While Germany was grappling with the atrocities of the Nazi regime and antisemitism, across the Atlantic, in the United States, millions of people of African descent were suffering the horrors of Jim Crow. The Holocaust, American slavery and subsequent anti-Black oppression are not just matters of opinion—these are all somber and documented times in history that should be taught. For “never again” to retain its meaning, we must have open discussions and engage in honest education.
Debórah Dwork, director of the Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Crimes Against Humanity at the City University of New York Graduate Center, argues that mandating Holocaust education and at the same time banning or censoring other “hard histories” is ineffective and disingenuous. While many states mandate Holocaust education, it is highly problematic that more and more states are using deliberate misrepresentation to ban what they erroneous identify as critical race theory (CRT)—a higher education-level legal framework—and censor K-12 teaching about other atrocities committed in this country.
Dwork further explains the need for contextualized Holocaust education, saying that “it should be taught just as our many other key events in human history,” and also argues “many organizations, institutions [and] groups look to the Holocaust as if it were a vaccine … and [then] claim incredible success in inoculating young people against racism. There is no data to support that.” In fact, recent polling illustrates a general lack of knowledge about the Holocaust, raising questions about the efficacy of these mandates and whether they are earnest efforts or hollow gestures.
Teaching the Holocaust in schools as a singular event without understanding the context nor acknowledging the United States’ role and influence falsely removes the Shoah from a larger narrative of the intersection of racism, nativism, policy and society. Divesting the horrors of the Holocaust from the American experience or education is both common and easy. Simply put, because the Shoah did not happen in the U.S, it is far easier to point out the evils other nations have done than accept and contend with our own.
Vague Language and Massive Contradictions
As legislation that bans the teaching of the most devastating parts of U.S. history sweeps the nation, it’s noticeable that vague language abounds in several of these bills—either those under consideration or those already in effect. Contradictory regulations around what is taught versus what cannot be taught sets the stage for any individual to challenge any part of the curriculum they may find offensive. This vagueness is deliberate and has a chilling effect on educators, many of whom self-censor out of uncertainty and fear of repercussion.
Legislation in several states outlaws the teaching of “divisive concepts” or “controversial issues,” thus leaving room for interpretation, all of which is intended to ban teaching honest U.S. history. Texas House Bill 3979, for example, prohibits “compelling a teacher for any social studies course in the required curriculum to discuss a particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs.” Laws like these are generally written to keep instructors from connecting the threads of systemic oppression that continues today and is clearly based on documented history.
Public schools in the state of Florida—which now serves as the nation’s blueprint for legislation intended to erase the rights LGBTQ+ people and prevent accurate teaching of facets of African American history—mark the second week of November as Holocaust Education Week. Florida state law characterizes the Holocaust as “a watershed event in the history of humanity, to be taught in a manner that leads to an investigation of human behavior, an understanding of the ramifications of prejudice, racism, and stereotyping, and an examination of what it means to be a responsible and respectful person, for the purposes of encouraging tolerance of diversity in a pluralistic society and for nurturing and protecting democratic values and institutions.”
This same mandate requiring that students learn about the Holocaust also encourages instructors to teach about slavery, racial oppression and the contributions of Black people, but specifically calls for the prevention of instruction and curriculum that could “indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view” that is “inconsistent” with the state’s anti-CRT legislation.
Some states including Arkansas, Texas, Florida and Tennessee mandate Holocaust education as part of the required curriculum and simultaneously ban such topics as the nature and activities of the Ku Klux Klan, segregation and institutionalized oppression. In 2021, the Arkansas State Legislature unanimously passed Act 611 “to require Holocaust education in all Arkansas public schools,” specifying that it should “be taught in a manner that generates an understanding of the causes, course, and effects of the Holocaust.”
The act further states that “Educators should develop a dialogue on the ramifications of bullying, bigotry, stereotyping, and discrimination” and “encourage tolerance for diversity and reverence for human dignity for all citizens in a pluralistic society.” At the same time, Arkansas is banning books about slavery and racism and what they identify as CRT.
If mandates are in place about teaching the Holocaust, the most severe period of anti-Jewish racism, it begs the question of why mandates are not in place to teach other systemic forms of racism in the U.S. This inconsistency calls into question the authenticity of state mandates regarding Holocaust education and illustrates their hypocrisy in banning honest U.S. history.
Behind the Bans
While Texas Senate Bill 1828 mandates that public schools observe Holocaust Remembrance Week and Tennessee’s social studies curriculum includes standards such as analyzing the significance of the Holocaust and its impact on the United States, books commemorating and teaching about the Holocaust are being removed from classrooms and library bookshelves.
