In my book, Forgive Us Our Trespasses: A Memoir of a Jewish Teacher in a Catholic School (Apprentice House Press, 2020), my teaching experience in the early 1990’s starts with finding an antisemitic note on my desk the first day of school.
The front of the index card read: Read this bitch.
The back side read: Jesus is the Messiah and don’t you forget it.
Talk about dampening the joy of the start of my teaching career and my enthusiasm for working with youth to mold them into good, well-educated people. The penciled scrawling looked to be from a child. I was starting at an even lower level of education than I thought. I was there to teach English Language Arts, but apparently there was a lot more work to be done, as I found out that many of these sixth, seventh, and eighth graders had never seen a Jew.
The kids had many questions of which I tried to answer without taking up a lot of class time and getting myself in trouble with staff. Of course, children learn from their parents, and I soon found out that some parents deliberately made my life there a “living hell” to try to oust me.
Many things could have been done differently to introduce me to students, faculty, staff and parents at the school. My hiring could have been handled numerous ways to ensure a smooth transition for all and to avoid the experiences I encountered. Ironically, these children all attended religion classes built into their daily school schedules, which, I imagine, were designed to teach them about their own religion. They could have used some basic information about other religions as well.
Over the years as I read literature on Holocaust Education, I see a vital program that would have helped this school and instruction that would be beneficial for any classroom anywhere in the world yesterday or today. I know the naysayers – the Holocaust deniers, the people who think the content is too sensitive, and those who see no benefit in it. But if handled properly, this education is too important to avoid.
Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, agrees with me, or perhaps I should say that I am in agreement with them. Hadassah worked for years on the Never Again Education Act which was signed into law in May of 2020. According to Hadassah Magazine:
“The new federal program, which includes awarding $10 million in grants for Holocaust education to schools, will help reverse the disturbing trend of students graduating from high school without any understanding of what the Holocaust was, how it happened and to whom and why. Hadassah also hopes that it will help to undercut the appeal of hate groups and communities that traffic in anti-Semitism.”
Here are my reasons for supporting Holocaust education. One reason may overlap with another:
- Holocaust education teaches tolerance, diversity and inclusion so we can all live in a better world.
This is my biggest reason for supporting Holocaust education. What other program uses such a major historical event to serve as the largest example of intolerance, exclusion, and ethnocentric monoculturalism? What other program could show the narrow-mindedness, prejudices, and disregard of such a large population that lead to murder and extermination of six million innocent people? We can teach values through numerous other programs, but a Holocaust education program if taught correctly and effectively can open minds in numerous ways to address values, cultural beliefs, human rights, justice, and reflections on humanity. What have we accomplished if we learn nothing from these atrocities and do not use them to further the education of our youth?
These lessons are relevant today if you look at our immigration policies and other issues facing the nation. It poses questions to students, such as, “To whom do we let into this country and why?” and “What can we do to help misplaced persons?” to name only a few existential questions Holocaust education addresses. The other thousands of questions the Holocaust poses address issues of a spiritual, religious, ethical and philosophical nature.
- Holocaust Education teaches that while antisemitism is hatred for Jews, it usually continues to hatred for other races and religions and infects and damages societies.
The Holocaust killed others besides the Jews. Hatred is far spread beyond only Jews. Children must be taught the evils of hate no matter who it is against. Genocide happens in other countries as well as in our own backyard. Racism runs rampant in our country. Every day there are acts of hate against some group or classification of people here in the United States. Acts of hate occur by children in the school yard. (How many of us have been a victim of that?) One act of hatred can have repercussions beyond what one could expect. Acts of bullying have been known to foster acts of terrorism from children and adults. How many innocent lives must be lost because of the misinformation and prejudgment of others?
- Holocaust Education promotes independent thinking and reduces the chance of radicalization into such groups as white supremacists.
