With Education Such a Low Priority in America, It’s No Wonder The Holocaust is Fading From Memory

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The Holocaust has never been more relevant than it is today.

 

Racism and prejudice are on the rise. Hate crimes are becoming more common. Anti-immigrant sentiment is becoming more widespread.

 

And anti-Semitic incidents have increased by 57 percent in the past year, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

 

Yet just last week, a comprehensive study of Holocaust awareness was released concluding that Americans are forgetting this vital chapter of our history.

 

After more than 1,350 interviews, Schoen Consulting found that 11 percent of U.S. adults and more than one-fifth of millennials either haven’t heard of the European Holocaust or aren’t sure what it is.

 

From 1933-1945, approximately 12 million people – 6 million of whom were Jews – were systematically put to death by Nazi forces.

 

However, even many of those who admitted to having some knowledge of these events were unsure about the specifics. For instance, one third of respondents – and 41% of millennials – said that only 2 million people were killed.

 

This is unacceptable.

 

But not unexpected.

 

Not in a country that has made education such a low priority for decades.

 

Only a handful of states mandate Holocaust curriculum in schools – Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, California, Michigan, Indiana, New York and Rhode Island – and each one does so to varying degrees of detail.

 

Other states like Pennsylvania have laws strongly encouraging the teaching of the Holocaust but not requiring it outright.

 

Wasn’t this why 42 states adopted Common Core – to make sure all students were learning the same things?

 

Well, first of all those standards were only adopted in English and Math. Social studies standards were far too controversial to make it over the partisan divide.

 

Moreover, Common Core has actually been an impediment to Holocaust studies, not a help.

 

A principal in Delaware refused to let a concentration camp survivor speak to students because he didn’t think it was rigorous enough under Common Core.

 

Another district tried to encourage critical thinking by asking students if the Holocaust was true or if it had been exaggerated – as if proven facts were up for debate.

 

Additionally, the reading standards push for texts to be taught as if they were standardized test items without proper context for a robust understanding. Combine that with an emphasis on texts that are exceedingly complex and it’s no wonder that young people’s understanding of this important part of history is fuzzy.

 

And I write this as an educator who taught the Holocaust in middle school for more than a decade.

 

The first thing I did was throw those corporate-written standards in the trash.

 

My 8th graders and I watched various award-winning documentaries such as “Auschwitz: If You Cried, You Died.” We read the play version of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” but supplemented it with various interviews and autobiographical articles from concentration camp survivors and even a presentation from community members who had first-hand experience of these events until their age and health made that impossible.

 

The whole unit culminated in a trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC.

 

Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the norm.

 

Though America students make up one third of the 1.7 million visitors to the National Holocaust Museum, 80 percent of Americans say they have never visited any Holocaust museum.

 

I get it. Teaching about this is hard.

 

It’s ugly and scary and repulsive – but it’s meant to be.

 

The DC National Holocaust Memorial  recommends the following guidelines for teaching about the European Holocaust:

 

“Be sensitive to appropriate written and audiovisual content. One of the primary concerns of educators teaching the history of the Holocaust is how to present horrific images in a sensitive and appropriate manner. Graphic material should be used judiciously and only to the extent necessary to achieve the objective of the lesson. You should remind yourself that each student and each class is different and that what seems appropriate for one may not be appropriate for all . . . Some students may be so appalled by the images of brutality and mass murder that they are discouraged from studying the subject further. Others may become fascinated in a more voyeuristic fashion, subordinating further critical analysis of the history to the superficial titillation of looking at images of starvation, disfigurement, and death . . . There is also a tendency among students to glorify power, even when it is used to kill innocent people. Many teachers indicated that their students are intrigued and, in some cases, intellectually seduced by the symbols of power that pervaded Nazi propaganda (e.g., the swastika and/or Nazi flags, regalia, slogans, rituals, and music). Rather than highlight the trappings of Nazi power, you should ask your students to evaluate how such elements are used by governments (including our own) to build, protect, and mobilize a society. Students should also be encouraged to contemplate how such elements can be abused and manipulated by governments to implement and legitimize acts of terror and even genocide.”

 

That’s what I tried to do.

 

This is the first year that I’m not explicitly teaching the Holocaust – and the only reason is because I’m not teaching 8th grade, I’m teaching 7th.

 

It’s not in my curriculum.

 

However, I know my students will get it when they advance to the next grade.

 

I wish that were true everywhere.

 

Unfortunately, a deep knowledge of history does not come from a society obsessed with standardization and privatization.

 

In fact, our policy of high stakes testing is an artifact of the eugenicist movement that inspired the Nazis. Our privatization movement is a holdover from the white flight reactionaries trying to circumvent the integration of Brown vs. Board.

 

We don’t do a comprehensive job teaching the Holocaust because we haven’t, as a society, learned its lessons.

 

We don’t teach the consequences of the European Holocaust because we haven’t come to terms with the consequences of our own American varieties. We haven’t acknowledged the effects of Europeans conquest and genocide of Native Americans, the slave trade, Jim Crow, Japanese internment or the prison industrial complex.

 

To teach the Holocaust we must take a step toward understanding where we, as a nation, have engaged in similar practices.

 

These are lessons vital to our survival and progress.

 

And that is exactly why it hasn’t been made a priority. It is exactly why we don’t have equitable education for all children in America.

 

Doing so would upset the status quo.

 

Doing so would be troublesome to the powers that be who use a racial and economic caste system to keep us all in line.

 

Understanding the Holocaust prevents us from reliving it.

 

And the people in power want to keep that door unequivocally open.


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Trump Can’t Fight Anti-Semites. They’re His Base!

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“In a short time, a large number of Jews are going to be slaughtered. Their heads are going to [sic] blown off from the shrapnel. There’s a lot of shrapnel. There’s going to be a bloodbath that’s going to take place in a short time. I think I told you enough. I must go.”

