Holocaust education in schools is deeply lacking

This piece is a guest post written by Naomi Schmulewitz.

Holocaust education in American schools is deeply lacking, and it was Elie Weisel who famously warned us that to forget these events would be akin to killing the victims a second time. Only 16 out of 50 states include teaching about the Holocaust as part of mandatory social studies curriculum, and even then there is no guaranteed exposure to the material, as the creation of curriculum often left up to individual teachers. History courses in our schools often simplify the Holocaust, and in an attempt to universalize the Holocaust they are missing the significance and important lessons, such as ignoring the uniquely Jewish connection. This is causing the lack of knowledge and understanding about the Holocaust among the American public which is alarmingly increasing in younger generations. This fundamental lack of understanding is contributing to today’s rise in antisemitism.

In 2020, a first of its kind survey that was conducted amongst millennials and generation Z across all 50 states, showed a grim picture where the majority of those surveyed were unclear over basic facts of the Holocaust. For example:

  • More than half did not know that 6,000,000 Jews were murdered. 
  • 49% stated that they had seen or read Holocaust denial posts on social media, only 40% were able to identify Auschwitz as a Nazi death camp.
  • Despite having the largest Jewish population of any state, in New York 20% of millennials believe that Jews caused the Holocaust.

Holocaust education simplifies the topic, merging it with broader events and brushing over the details. The Holocaust was not the only known genocide, the Armenians, the Rwandans, the Cambodians were victims of genocides too. However what was unique about the Jewish Holocaust and is important to understand is that this was the first and only time that an attempt was made to wipe out a group on a global basis. The Nazis did not want to merely exterminate the Jews of Germany, but to find a “final solution” for the Jews of the world. As an anonymous quote online stated, “it was not a means to any war effort end; it was the end in itself.” 

Frequently in the media today people make comparisons of current events to the Holocaust. In a recent example, Arnold Schwarzenegger compared the riots and storming of the capitol building to Kristallnacht. Kristallnacht was a targeted brutal and racist attack against Jews, fellow citizens. Jewish-owned businesses were burned down, nearly 100 Jews were killed, and in the immediate aftermath of Kristallnacht 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps. There is no comparison between the current political riots and Kristalnacht, and to draw such comparisons minimizes the suffering of Jews and the atrocities of Nazi Germany.

This type of rhetoric however is increasingly being heard and comes from ignorance of historical realities. Another famous example comes from anti-Israel activists on campuses, who often compare Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians with the Nazis treatment of Jews. Holocaust comparisons just cannot be allowed to be used for political expedience, as they are both factually and contextually inaccurate and not morally equivalent. No one would find it appropriate to compare a politically motivated riot to the Armenian genocide, but we unfortunately do hear the word “Holocaust” watered down to a blanket term for anything bad. Across the world, people have reduced the Holocaust to just a footnote of history and an adjective in common use, and the educational system is partially to blame for not being there to teach the much-needed Holocaust lessons.

Since insufficient education only compounds itself as time goes on, there is a reason to be very concerned. Nowadays educators teaching the next generation often have just as little knowledge on the subject as their students. It is not only such figures as the Iranian leaders who deny the Holocaust. Former Florida high school principle William Latson stated “I can’t say the Holocaust is a factual, historical event because I am not in a position to do so as a school district employee.” A “school district employee,” an educator, says he is incapable of calling the Holocaust a historical event. Let this sink in. The Holocaust is not merely an opinion. If this is not a commonsense fact apparent to all people in this day and age, than our education system is failing, and is aiding and abetting anti-semitism.

As Holocaust survivors age and pass away, we lose our contact to firsthand knowledge and testimonies. While some accounts of events will forever remain unknown, there are many museums and materials available about the Holocaust, but we have to work hard now to preserve the truth of the horrors of the Holocaust in order for us and future generations to learn from these historical, factual events. 

Combating this issue of ineffective Holocaust education and Holocaust denial has been a top priority of Students Supporting Israel. One of the projects the organization has titled UNDENIED is exactly this: a Holocaust memorial and awareness program aims to make sure the stories and the lessons of the Holocaust are remembered and not denied. The project is a grassroots coordinated book-drive across college campuses and high-schools, where each year the goal is to give away free Holocaust education books directly to students. So far, hundreds of books have already been distributed. Five titles are added annually to the list of books available for students to choose from. This year’s titles are about the experiences of children in the Holocaust, and next year’s books focus on honoring the Righteous Among the Nations, individuals who have been honored and recognized by Israel as having taken great steps to save and protect Jews during the Holocaust.

In addition, the SSI movement is calling on students each spring semester to nominate a teacher who is taking the time instructing about the topic of the Holocaust in the classroom, despite this not being a requirement in the majority of states. An appreciation letter is being sent to all nominated teachers to honor their efforts, with the hope to both motivate them and other teachers to do the same. You can find the nomination form here

This year, the International Holocaust Remembrance Day will be taking place on January 27. To learn more about the UNDENIED project, order a book for a student, or donate to help support the continuation of Holocaust education across the country please visit the Student Supporting Israel website here.

Naomi Schmulewitz is the former SSI Minnesota chapter’s Education Cahir and part of the SSI National team. 

About the Author
Ilan Sinelnikov is the Founder and President of the national Students Supporting Israel movement.
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