Any teacher will tell you that the goal of education is to get students to think for themselves. We can provide students with all the book knowledge in the world, but they need to use their minds and make informed decisions on their own, weighing the impact those decisions will have on themselves and others. The Holocaust is another prime example of mob mentality, propaganda, and brainwashing, the same techniques used by extremist organizations today. We do not want our children falling prey to this, and education is the key.
The child who left the inflammatory note on my desk was most likely destined to join a group of this kind. Thank goodness I derailed that. He has turned out to be a very independent thinker who stands up for injustices he sees in the world. I am enormously proud of that (and him).
- Holocaust education teaches factual history to make good, informed citizens who are knowledgeable about government and ensure the Holocaust and other injustices and atrocities will never occur again anywhere in the world.
I’ve packed a lot into this one. We want people to know the history of the Holocaust. Why do we teach history in the first place? If we know where we came from, we have a better vision of our future. The reason Hadassah termed the new legislation for teaching of the Holocaust “The Never Again Act” is so it will never happen again. We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of our past.
Teaching history is good for society so that people understand why things are done the way they are, primarily in government. Understanding the way government works is important so that everyone can contribute and benefit in our society. This goes back to education creating independent thinkers, and those thinkers become valuable citizens of our community. We certainly need everyone to contribute so that we can all live together in peace and harmony.
- Holocaust Education helps students gain an appreciation for the privileges and rights we possess as Americans which means, in turn, to gain a sense of patriotism, as well as to foster a sense of gratefulness in children for what they may already have.
Here’s another reason that covers a lot of ground. After I taught in that Catholic school, I taught in another private school where I had a student refuse to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. She declared, “I may live here, but this is not my country. My people are from Africa. I owe no allegiance to it.” (I don’t think she used the word “allegiance,” but you get the idea.) That was her right. I could not force her to stand, nor could I force on her an appreciation of the benefits she has by living in this country. It made me sad that she could not realize it. I find that few children today have a sense of patriotism. As I’ve explained to more than one child, the United States of America is called “the great melting pot” because most of us are descended from ancestors who fled here to escape some form of persecution. We enjoy freedoms in this country that others do not. While perhaps visiting another country and/or witnessing injustices in other countries could open the eyes of some of these kids, it is of course preferable instead to supply the history to foster understanding. Holocaust Education is an “eye-opening” experience.
“Gratefulness” and “gratitude” seem to be buzzwords today. It seems that a byproduct of the pandemic is to practice mindfulness, which includes feeling and showing gratitude to promote good mental health. Elie Wiesel, the famous Nobel Peace Prize winner who wrote an abundance of literature about the Holocaust as a Holocaust survivor, is quoted as saying, “When a person doesn’t have gratitude, something is missing in her or her humanity. A person can almost be defined by his or her attitude toward gratitude.” Do our children possess this quality? Holocaust Education will give them pause to consider their own life and experiences and reflect on the kind of world we want to live in.
- Holocaust education can create an understanding of the importance of the land of Israel which may factor into an understanding of the conflict in the Middle East.
Here is where Holocaust education can be extended into international studies and world history. While the history of the State of Israel is not directly linked with the Holocaust, Holocaust education can build an appreciation for the existence of the state of Israel. And an appreciation for the state of Israel may hopefully help with an understanding of events in the Middle East. We want our students to understand all the aspects of any issue and form opinions based on truth and correct information. It wouldn’t hurt to have sympathizers. We can use all the help we can get!
Research I conducted for this article brought up multiple alarms that global antisemitism is on the rise. We all need to live in a world without fear, and one in which everyone is free to live fully and comfortably. They say that knowledge is power. How will our children gain knowledge or power if they do not know the truth about major historical events, good or bad? Ignorance is not bliss. Every child in every corner of the world should be aware and get a good education. Part of a good education is Holocaust education. Thank goodness Hadassah was instrumental in passing “The Never Again Act” and that it was supported by numerous people including our legislators. We can only hope that it will be a fundamental tool to the education of our children and the future of our society.
For more information on Hadassah’s advocacy efforts, visit here.