Holocaust educators celebrated a long-awaited victory on Monday: the addition of Holocaust education to Arizona education standards. While the state hasn’t reached the finish line yet, organizers said, Monday’s decision was a step in the right direction.
At its regular board meeting on Monday, Oct. 26, the Arizona State Board of Education approved a change to the Arizona Administrative Code’s sections R7-2-301 and R7-2-302, the minimum courses of study for elementary school and high school. The rule change added “instruction on the Holocaust and other genocides at least once in either grade seven or grade eight” to social studies standards for students in junior high school and “instruction on the Holocaust and other genocides” to the world history credit requirement for high school graduation.
Seeing the rule pass “feels very, very good,” said Sheryl Bronkesh, president of the Phoenix Holocaust Association. “But I’m going to only allow us to bask in that good feeling [for a short time], because we have a lot of work to do.”
For PHA, that includes continuing to build a statewide teachers’ toolkit for Holocaust education, an effort that started two and a half months ago with a state-wide coalition of educators, while also sponsoring virtual opportunities for survivors to continue sharing their stories with students.
Also supporting the rule change on Monday was Arizona Teaching the Holocaust, an initiative founded by Michael Beller and Josh Kay with the purpose of passing a bill in the state legislature to mandate Holocaust education in Arizona. While that didn’t happen after the legislative session was cut short by COVID-19, Beller and Kay are happy to see the new rule from the BOE and have plans to continue pursuing mandatory Holocaust education both in the Arizona legislature and across the country.
“We understand that this isn’t something that just occurs once and then we can forget,” Beller said. “This is something that we’re committed to seeing through the Board of Education standard and into statute and for future generations.”
Before the vote, members of the BOE heard testimony from Holocaust survivors Esther Basch, Dr. Alexander White and Oskar Knoblauch. Arizona State Rep. Aaron Lieberman and State Superintendent for Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman also spoke in favor of the rule change.
In addition to sharing his experience visiting Yad Vashem, Lieberman shared statistics from the recent “U.S. Millennial Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Survey,” released by The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany on Sept. 16. The study sought to assess the Holocaust knowledge of millennials and Generation Z, defined in the study as anyone aged 18 to 39, and found that few respondents could name a concentration camp or say how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
Arizona ranked 38th among states in Holocaust knowledge, with 23% of respondents meeting all three criteria for being “Holocaust knowledgeable”: having “definitely” heard about the Holocaust, knowing that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust and being able to name at least one concentration camp, death camp or ghetto. The most distressing statistic, Lieberman noted, is 16% of respondents in Arizona and 15% nationally believe that Jews caused the Holocaust.
The lack of knowledge about the Holocaust is why educators, survivors and members of the Jewish community are fighting so hard to make sure the Holocaust is taught in Arizona schools.
“I think that educated people find things like this to be disturbing — the lack of education that others have around subjects like this, whether it’s U.S. history or world history,” Kay said. “It’s a very important piece of world history, and it goes to show that it’s not that many years ago that people were capable of doing things like this. And it’s still happening today.”
In a prerecorded message to the board, Oskar Knoblauch, a Holocaust survivor and vice president first generation at PHA, also reminded its members of what was at stake in their decision on Monday.
“We cannot expect a better-informed generation if we do not educate our youth,” Knoblauch said. “Teaching about the Holocaust and other genocides is extremely important if we do not want these horrific atrocities to happen again.”
Supporting the rule change from behind the scenes was a team of Holocaust educators from around the state who have spent the last two and a half months developing a toolkit, including reading lists, videos and lesson plans, to help educate teachers and students about the Holocaust and other genocides. Now that the rule change has been approved, those resources will become available directly on the Department of Education website, giving teachers the tools to tackle a “huge topic” like genocide, Bronkesh said.
“Teachers are asked to teach so much, teachers are learning how to teach remotely and many of them are teaching both in person and remotely — I can’t even imagine the pressure this is putting on our teachers,” Bronkesh said. “So we are hoping that the toolkit will help provide lessons and lesson plans and videos … and it’s not going to be as difficult to introduce a new subject, starting from scratch.”
The toolkit was developed by more than a dozen educators and historians, representing all three state universities as well as two community colleges, a Mesa high school, the Arizona Jewish Historical Society, the Jewish History Museum in Tucson, the Bureau of Jewish Education and Phoenix Holocaust Association.
With so many local Holocaust educators coming together to make a resource that’s specific to Arizona, the toolkit is “something that people living here can take pride in,” Beller said. And by taking a proactive approach to the issue, the coalition is also taking pressure off of the Department of Education to set up a resource guide themselves.
“The value in that is that the state doesn’t have to expend the resources in compiling something,” Beller said. “That really takes a lot of the frustration out of it for them and makes it as easy as possible.”
In spite of the rule change, Bronkesh, Beller and Kay are all planning to be part of the effort to pass another mandatory Holocaust education bill in the next legislative session.
“There’s broader support to put it in statute, in large part because it provides more stability for the education system and for the teachers,” Beller said. “If it’s in statute, it’s a much stronger statement of affirmation. It gives teachers confidence that it’s not something that’s going to change next year or the year after.”
While planning for the new bill is on hold until after the election on Nov. 3, ATH and PHA are continuing their work on Holocaust education.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, survivors have been unable to go into classrooms and share their stories directly. To ensure that students didn’t stop learning about the Holocaust in the meantime, PHA partnered with AZJHS this summer for their ongoing monthly workshop “Making an Emotional Connection to the Holocaust,” and joined AZJHS and the Bureau of Jewish Education in starting “Our Parent’s Stories,” a descendants’ forum where the next generation can continue teaching about the Holocaust.
And on Wednesday, Nov. 11, PHA, AZJHS and BJE are teaming up again for the sixth annual Holocaust Education Forum for Teens.
“We’re stronger working together, and that’s kind of new for the community, that all three organizations are working together,” Bronkesh said.
Beller and Kay are both looking toward the future, and even beyond the next legislative session.
“I would say the finish line, from my perspective, is not complete at the statute either,” Beller said.
Beller hopes that once Holocaust education is mandatory in Arizona at both the legislative and board level, ATH can work on compiling a database of documents and materials related to the Holocaust to help researchers solve questions that remain unanswered. And Kay is already reaching out to potential partners in other states where Holocaust education isn’t yet mandatory in an effort to keep the momentum going.
“We’re hoping that if we can pass it here and make sure that the way that we’re doing it works, then we can pass that along to many other states,” Kay said.
For Arizona students, BOE’s decision on Monday is only the beginning.
“My hope as a grandparent is that our teachers actually take to heart the curriculum that needs to be done in this regard,” said BOE President Lucas Narducci, “and that the local boards actually take it to heart and that it is emphasized and stressed and taught the way it needs to be.” JN