanwhile, a few misinformed or ideologically-blinkered folks in the hardline pro-Israel advocacy community also occasionally condemned UNRWA for “contributing to the Holocaust denial education.”  It should be noted, however, that neither Egypt (which controlled Gaza—and hence the Gaza education system—from 1948 to 1967) nor Israel (which controlled Gaza, and the Gaza education system, from 1967 to 1994) ever bothered to introduce human rights education or discussion of the Holocaust into the local curriculum. UNRWA is the first to do so, and is doing so as part of developing its human rights curriculum in all of its areas of operations. Good for them.

With the recent release of the documentary No Sharp Objects on the visit of some of UNRWA’s top human rights students from Gaza to the US, it seems the Agency is once more in trouble. The video clips from the documentary included on The Guardian website reveal—shock! horror!—that the students visited an exhibit on the Holocaust at UN headquarters in New York:

Student: The next day we went to the main building of the United Nations in New York.

Tour leader: Do you know about the Holocaust that happened in Germany? Who knows about it? Put your hands up.

Student: The first thing we saw was about the Holocaust and what happened to the Jews. When the Germans were trying to kill families and kids.

Teacher: We should say the Nazis, not Germans because the Germans are good people. The Nazis were racist. They abused all nationalities that were not of their blood. This ideology was inhuman. Racist. It was against all values. It was against human rights. And so guys, because we faced suffering and injustice we have to appreciate and understand the suffering of others, regardless of their religion and race. Jews were persecuted in Europe in the Second World War and we understand that.

Tour leader: One of the ways to kill them was to trick them to go into a room. they closed the door and turned on gass to kill them. Children, women, men, families. If you look here, they were working. Their lives were unbearable.

According to a report carried by the (pro-Hamas) Palestine Information Centre:

Hamas castigates UNRWA for taking students to sightsee holocaust centers

GAZA, (PIC)– Hamas’s refugees department strongly denounced the UN’s Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for staging trips for Palestinian students to the US, Europe, and South Africa to sightsee Jewish holocaust museums, calling the trips “suspicious”.

The department said UNRWA selected ninth grade honor students for a tour of holocaust centers in the West.

“We cringed when reading an article in the British Guardian newspaper and watching a film it prepared about a trip for 16 ninth-grade students to New York during which they were briefed about what happened on September 11 and then taken to the Museum of the Jewish Holocaust.”

UNRWA teaching staff taught the students how the Jews suffered at the hands of the German Nazis, and expressed sympathy for them.

UNRWA does not have the freedom to teach as it sees fit, Hamas said. But the agency said it was committed to teaching along the programs adopted in its five areas of operations, and should abide by that program in Gaza, one of those five areas.

“When an international organization specializing in Palestinian refugees takes on teaching human rights, that requires focusing on the rights of Palestinian refugees, with no need to address the rights of the oppressed from other regions in the world. The children cannot comprehend the oppression of all of the world’s peoples. The oppression and suffering of the Palestinians by the hands of the Jewish occupiers is a good enough example.”

“The point of the trip is strange. What is America’s connection to human rights when it is not bound by them? It violates them day and night in all corners of the world, and inside America itself.”

If students must go on a trip, then why not to Vietnam to learn about the three million who died in the US war in the region; or to Africa, where people were stolen and taken as slaves in Europe and America in previous centuries?

“We denounce this suspicious act in hopes that UNRWA education officials in the Gaza Strip will not repeat it; and we hope the Palestinian Authority will take a national stand to put a stop to ideological corruption on Palestine’s youth.”

…and also:

UNRWA suspicious trips raise ire of Palestinian parents

GAZA, (PIC)– A state of anger and dismay is prevailing among Palestinian parents in general in the wake of the trips that were organized by the UNRWA for outstanding students from Gaza to sightsee Jewish holocaust centers in the US, Europe and South Africa.

Many Palestinians, who expressed their anger, saw a documentary movie showing 15 students from Gaza, who were taken on a journey arranged by the UNRWA to New York city, visiting the museum of the holocaust in the city.

More outrageously, spokesman for the UNRWA Adnan Abu Hasna denied that the students visited the holocaust museum in New York.

The UNRWA usually hastens to deny the violations and mistakes it makes against the Palestinian society whenever it senses the danger of its actions and the consequent reactions from Palestinian citizens, especially the parents.

A lot of parents stated openly to the Palestinian information center (PIC) that it is time for the Palestinian government in Gaza to take action against the UNRWA and prevent it from exploiting the margin of freedom given to it to tamper with the minds of their children.

Among those parents was a father of three children studying in UNRWA schools named Abdulaziz Hammad who said he was extremely chocked when he saw the report of the Guardian newspaper and the video clip on the journey to New York, especially the part that focused on the alleged suffering of Jews on the world day of human rights.

You’ll find more coverage of the issue here and here.

While one can understand why many Palestinians might view their struggle with Israel as “zero-sum,” in which any discussion of Jewish suffering somehow must come at the expense of sympathy for the Palestinian cause, it is a wrong-headed and counterproductive position to adopt. Indeed, one could argue that Palestinians have a particular national interest in understanding the ways in which persecution has shaped Jewish and Israeli perceptions and security concerns.

It is interesting too that the visit didn’t become an issue at the time it took place, or once the kids were back in Gaza—suggesting that neither they, their parents, nor their classmates thought it particularly inappropriate. Rather, the visit only became controversial when news of it appeared in a Western newspaper.

In any event, UNRWA has quite sensibly taken the position that human rights are universal, and that one can’t possibly understand the emergence of post-WWII international human rights norms and instruments without discussing the massive human rights abuses that the war entailed.

As for me, I’m waiting for everyone’s favourite al-Aqsa TV show, Pioneers of Tomorrow, to address human rights issues with all the sensitivity that it showed to animal welfare issues:

Update: Added a few corrections, an extra link, and the subtitles/narration from the video.

Update 2: According to Haaretz, the Islamic Society of North America has expressed support for future UNRWA student delegations visiting the US Holocaust memorial Museum:

The Islamic Society of North America slammed Tuesday the Hamas for attempting to block a group of Gazan youth from visiting the Washington Holocaust Museum, saying they “strongly recommend” the visit.

“We strongly recommend that a visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum be part of the delegation of Palestinian students,” the Islamic group said in a letter to Rabbi Marc Schneier, President of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding….

  1. Carl Prine says:

    I was waiting for the Pioneers of Tomorrow reference!

  2. Rex Brynen says:

    I knew you would be, Carl 😉

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