Teach US students about Holocaust, experts say, amid rise in antisemitism

Amid an alarming rise in antisemitism in the US and increasing push back from some conservative groups, experts are urging the implementation of Holocaust education among young people at American public schools.

Multiple states in recent years have enacted laws mandating Holocaust education across their public schools to varying degrees, but there is no federal requirement on Holocaust education, let alone that of other genocides.

Yet, enacting legislation on Holocaust education marks only the first step in genocide awareness, experts say. For the handful of US states that have passed bills specifically requiring Holocaust education, some struggle with funding and the absence of oversight committees that would help reduce disparities in the material and frequency surrounding Holocaust teachings.

According to a survey conducted by Pew Research Center in 2020, American teenagers’ levels of Holocaust knowledge is similar to that of adults without post-secondary education.

The survey conducted among teenagers aged 13-17 revealed that more teens know when the Holocaust occurred (57%) and what Nazi ghettos were (53%) than how many Jews were murdered during the Holocaust (38%). Moreover, only 33% of teens know the circumstances surrounding Adolf Hitler’s rise to power as Germany’s chancellor.

Coupled with the fading memory of the Holocaust is a staggering spike in antisemitism and hate crimes. An audit by the Anti-Defamation League last August found that antisemitic incidents in the US reached an all-time high in 2021 since the center began tracking in 1979. The 2,717 antisemitic incidents counted by the center in 2021 marked a 34% increase from the 2,026 incidents in 2020.

Moreover, as education bans on critical race theory, gender and history sweep the country, many schools are seeing a growing push from rightwing conservatives on the need to teach the genocide’s “opposing” perspectives.

In Seattle, a school district employee argued last year that if the district wanted to carry books on the Holocaust, it would have to include a “book that disputes the Holocaust”. Meanwhile, an Ohio lawmaker last year called for the Holocaust to be taught “from the perspective of a German soldier”.

Currently, at least 18 states have legislation that specifically requires Holocaust and genocide education. Yet despite the legislation, each state’s Holocaust education policies are implemented and funded to different extents.

In 2021, the Wisconsin governor, Tony Evers, signed a bill that requires lessons about the Holocaust and other genocides to be integrated into social studies education from grades five to 12.

When the law was passed, some educators in the state had never taught the subject before. As a result, the Milwaukee-based Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center (Herc) has been working alongside various groups including the Wisconsin department of public instruction on delivering proper training to educators via workshops.

“Holocaust education can be daunting for educators who have never taught the subject,” Herc’s executive director, Samantha Abramson, said. “We made the decision early on when the law was passed that we would send our professional staff on the road across the state, to bring these workshops and resources to regions and districts in need. In some cases, the educators we trained not only were learning about some of this history for the first time, but they were also meeting a Jewish person for the first time,” she said.

Herc also developed TeachHolocaust.org, an online platform that offers lesson plans divided into various topics including political roles, medieval anti-Judaism and international complicity. Educators are able to select from lesson features including multi-media, primary and secondary sources, grade level and class time.

Arkansas passed a similar bill in 2021, mandating curriculum changes for the 2022-23 school year that will require its public schools to incorporate Holocaust education from fifth to 12th grade. The state’s senate education committee also approved a bill to establish Holocaust Education Week across public schools. If signed into law, the bill will designate the last full week of classes in January as Holocaust Education Week.

In Arizona, a law passed in 2021 requires students to receive instruction in the Holocaust and other genocides at least once in either seventh or eighth grade and at least once in high school in their social studies courses. But despite the state mandate, there is currently no statewide office overseeing the education, thus leaving organizations such as the Phoenix Holocaust Association (PHA) to develop their own resources for educators.

“We do not have funding, nor do we have any body or office overseeing it to find out what schools are doing … Yes, we have a mandate and I am very proud of Arizona that we have a mandate. I have no idea, though, how many schools are teaching it. Where is it being taught? How is it being taught?” Sheryl Bronkesh, president of the PHA, said.

As many states with recently enacted Holocaust education laws implement the subject in classrooms, experts are urging educators to refrain from teaching the Holocaust from an exclusively historical perspective.

“We have to have a whole of society approach and I think part of that includes education but it also includes the soccer coach. It also includes the community leaders, particularly local ones. I think what this will say to students will not only enlighten them about civics but also history, psychology and governance,” Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University San Bernardino, said.

“When you teach people about prejudice, stereotyping, conspiracies and disinformation and how to go through those weeds, it is like teaching someone to fish. They carry that for a lifetime,” Levin added.

With about only 50,000 Holocaust survivors in the US and a widening generational gap between young people and the Holocaust, the need to preserve their legacy is more urgent than ever.

In her experience, San Francisco’s Jewish Family and Children’s Services Holocaust Center director, Morgan Blum Schneider, noticed that students connect most deeply with primary sources, especially first-person testimonies from Holocaust survivors.

“The power of testimony is really something phenomenal … [The students] may not remember the specific historical date that France was invaded. They may not remember the number of people in a specific concentration camp but they will remember the specific story of the individual,” Schneider said.

In addition to hosting Holocaust survivors and their descendants, Schneider’s center also hosts genocide survivors from Cambodia, Rwanda and Sudan.

Like Levin, Schneider advocates for Holocaust education to not only be taught alongside other genocides but also in tandem with some of today’s immigration stories, if people coming to the US are fleeing trouble in their home countries.

“A student must be able to see themself in the material … when we can make the connections and have the students see the patterns of dehumanization, the patterns of propaganda … [and] discrimination, then they can connect with the material that may be from decades in the past,” she said.