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Teaching the Holocaust — excruciating pitfalls

Colorado public and charter schools are now mandated to teach the Holocaust and genocide under the bill passed last June and signed in July.

The intent is good. The importance is obvious (especially if you are Jewish or part of another survivor community). The curriculum is next to impossible.

A host of potential pitfalls, many of them excruciating, face the development of this Holocaust curriculum. These pitfalls, Ithink it safe to say, are unprecedented. I don’t think the State Board of Education, which is mandated with developing the curricular standards, has faced something of this scope and complexity.

1. Brutality

If the Holocaust that is taught is limited to “six million victims” or “death camps” or “mass murders” or “gas chambers” or “Nuremberg laws” or “cattle cars” and the like, one could not deny that this conveys the brutality of the Holocaust. But does it? Really? This is a critical question: How much brutality should a curriculum include in order to be true to the Holocaust?

Should one include that the Nazi cut off women’s breasts, threw living babies in fire pits, gave kids candy and then when the kids opened their mouths to eat them the Nazis shot them dead, forced girls to take off their blouses in order to clean latrines with them, after which the Nazis wrapped the girls’ faces with the excrement-saturated blouses and laughed uproariously — the unspeakable list goes on and on and on.

It is not just the students whose capacity to absorb all these curricular standards must be taken into consideration. It is also the capacity of the high school teachers. I wouldn’t want to be the high school teacher deciding whether to teach the brutal facts of the Holocaust, or paper it over with generalizations or abstractions.

2. “Lessons” and exploitation

If the Holocaust is taught in order to convey that once hatred begins, there is no telling where it will end, well and good. If the point of teaching the Holocaust is to be on guard against hate, well and good.

But this is far more complicated than it sounds, because there is virtually no event in history that has been more exploited, abused and distorted than the Holocaust.

The Holocaust has proven to be the perfect seedbed for promoting contemporary agendas whose connection to the Holocaust is tenuous at best, and that is being kind. The “lessons” of the Holocaust have been used, and abused, on all sides.

Here is an incomplete, recent list of people or organizations that have derived “lessons” from the Holocaust, or compared contemporary conditions to the Holocaust, all of which drastically distort the Holocaust:

• Amcha, protesting a Mel Gibson movie

• Anti-vaxxers in New York’s Rockland County, protesting a school ban on unvaccinated children

• A congressman in Florida, invoking Joseph Goebbels in speaking about Democrats

• Pro-immigrant activists in Arizona posting this sign in the state capitol: “Achtung! Papers Please!! Schnell!!” (with a swastika imprinted over the words)

• An Israeli deputy defense minister, speaking about Hamas-generated damage inflicted on Gazans

• An imam in Calgary, likening Muslims to Jews facing the Holocaust

• Joan Rivers, speaking about models

• Israeli residents of the Gaza Strip (before Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza), wearing yellow stars

• Israeli haredim demonstrating against draft laws

• Focus on the Family, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Jews for Jesus, both pro-choice and pro-life activists, all grossly distorting the Holocaust — and the list runs on.

Look at the variety of political parties and organizations here — across the spectrum. They all exploit the Holocaust. It is not just the political left or the political right. It is both. It not just in politics, it is in culture and religion. And I haven’t even mentioned Iran’s uniquely abhorrent distortion of the Holocaust.

3. The language of the Colorado bill

Nor have I mentioned that the way Colorado’s Holocaust and Genocide bill is written, it actually invites these distorted“lessons.” For in defining “Holocaust,” the bill includes state-sponsored, non-Jewish victims targeted by Nazis for their religion, disability or identity. The Jewish “uniqueness” argument about the Holocaust is set aside, with a range of other categories of Nazi victims admitted.

I am not going to rehash in detail the uniqueness argument — the view that the Nazi genocide of Jews is not the same as the reprehensible Nazi murder of others. I merely note that with the bill’s road definition of “Holocaust,” it is not just the danger of anti-Semitism but a range of other agendas that can logically emerge as “lessons” of the Holocaust.

