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Holocaust Education: A Mixed Bag in U.S. Schools

The Holocaust stands as an indelible chapter in human history, characterized by unimaginable suffering, persecution and the systematic extermination of millions of people. It is a haunting reminder of the depths of human cruelty and the perils of unchecked racism and discrimination.

Yom HaShoah, beginning this Sunday at sundown and running through nightfall Monday, is an international day of remembrance for the lives of those lost in the Holocaust. It stands as day to honor those lost and for people around the world to rededicate themselves to the cause of education against hate, violence and racism.

In the complex landscape of the 21st century, it is not enough merely to remember the Holocaust; rather, we must integrate its lessons into education, ensuring that future generations understand how and why such atrocities occurred and comprehend the significance of the phrase “never again.”

Holocaust Hall of Names
Young Israelis look up and around at portraits of Holocaust victims in the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, in Jerusalem, Israel, commemorating the 6 million Jewish victims killed by the Nazis during World War II. (Photo by Eddie Gerald/Alamy)

At present, Holocaust education in American schools is marked by a patchwork of state-by-state mandates. Some states that have enacted Holocaust education mandates introduce book bans and strict limits on teaching. Katie Chaka Parks, manager of adult education at the Zekelman Holocaust Center in Farmington Hills, Michigan, has noted that the lack of support for Holocaust education raises questions about these mandates’ effectiveness.

Challenging authenticity and exploring efficacy

The selectiveness of Holocaust education being mandated in schools, while other historical injustices are banned, raises the question of why some deem the Holocaust to be the only “acceptable tragedy” to teach children.

Noted Holocaust studies scholar Debórah Dwork argues that politicians and specific media channels are failing to promote sincere Holocaust education. She posits that such education should function as a guiding “compass,” directing students toward a broader comprehension of global injustices. Dwork says that reducing the Holocaust to a mere instrument for political agendas minimizes its true impact: “The Holocaust, for those people pushing the mandate, is not the Holocaust that I study.” She asserts that it becomes a “sanitized and sanctified event, detached from historical reality.”

Parks echoes this sentiment, stating that she has seen people coming to the Zekelman museum looking to learn a “sanitized version” of the Holocaust in order to “make themselves feel better for being racist.” This speaks to the notion that somehow if one learns about the Holocaust, even tangentially, or that if school boards or state governments mandate education about the Holocaust, disingenuous though it may be, they are absolved of the sin of racism.

Luke Berryman, founder of The Ninth Candle – an organization founded to work with schools to improve Holocaust education – asserts that “Holocaust education requires more than noble mandates” and that “even in states where the Holocaust is mandated, the mandate just requires that it be taught. It doesn’t say what the outcomes should be, or how they should be assessed.” He further explains that “requiring social science teachers to ‘just teach’ the Holocaust is like requiring math teachers to ‘just teach’ quantum mechanics: It isn’t that simple.” Berryman decries the fact that “too many mandates are noble in principle, but ineffective in practice.”

One clear sign of the inauthenticity of the mandates being pushed for by public figures is how they are simultaneously being used to attack diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. DEI initiatives, at their core, promote access and equality for students from a variety of backgrounds and allow for and encourage open discussions in classrooms. While Idaho state Sen. and Freedom Caucus member Brian Lenney supports Holocaust mandates, he paradoxically – and hypocritically – believes that DEI programs promote antisemitism.

Conversely, Holocaust survivor Barbara Schecter Cohen affirmed that the attacks on DEI initiatives are reminiscent of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Speaking at the Zekelman Holocaust Center last July, Schecter Cohen said: “Education is not memorizing that Hitler killed 6 million Jews. Education is understanding how millions of ordinary Germans were convinced that it was required.” Dwork affirms this by stating that the history of the Holocaust requires education that goes beyond the surface because “the history of the Holocaust is relevant to so many other facets of the lives we lead” and that it should be taught “with eyes on issues that resonate with the problems students face, and we as a society face.”

