What appears to have been a well-intentioned effort to encourage students in a suburban Los Angeles high school to critically think about history has instead provoked outrage in the community for inadvertently lending credence to Holocaust denial, forcing the district and the school to issue apologies with promises to halt the assignment.
The research and writing project, assigned in April for eighth-graders at Rialto Unified School District, read:
When tragic events occur in history, there is often debate about their actual existence. For example, some people claim the Holocaust is not an actual historical event, but instead is a propaganda tool that was used for political and monetary gain. Based upon your research on this issue, write an argumentative essay, utilizing cited textual evidence, in which you explain whether or not you believe the Holocaust was an actual event in history, or merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain. Remember to address counterclaims (rebuttals) to your stated claim.
Last week, officials from the Los Angeles offices of the Anti-Defamation League contacted the district to voice their concern and displeasure over the assignment.
“An exercise asking students to question whether the Holocaust happened has no academic value; it only gives legitimacy to the hateful and anti-Semitic promoters of Holocaust denial,” wrote Matthew Friedman, the ADL’s associate regional director. “It is also very dangerous to ask junior high school students to question the reality of the Holocaust on their own, given the sheer volume of denial websites out there.
“If these questions do come up, it’s better to show the huge preponderance of evidence that’s out there (testimony, documentation, death camp sites, archaeology, etc.) and to also question why people would question the reality of the Holocaust (many motivated not by historical curiosity, but by anti-Semitism). Also, who are the people questioning the Holocaust and what do real historians say? This is more of an issue of teaching good information literacy.”
State Sen. Norma Torres, who represents the district, chimed in, declaring: ““Giving school children an assignment that asks them to question whether the holocaust occurred is inappropriate. These actions are insensitive to the millions who lost loved ones and to the many people around the world who have no tolerance for discrimination and genocide.”
In short order, the school district beat a hasty retreat, announcing the assignment had been canceled: “The holocaust should be taught in classrooms with sensitivity and profound consideration to the victims who endured the atrocities committed,” said district spokeswoman Syeda Jafri in an interview.
“This was a mistake. It should be corrected. It will be corrected,” Jafri added. “We all know it was real. The Holocaust is not a hoax. … I believe our classroom teachers are teaching it with sensitivity and compassion.”
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, was particularly outraged by a section in the assignment that referred to Anne Frank as a “fraud”.
“Pedagogically, socially, morally — an F,” Cooper said of the assignment.
“Whatever [the district's] motivation, it ends up elevating hate and history to the same level,” Cooper said. “We should train our kids to have critical thinking, but the problem here is the teacher confused teaching critical thinking with common sense, because common sense dictates you don’t comingle propaganda with common truth.”
The ADL noted at its blog that there was no evidence the assignment was devised to encourage Holocaust denial: “ADL does not have any evidence that the assignment was given as part of a larger, insidious, agenda. Rather, the district seems to have given the assignment with an intent, although misguided, to meet Common Core standards relating to critical learning skills.”