Note well: It is not under the bill’s definition of “genocide” that non-Jewish victims of the Nazis are included; it is under the bill’s definition of “Holocaust.” A curriculum on “Genocide” appropriately includes any group targeted for genocide. Genocide appropriately includes, for example, the Armenians during WW I.

However, the bill’s definition of “genocide” is also elastic. “Genocide” includes not just people targeted for physical destruction, but for “serious bodily or mental harm” and “measures intended to prevent births” within a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

These broad definitions of both the Holocaust and genocide cannot help but call attention to those contemporary conditions that in no way approach either the Holocaust or genocide, but which are regularly, fallaciously compared to the Holocaust — the variegated “lessons” about which people on all sides of the contemporary political spectrum should debate without reference to the Holocaust.

I know of no disagreement as to whether forced sterilization is wrong, but I do know of debate as to whether it constitutes genocide. The Colorado bill apparently calls it genocide when it defines genocide as “imposing measures intended to prevent births within a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.” Is it a stretch to say that given this somewhat vague language, and given that, statistically speaking, abortions in the US are disproportionate in a given racial group, namely African Americans, that some high school students will conclude that abortion in the US is genocide?

I don’t think this kind of discussion is what should emerge from a high school curriculum on genocide. When everything is genocide, nothing is genocide.

Nor do I think that the scope of the methods used against Jews in the Holocaust should be defined as the same as the Nazi murder of people for their [other] religion, disability, or identity, though these were reprehensible. The dispassionate study of Nazi ideology and Nazi practice reveals the special, fanatic, comprehensive, Nazi focus on murdering every last Jew — on the “Final Solution.” When everything is the Holocaust, nothing is the Holocaust.

4. Materials

The research on the Holocaust is vast and of uneven quality. A Holocaust memoir and a Holocaust history may bear the stamp of authenticity, but be inaccurate or misleading just the same.

The bill calls on the State Board of Education to devise a curriculum of “best practices” in conjunction with “experts in the area of Holocaust and genocide studies,” with a “stakeholder process,” and with “materials for professional educator development in teaching Holocaust and genocide studies.”

These are good principles, though the lack of definition of an “expert” in Holocaust studies is easily exploited. Here are three other issues that these principles do not address:

First, the quantitative issue.

Even a very short list of highly regarded single-volume treatments of the Holocaust comes to eight books. Their average length is some 800 pages! The highly regarded Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-1949, by David Cesarani, is 1,016 pages!

Long as they are, these volumes cannot convey the vast specialized literature on Holocaust rescue, Holocaust resistance, Nazi doctors, Holocaust trials, Holocaust theology, Holocaust denial, and the controversy over the role of the Vatican.

How are adequate curricular standards to be devised in a dispassionate way from out of all of this vast yet essential data? Yet, the Colorado bill requires this to be done “on or before” July 1, 2021! Is this a denial of the protean scope of the catastrophe?

Second, the pedagogical issue.

Even if in a year’s time a veritable library on the Holocaust is accurately digested and dispassionately formulated as a high school curriculum, how is a teacher, hitherto untrained in the subject, to absorb all this?

The bill calls for co-teaching by “experts,” but again, this is undefined.

Keep in mind this critical point: The Colorado bill does not mandate a separate course on the Holocaust and genocide education, for which a teacher would presumably receive specialized training. Rather the bill requires that Holocaust and genocide studies be incorporated “into an existing course.”

Third, the qualitative issue.

The Colorado bill requires that materials for the Holocaust include first-person testimony. Since, alas, virtually no Holocaust survivors are still alive, I assume that this clause points to the 51,000 taped recollections of Holocaust survivors.

These are invaluable in their own way. But given what I regard as the impossibility of devising a comprehensive, dispassionate Holocaust curriculum in less than a year for teachers who will have little training, there is a risk: Holocaust education may minimize the facts and turn to a video curriculum, relying on very moving and revealing memories of survivors that are also decades-old and typically lack the indispensable historical context.

Holocaust education is vital. As envisioned under this bill, it is also a thousand times harder than it may seem.

Iam left with a question:Is no Holocaust education better than distorted Holocaust education?

Copyright © 2020 by the Intermountain Jewish News



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IJN Executive Editor | hillel@ijn.com


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