The thinness of Holocaust mandates also raises the issue of how effective they are.

Numerous studies and surveys highlight a concerning lack of Holocaust knowledge among students. While students may be familiar with the term and aware of the Holocaust’s occurrence, they often lack true understanding. A 2020 Pew Research study found that most U.S. teens and adults can pinpoint when the Holocaust took place and recognize the term “ghettos.” However, the same study uncovered gaps in knowledge regarding how Adolf Hitler rose to power. Perhaps more alarming was that “nearly three in ten Americans” said there were “not sure how many Jews died in the Holocaust” and “15% say that 3 million or fewer Jews were killed.” Failing to contextualize the Holocaust within broader history, particularly the rise of Nazism, diminishes the significance of understanding how and why such atrocities were allowed to happen. Without grasping these crucial aspects, the true lessons of the Holocaust risk being lost.

The presentation of the Holocaust often occurs in isolation, devoid of broader historical contexts of genocide and racial violence. This approach not only impedes students’ understanding of the past but also perpetuates a narrow and exclusionary interpretation of human history. Contextualizing the Holocaust within broader patterns of genocide and state-sponsored racism is crucial for comprehending its complexities.

The researchers at the Phoenix Holocaust Association argue: “Task forces and commissions work hard to implement Holocaust education as mandated in their state bills. Yet few legislators are willing to fund them.” Indeed, only a handful of states – as of September 2021 – had provided funding for Holocaust mandates that had been passed in their states. The report cites an example in Oregon – a state that has had a mandate in place since 2019 – stating: “There are still teachers across the state that are unaware of the mandate. Without funding, there is no guarantee that teachers and administrators receive quality professional development that prepares them for its implementation.”

To address this gap, Boaz Dvir created the Holocaust Genocide and Human Rights Education Initiative at Penn State University to train teachers on how to teach difficult topics. Unlike traditional Holocaust education in professional development settings that tends to focus on large lectures, standardized curricula, or solely survivor testimonies, Dvir’s approach focuses on empowering teachers to tackle such topics as the Holocaust and other “hard histories” through inquiry and active research. The program Dvir has developed is unique, as it fosters long-term engagement with teachers rather than the long weekend of seminars that has become standard in professional development. Dvir’s approach aims not only to equip teachers with knowledge but also provides them with support that, he believes, can be instrumental to an honest, open and discursive historical instruction, particularly on topics that right-wing politicians and activists have recently deemed taboo.

Legislation and policies against DEI and critical race theory (CRT) are sweeping the country, and many dictate exactly how, if at all, topics of race, gender, sexuality and ethnicity can be discussed in public schools and universities. This includes how historical facts, such as the Holocaust and slavery, are taught.

Censorship attempts through book challenges and bans have also seen an alarming rise. The American Library Association reported a 92% increase in books targeted in 2023 over the previous year. Of the more than 4,240 unique titles marked for censorship, 47% represented LGBTQ+ or BIPOC individuals.

Florida: A case study

Florida has served as a case study in the sincerity of Holocaust mandates. Although 1994 legislation mandates that Holocaust education be incorporated into all K-12 public school instruction, the intention and efficacy of this can be called into question due to several recent actions.

The state-led initiative was a pioneer in banning the teaching of “divisive concepts.” In April 2022, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB 7 into law. It is also known as the “Stop WOKE Act.” The core concepts of the law closely mirror former President Donald Trump’s executive order #13950, which was issued during calls for racial equity in 2020 but later revoked by the Joe Biden administration.

The law specifically addresses Holocaust education, saying that it is “to be taught in a manner that leads to an investigation of human behavior, and understanding of the ramifications of prejudice, racism, and stereotyping, and an examination of what it means to be a responsible and respectful person.”

Although the bill also mandates that subjects be taught objectively, using materials that meet “the highest standard of professionalism and historical accuracy,” the Florida Department of Education rejected 35% of publisher-submitted social studies books for approval. Among them were History of the Holocaust, 2nd Edition, and Modern Genocide. According to the Department of Education, Modern Genocide was rejected for its inclusion of “special topics.”