This is one of at least 89 bomb threats at Jewish institutions since Donald Trump was inaugurated.

Just yesterday, alone, at least 21 Jewish community centers and Jewish day schools across the country received bomb threats.

So far, at least 72 Jewish cultural centers in 30 U.S. states and one Canadian province have been affected, according to the Jewish Community Center Association of North America.

Besides bomb threats, hundreds of graves at Jewish cemeteries were desecrated, there was a foiled massacre at a synagogue and swastika graffiti has dramatically increased in public spaces.

American Jews are victims of more reported hate crimes than any other group in the United States, and have been subject to the majority of religiously motivated offenses every year since the FBI started reporting these statistics in 1995.

Such offenses were not unknown in this country before Trump’s rise, but the rate is increasing.

This is consistent with a rise in hate crimes for all ethnic groups across the country. Southern Poverty Law Centre recorded more than 1,000 hate crimes in January alone – the same amount usually reported over a six-month period.

Far from helping the situation, Trump has made it worse.

His statement for Holocaust Remembrance Day deliberately left out any mention of Jewish people – a direct nod to Holocaust deniers everywhere.

At a press conference, an Orthodox Jewish reporter asked him about “an uptick in anti-Semitism and how the government is planning to take care of it.” Trump asked him to sit down, saying it was “not a fair question” and “I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life.”

His supporters would cheerfully disagree. Ex-Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke is one of his biggest boosters. White nationalists have been recorded literally shouting, “Hail Trump!” and making a gesture similar to the Hitler salute.

In fact, his entire Presidential campaign was predicated on race baiting and xenophobia. He has gone after undocumented immigrants, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, women, Muslims and the disabled.

He led the “birther” movement challenging President Obama’s standing as a natural-born American; used various vulgar expressions to refer to women; spoke of Mexico sending rapists and other criminals across the border; called for rounding up and deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants; had public feuds with prominent Latino journalists and news outlets; mocked Asian accents; let stand a charge made in his presence that Obama is a Muslim and that Muslims are a “problem” in America; embraced the notion of forcing Muslims to register in a database; falsely claimed thousands of Muslims celebrated the 9/11 attacks in New Jersey; tweeted false statistics asserting that most killings of whites are done by blacks; approved of beating up a black demonstrator at one of his events; and publicly mocked the movements of journalist Serge Kovaleski, who has a chronic condition limiting his mobility.

If that’s not prejudiced, racist and bigoted, I don’t know what is.

But when it comes to anti-Semitism, the situation gets complicated.

His supporters will counter that Trump can’t be anti-Semitic because his daughter, Ivanka, converted to Judaism to marry his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner.

But does that really follow?

Trump appears either to be an anti-Semite, himself, or certainly to be tolerant of anti-Semitism.

Even Ivanka’s behavior is suspect. She offered the following strange tweet about recent bomb threats: “America is a nation built on the principle of religious tolerance. We must protect our houses of worship & religious centers. #JCC”.

On the surface of it, she’s asking for the violence to stop. But why is her only mention of Judaism an abbreviation in a hashtag? Doesn’t that minimize the point just like Trump’s Holocaust Remembrance Day message?

This appears to be a kind of plausible deniability.

It’s like a black person telling racist jokes about black people. We might let him get away with it because he’s black. We might say, It’s Okay because he can’t be prejudiced against black people.

However, actions speak louder than words. And Trump’s are clearly on the side of prejudice – even anti-Jewish prejudice.

The Alt Right movement tries to pull the same kind of thing with Breitbart News. The publication has been rife with anti-Jewish conspiracy theories, yet many of its editors and/or writers claim Jewish ancestry. Andrew Breitbart – the conservative media pundit for which the site is named and who died in 2012 – was Jewish. So were many of his colleagues and successors, among them former editor-in-chief Joel Pollak and former editor-at-large Ben Shapiro. Even former senior editor and provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos claims some Jewish ancestry.

Yet Breitbart is the publication of choice for Neo-Nazis and white supremacists. The organization is pushing an anti-Jewish agenda and appealing to racists and bigots as its readership.

The organization has published multiple articles denigrating minorities, championing white nationalism and denying the existence of anti-Semitism – or at very least claiming it only exists on the left.

Trump is deeply connected with the organization through his senior adviser Steve Bannon, one of its founders.

This is the same constituency that propelled the President into the national spotlight. It’s naive to ask Trump for help stop the wave of anti-Jewish hate crimes. The people perpetrating them are most likely his hard core supporters.

Though Trump eventually did make a weak denunciation of the bomb threats and anti-Semitic violence, he can’t be too forceful. He can’t send out a series of tweets critical of Nazis and white nationalists. He can’t turn to his supporters demanding peace. He needs them. They’re just about the only folks left who support him.

In the latest national Quinnipiac poll, only 38% of American voters approve of Trump’s job performance, while 55% disapprove. These are the lowest numbers for a new President in at least 40 years, according to the Washington Post.

If Trump proposes spending federal dollars to fight anti-Semitism with tolerance programs in schools, he’s bound to upset his base. If he appoints a special task force to catch those committing hate crimes, he’s going to anger the only reliable group committed to supporting his political agenda at the polls.

So instead we get half measures. He’ll make a Holocaust Remembrance Day statement – but not mention Jews. He might admit that anti-Semitism is bad but refuse to acknowledge that it still exists.

He’s hoping to make his statements vague enough to be interpreted in two ways. He hopes his critics will interpret them as asking to stop the violence, but he wants his supporters to interpret them as tacit agreement with their anti-Semitism.

This is the exact opposite of moral courage. And it is taking its toll on the Jewish community, and every other minority.