U.S. Never Again Education Act must prevent Holocaust misappropriation

When the Nazis unleashed their fury on European Jews, my parents’ plans to wed in their native Poland collapsed. Forcibly separated and their families viciously slain, they endured slave labor, starvation and terror at Auschwitz, Buchenwald and other camps.

Reunited and married after the Holocaust, they immigrated to the U.S. shouldering a sacred duty to educate the next generation of leaders about the Nazis’ atrocities and the consequences of such inhumanity. They spoke to students at every opportunity including on Yom Ha’Shoah/Holocaust Remembrance Day, observed globally this week with virtual gatherings because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

My parents’ work is closer to being formalized broadly with the U.S. Never Again Education Act. The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed H.R. 943 on the U.N.-designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which this year commemorated the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The U.S. Senate version, S.2085, had 56 sponsors as of March 9.

H.R. 943 authorizes the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to develop and disseminate Holocaust-related resources, encourage local educators to adopt them, and establish instructional principles and professional development.

The need for these studies is indisputable, with surging antisemitism and startling gaps in basic Holocaust knowledge. A national survey found that 22% of millennials haven’t heard or aren’t sure if they’ve heard of the Holocaust, 66% unable to identify what Auschwitz was.

This widespread unfamiliarity has enabled malign actors to misappropriate the Holocaust by portraying Israelis as modern-day Nazis, an insidious effort already trickling into classrooms. Known as Holocaust inversion, the Nazis’ systematic murder of Jews is weaponized to demonize Israel, and excoriate and exclude Jews.

With that worrisome backdrop, safeguarding the integrity of Holocaust education in a national rollout will hinge on a vetting process for all content of any partnering programs. As a first step, the law should designate the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism as a curriculum-evaluation standard.

Adopted in 2016 by the Alliance’s 31 countries including the U.S., the definition lists among present-day examples of antisemitism, “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” and “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

These guardrails already have proven necessary, as curricula in some of the dozen states in the U.S. mandating Holocaust education demonstrate. Disturbingly, resources are found that employ Holocaust inversion, or reference others doing so.

One popular resource, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program, produced a teacher’s guide for a film about a Holocaust survivor that recommends Human Rights Watch in its “Research Guide for Contemporary Genocides.” On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, HRW executive director Kenneth Roth took aim at Israel for “war-crime settlements.” It was among several such tweets, one featured on HRW’s “Top Human Rights Tweets of the Week.”

A professional-development webinar for bringing the Black Lives Matter movement into classrooms, also through the SPLC’s tolerance program, reviews the Movement for Black Lives “Invest-Divest” demands—a plank accusing Israel of “genocide” and linking to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, which traffics in antisemitism using Holocaust inversion. Its co-founder Omar Barghouti supports “euthanasia” of Zionism.

Amnesty International, another frequent resource, also exploits a distorted framework as it accuses Israel of crimes against humanity, while PBS LearningMedia offers educators a video segment of a Palestinian suicide bomber justifying his actions “to put an end to this Nazi state, this racist Jewish state” without context in accompanying teaching material.

When such problematic associations seep into lesson plans under the guise of human rights, they trivialize the brutalities inflicted upon Jews as they were systematically exterminated. And they construct a powerful instrument to indoctrinate impressionable youngsters with falsehoods about Israel, fueling hatred toward Jews and the only Jewish state.

Unfortunately, troubling developments within the broader spectrum of school curricula support concerns that Holocaust education could be hijacked and manipulated to target Israel.

guest speaker at a New York school discussed “the fluidity between those who are victims becoming perpetrators” adding, “Jews who suffered in the Holocaust and established the State of Israel today perpetuate violences against Palestinians that are unthinkable.”

And in San Francisco, an organization whose executive director accused Israeli soldiers of “torture” and said  “bringing down Israel really will benefit everyone in the world, everyone in society” won school board approval to provide classroom workshops on “leadership development and cultural empowerment” and professional development.

With the battle over the soul of our education intensifying, Holocaust and genocide curricula must remain sacrosanct. As it wends its way through the U.S. Congress, The Never Again Education Act should include the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism to build a firewall blocking connections that could undermine such studies with distorted narratives.

At stake is the dignity we bestow upon 6 million slaughtered Jews after the memorial candles of yearly remembrances are extinguished.

 

About the Author
Deborah Gastfreund Schuss is an award-winning reporter and the recipient of a journalism fellowship that supported her graduate education at the Harvard Kennedy School. She was a correspondent for The Boston Globe for six years, reported for The Associated Press, and worked for other news organizations as a writer and editor. She also has been published in The Wall Street Journal and on foxnews.com, and blogged for The Jerusalem Post.
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