Florida citizens are challenging books left and right, citing the state’s controversial and discriminatory “Don’t Say Gay” law and “Stop WOKE” act, which effectively bans discussions about race, specifically anything deemed as promoting CRT. The state has also threatened teachers and librarians with third-degree felony charges for stocking materials that may lead to “student indoctrination,” as well as those that include pornography or anything harmful to minors.
Dwork says that “the panic about children” is really “an exploitation of them by adults.”
Books such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus by Art Spiegelman—a graphic novel about the Holocaust that uses animal representations for human characters—and Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation have come up against intense scrutiny and have been challenged with claims that these works include pornography and violate the “Stop WOKE” act. In January 2022, when McMinn County School Board in Tennessee banned Maus because of violence, nudity and profanity, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum uplifted the value of the book, writing, “Maus has played a vital role in educating about the Holocaust through sharing detailed and personal experiences of victims and survivors. Teaching about the Holocaust using books like Maus can inspire students to think critically about the past and their own roles and responsibilities today.”
When Hate Goes Unchallenged
Dwork’s assertion that Holocaust education is intended to be a “silver bullet” against racism is significant as it clearly does not function in this manner. Instead, inadvertently or not, teaching the Holocaust in isolation tokenizes the suffering of millions by ignoring the realities and the social context within which this genocide was allowed to happen. Additionally, states that have mandated teaching the Holocaust while simultaneously banning CRT and honest U.S. history are effectively erasing the role our nation played in influencing the horrors of the Holocaust.
The ideologies, theologies, beliefs and rhetoric that allowed the Shoah to happen were not and are not unique to the Third Reich. The Nazis did not invent these perceptions, narratives and ideas about the undesirability of a specific group of people; much of this was learned by studying U.S. history—the brutality of the institution of slavery and the suffering of millions of people of African descent provided a horrifying example. This sobering fact should push us to recognize that prioritizing one atrocity over another to uphold a heroic narrative of U.S. history is both disingenuous and demeaning to the memory of the Shoah as well.
Learning about the Holocaust honestly is essential for understanding how governments can manufacture and weaponize discrimination and how people can be convinced to act based on prejudices. The Holocaust demonstrates what can happen when hate goes unchallenged and the oppression of others is met with indifference. To teach the Holocaust is to teach the horrors of what an oppressive, tyrannical, fascist government can accomplish when left unchecked. Such a government will manipulate and distort history, culture, society and education to fit the aims of what is seen as representative of the “true” identity of the country.
Texas, for example, mandates the teaching of the Holocaust, bans CRT—thereby prohibiting teaching about race and racism in the U.S.—and has increasingly restrictive and discriminatory policies toward transgender people and the broader LGBTQ+ community. Local and state governments fail to recognize—or outright ignore—the hypocrisy of such a stance. Essentially, they are stating that teaching about one form of prejudice, from an event that did not occur on American soil, is acceptable while others, decidedly closer to home, are not.
The way history is taught in schools in many parts of the U.S. is fast rivaling the authoritarian regimes we wish to distinguish ourselves from. To teach the history of the United States is to look beyond the heroic narrative and truly engage with the hard truths of this country’s past.
Antisemitism is currently pervading news cycles with reports of organizations creating and circulating flyers, and reports of vandalizing and defacing property with Nazi and neo-Nazi messages. In the past few years, attacks on Jewish people and places of worship have risen steadily. It is plausible that the increase in these activities is the reason for the recent emphasis on mandatory Holocaust education by state governments. From January to April 2023, roughly 32% of antisemitic incidents the SPLC has tracked have taken place in schools and universities, with 21% in K-12 schools. This percentage underscores the importance of open and honest education about antisemitism and its history in the United States.
The number of living Holocaust survivors left to tell their stories in person is dwindling, and soon their stories will only be available online and via media. Unfortunately, this will make them much more susceptible to manipulation, disinformation, relativism and dismissal. This makes it even more essential to emphasize the role of education about the Holocaust.
Just as it is imperative to educate and remember the Holocaust, it is essential for students to engage honestly with the realities of U.S. history. To teach narrow versions of slavery, racism and discrimination does us all a disservice. Understanding our nation’s past and how it manifests in the present provides us with viable paths toward building a more equitable and inclusive society. It is up to us in all of our communities to truly embody our democratic ideals and ensure that “never again” retains its meaning—on either side of the Atlantic and beyond. Those who don’t know can’t remember or forget; those who weren’t taught will struggle to understand the lessons; and those who dismiss the correlations refuse to be taught.