Florida has also led the way in censorship and outlawing access to honest, comprehensive teaching. According to Pen America, the state was among the top in books challenged and banned in schools and libraries. These included historical and personal accounts of the Holocaust, such as Maus, Night and The Diary of Anne Frank.

The state has been suppressing diverse students with legislation banning DEI programs, oppress honest history, and mold facts through legislation banning critical race theory. It has also passed legislation prohibiting state colleges and universities from using state of federal funds to “advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion, or promote or engage in political or social activism.”

In 2023, Florida made it mandatory that middle school children be “taught that enslaved people reaped vocational benefits.” This echoes the same line that the far right “school” PragerU has promoted in their video about Columbus and Indigenous people: “Slavery is as old as time and has taken place in every corner of the world, even amongst the people I just left. Being taken as a slave is better than being killed.” While the cartoon Columbus doesn’t see this as a problem, the SPLC pointed out last January the dangers of historical revisionism, particularly about Holocaust and other genocides.

In 2020, the Claims Conference ran a survey on Holocaust education among millennials and Generation Z, and in Florida while 89% confirmed their belief that the Holocaust happened, 15% believe the number of Jews who were executed was greatly exaggerated. Furthermore, only 39% of those surveyed knew how many Jewish people were murdered, and even though 57% said they had seen Holocaust denial and distortion online and in social media, 13% responded that they had first learned of the Holocaust through social media. While the poll notes that 61% of Florida residents said they are “very familiar” with who Adolf Hitler was, Parks argues that familiarity with Hitler does necessarily equate knowledge about the Holocaust. She asserts, “If you pin it all on one person (Hitler)” then “it completely erases the fact that it was an entire society of people” that were complicit in allowing the Holocaust to occur. This is the sort of surface level history that does students a disservice and is becoming increasingly common in American high schools. In Florida, 60% did not know that 6 million Jewish people were killed in the Holocaust, including 30% who said they believed that fewer than 2 million were murdered.

Another target in Florida in recent years has been social emotional learning (SEL), which teaches students how to manage emotions and relationships, set goals and experience empathy for others. Far-right activist and DeSantis adviser Chris Rufo erroneously defined the intention of SEL to The New York Times as “to soften children at an emotional level, reinterpret their normative behavior as an expression of ‘repression,’ ‘whiteness,’ or ‘internalized racism,’ and then rewire their behavior according to the dictates of left-wing ideology.”

Antisemitic incidents have witnessed a steady escalation over the years, with a pronounced surge in recent months, and Florida stands no exception to this troubling trend. Whether it’s neo-Nazis staging protests at Disney, the Goyim Defense League distributing flyers, or the despicable act of swastikas defacing homes and synagogues, Florida bears witness to these disturbing occurrences. Despite the passage of bills within the state aimed at defining and condemning antisemitism while endorsing Holocaust education, Florida finds itself increasingly associated with the banning of DEI initiatives and CRT – actions that are, at best, counterproductive.

This contradiction is starkly apparent, particularly considering revelations that books focused on Holocaust education are also being prohibited. Parks aptly articulates the significance of her dialogues with museum visitors, describing them as “fruitful” as they reveal a widespread lack of comprehension regarding the longstanding nature and contemporary manifestations of age-old prejudice. She underscores that these restrictions on education and the banning of books stifle crucial conversations, including those centered on the Holocaust. Parks expresses her frustration, asserting that instilling empathy proves challenging because “You cannot walk in someone else’s shoes, you cannot know what they’ve been through.”

Recognizing the importance of accurate and inclusive representations in Holocaust history, Parks and her museum endeavor to reaffirm this by not only highlighting the broader narrative of the Nazi genocide and their targets but also delving into the complex dynamics of the perpetrators, who were not solely card-carrying Nazi men. Such vital lessons may risk being overlooked or lost altogether in Florida’s selective approach to determining which historical narratives are deemed acceptable for educational purposes.

