Generic-ifying the Holocaust

Generic-ifying the Holocaust November 25, 2023

Holocaust memorial, Berlin, via Wikipedia

Yeah, actually I’m not sure of the best way to label this as I try to identify something that’s disturbing me.

It has been disturbing me, ever since Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7 and the subsequent Israeli military action in Gaza, that so many Hamas/Palestinian defenders have been calling the air strikes “genocide.”  It is preposterous and should be written off in the same way as one writes off the claims by those defenders that the hostages, the killings, the sexual assaults, all of the horrors of the attacks, were untrue, or were justified and deserved.  But it is more than that.

A twitter account I follow, a teacher in Rhode Island, made the claim that her school had eliminated Anne Frank and other instructional materials on the Holocaust, because Jews were not “people of color.”  Others responded skeptically, because, as it turns out, Rhode Island has a law mandating that the Holocaust be covered as a part of middle/high school instruction.

But what exactly does this mean?  What, specifically, must students be taught?  The answer isn’t as straightforward as the Holocaust unit my sons had in eighth grade, where they read the Diary of a Young Girl and/or Night.

Here is the actual text of the Rhode Island law:

The state shall adhere to the following procedures:

(1) The department of education shall collect and disseminate to every school district, private school, mayoral academy, and charter school, and make available on its website, curriculum materials and such other materials as may assist local and regional school committees, and governing bodies of any private school, mayoral academy, or charter school, in developing instructional materials on holocaust and genocide awareness and education. The curriculum materials may include information on relevant genocides, including the Holocaust, Armenia, Cambodia, Iraq, Rwanda, and Darfur.

(2) Every school district shall include in its curriculum a unit of instruction on holocaust and genocide, utilizing, but not being limited to, the materials collected and disseminated by the department of education, commencing with the 2017-2018 school year. Nothing herein shall require school districts to require holocaust and genocide instruction in every year of middle school and high school, but that holocaust and genocide education and instruction shall be utilized during appropriate times in the middle school and/or high school curricula, as determined by the local authority. All students should have received instruction on genocide and holocaust awareness materials by the time they have graduated from high school.

And can you guess what troubles me?  Yes, the Holocaust has become just one of various genocides from which teachers and schools may choose for their curriculum and, worse, “the Holocaust” has become a common noun, merely a synonym for genocide.  What’s more, the focus of the suggested  materials, specifically its “general” anti-genocide links, Stop Genocide Now and Facing History, appear to be on current-day civics and activism and mix together genocide, ethnic cleansing, and civil war.  The Stop Genocide Now website, in particular, offers “action” items — which are, quite honestly, not particularly useful, consisting of links to Amnesty International and other petitions to sign.  The Facing History lesson plans aren’t prizewinners either.  For instance, the “mini-lesson” about the October 7 attacks, “Processing Antisemitism, Terror, and War,” is vague and simply instructs teachers to share news reports and encourage students to journal about their reactions.

Now, as it happens, Illinois also has a Holocaust/Genocide instruction mandate.  Its text is more specific, to be sure, though in 2005, the mandate changed from requiring education in the Holocaust, capital H, defined as the killing of “6,000,000 Jews and millions of non-Jews” (incidental comment: there is controversy over whether the deaths of non-Jews are a part of The Holocaust or just additional Crimes Against Humanity perpetrated by the Nazis), to also adding a second requirement, that of teaching “other acts of genocide . . . includ[ing], but not limited to, the Armenian Genocide, the Famine-Genocide in Ukraine, and more recent atrocities in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Sudan.”

And according to Wikipedia, a significant number of states mandate such education.  How many are Rhode Island’s lower-case “holocaust” version?  I tried to click through to some of these links.  For instance:

Maine:  the requirement is specifically for Holocaust instruction, though oddly the law itself does not identify Jews as the target of the Nazis but simply states that victims were “discrete groups of individuals based on race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical disability or national origin, from January 1, 1933 to December 31, 1945, in Nazi Germany or in any European country allied with or occupied by Nazi Germany,” which would appear to leave room for teachers to claim that the Holocaust was not specifically anti-Jewish.

New Hampshire:  this law is a bit hard to parse but the key sentence is this:  that schools much teach “How intolerance, bigotry, antisemitism, and national, ethnic, racial, or religious hatred and discrimination have evolved in the past, and can evolve, into genocide and mass violence, such as the Holocaust, and how to prevent the evolution of such practices.”

Oklahoma:  the law, effective in 2022, specifically requires Holocaust instruction, defined as the Nazi regime’s murder of 6 million Jews and 5 million others.

How does this work out in practice?  For how many teachers is it simply obvious that Holocaust education should be about the Holocaust?  For how many is “the Holocaust” too outdated, too narrow, not relevant enough to modern life?   How often do teachers believe that the murder of Jews isn’t sufficiently culturally relevant for ethnic-minority students?



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