The results of insincere Holocaust education

The singling out of what might seem like Jewish-centric initiatives, despite existing Title VI investigations, particularly on college campuses, has arguably fostered an emphasis on antisemitic tropes such as Jewish supremacy, control and wealth. President Joe Biden’s National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism explicitly states: “Title VI of 1964 Civil Rights Act bars discrimination in federally funded programs based on race, color, or national origin. This includes protection from discrimination or harassment due to shared ancestry, ethnicity, citizenship in a religiously dominant country, or distinct religious identity. The act states, “Title VI prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin against individuals of any religion such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, or Buddhism, may manifest through racial, ethnic, or ancestral stereotypes, as well as judgments based on appearance, including skin color, physical attributes, or attire reflecting cultural and religious traditions, along with prejudice against foreign accents, names, or languages spoken.”

Ineffective Holocaust mandates, coupled with additional, arguably insincere, antisemitism initiatives, contribute to a rise in the kind of antisemitism that right-wing legislatures claim they aim to address. As certain histories are ignored and books and critical race theory are banned, the Holocaust remains untouched, suggesting a disconcerting trend of selective memory and political maneuvering.

Failure to contextualize the Holocaust risks trivializing its significance and turning it into a tool for political manipulation. As noted earlier, organizations like PragerU are actively producing revisionist histories that prevent the kind of contextualization that Dwork and Parks assert is essential to education and Holocaust memory.

The Holocaust occupies a unique place in American cultural memory, aligning with the heroic narrative of American history. The belief that Holocaust education acts as a “silver bullet” against racism is disingenuous.

Unfortunately, this notion persists, alongside hollow antisemitism initiatives driven by political gain, highlighting, as Dvir asserts, that current Holocaust education “is not fulfilling its great promise.” Holocaust education “should be a beacon of light” and “a major success story,” adds Dvir. It’s arguable that education about the Holocaust could and should provide insight into how and why people commit such atrocities, offering a historical road map for prevention. It should also compel Americans to confront the tragedies in our own national history. However, it fails to do so. In recent years, despite the enactment of Holocaust initiatives in numerous states, there is a trend of erasing or downplaying the brutal realities of American slavery, westward expansion and colonization.

Dvir suggests this may partly stem from the heroic narrative surrounding America’s role in World War II and the Holocaust, where Americans are typically perceived as the “good guys” and “liberators” who saved people from tragedy, death and fascism: “America was the good guy 100%, no one can deny it, no one can argue with it. Case closed, and the enemy was the bad guy. That isn’t the case with slavery.” However, Dvir notes that this narrative is disingenuous because of the selective overlooking of darker chapters, such as slavery, indigenous genocide and systemic racism. Focusing solely on the Holocaust in schools reinforces this narrative and perpetuates societal amnesia regarding other forms of oppression.

To truly uphold the principles of “never again,” Holocaust education must be a catalyst for confronting hatred and injustice in all its forms, expanding discourse to encompass broader historical contexts. Regarding mandates, Holocaust education advocate Katie Chaka Parks observes that there is no “mandate police,” essentially allowing the mandates to remain as hollow as they are. She asserts that “there’s a lot of states that have mandates that have no educational center or Holocaust museum to support that mandate.” Parks questions the authenticity and sincerity of these states that have mandates but lack the support, whether educational or financial, to fulfill them.

States that are mandating the Holocaust while banning other “hard histories” are cutting students off at the knees. It cannot be taught in a vacuum. Berryman notes in an essay for Chalkbeat: “This is the most radical demonstration of what can happen when the suffering of others goes unchecked. This is why improving the way we teach it must be a priority for schools everywhere.”

Yom HaShoah calls us to reckon with the lessons of the Holocaust and reinforces the need for honest, open, discussive education for all to understand not simply what happened, but how and why it was allowed to happen.

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