Arizona’s Holocaust education bill seemed like a sure thing. But that may no longer be the case.
The bill recently hit a snag in the State Senate, where Sen. Paul Boyer (LD-20) advocates including an amendment that contains the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism into the bill.
“Passing the bill without the IHRA definition would leave our legislative intent unfulfilled and vulnerable to exploitation,” he said.
But Arizona House Rep. Alma Hernandez (LD-3), who first introduced the bill in January 2020, said including the IHRA language threatens the bill’s bipartisan support and further delays something that has been “agonizingly close for three years.”
“Proponents of the IHRA definition, of which I am one, should run separate legislation, as opposed to attempting to seize this bill,” she said.
Adding IHRA language to the bill would restart the vetting process, and the push comes just a year after the Senate failed to show broad support for IHRA.
The Holocaust education bill would require public schools in Arizona to teach students about the Holocaust and other genocides at least twice between grades seven and 12. It stalled in Arizona’s Senate last year when COVID-19 shut down the legislative session. Hernandez reintroduced the bill in January 2021. It unanimously passed out of the House Feb. 4. According to the Phoenix Holocaust Association and Arizona State University academics, 15 states require Holocaust education by statute.
IHRA defines anti-Semitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” The definition is not legally binding and is accompanied by a list 11 examples of anti-Semitism to guide the application of the definition, including some forms of anti-Israel speech.
Adding that language into this bill “makes perfect sense in the abstract,” said Jacob Millner, American Jewish Committee’s associate director of its regional offices. But the amendment’s late introduction to the bill, which adds controversy to an otherwise non-controversial bill, threatens to “imperil” its passage, he said.
“While we support the IHRA definition in Holocaust education as a general matter, we do believe that it’s better to pass an otherwise sound Holocaust education bill without IHRA than to not have a Holocaust education bill,” Millner told Jewish News.
The Phoenix Holocaust Association, Christians United For Israel, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix and Arizona Teaching the Holocaust have taken a similar stance in advocating for the passage of the Holocaust education bill without the IHRA language. Those organizations intend to work on separate IHRA legislation down the road.
Last January, Hernandez introduced a bill focused on anti-Semitism that would have codified the IHRA definition into Arizona law to be used by state officials when investigating and tracking crime and discrimination.
“We ran the IHRA definition last year that had 82 co-sponsors in the House and 33 co-sponsors in the Senate,” Boyer said. “Having 82 co-sponsors demonstrates overwhelming support, and my question to anyone who would oppose adding IHRA to Holocaust education, is what has changed since last year that you can no longer support it?”
That bill started out with strong support, but it eventually tapered off. The House version passed by a vote of 52-8 and stalled in the Senate.
Boyer attributed the bill’s stall to the abrupt end of the 2020 legislative session because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Hernandez attributed the bill’s stall to a lack of support.
“Last year we learned that the IHRA definition did not meet the critical number of 16 in the state Senate to ensure passage, however, the Holocaust education bill had nearly unanimous support,” she said.
Michael Beller, co-founder of ATH, said the bill lost support as lawmakers and special interest groups learned details.
“They were trying to modify the criminal statute,” Beller said. “It didn’t have the support of Republicans or Democrats. It was not a bipartisan bill and it fell flat.”
There was also some controversy around the IHRA definition nationally at the time, which muddied the waters in the state legislature. In December 2019, former president Donald Trump signed an executive order focused on anti-Semitism on college campuses, instructing agencies to “consider” the IHRA definition when investigating complaints of discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The move was met with praise from some groups and criticism from others, including the lead drafter of the definition, Kenneth Stern. In response to the executive order, Stern said in a December 2019 article in the Guardian that the definition had been weaponized to chill free speech on college campuses.
During the current legislative session that began in January not one bill related to IHRA was introduced, Hernandez said.
“We, as a community, have a responsibility to educate people about the importance of the IHRA definition, but now is not an appropriate time,” Hernandez said.
The state legislature’s session is coming to a likely close in the next few weeks.
“To attempt to amend this language now would only feed into the existing tension and likely kill both the Holocaust education and IHRA language,” she said. “I invite those pushing for the IHRA definition to sit down and work with me in the interim to educate our colleagues to identify 16 senators who would support this bill.”
Jake Bennett, director of policy and legislative affairs at the Israeli-American Coalition for Action, said it is “misleading to suggest that there is anything contentious about including a consensus definition that has been strongly embraced by the U.S. government, including the Biden administration, and countries all around the world.”
Not including the IHRA definition in the Holocaust education bill would create a “strong chance” of seeing Holocaust education “corrupted,” he said. He added, “it is absurd to suggest that concern about anti-Semitism is a matter separate from rather than inherent to Holocaust education.”
But others agree with Hernandez’ decision to keep the bills separate.
PHA President Sheryl Bronkesh, who has been working for the past three years with Hernandez and other groups to see the Holocaust education bill through, said time is of the essence.
Ten area Holocaust survivors died last year.
“All I know is what I want, which is this Holocaust bill to finally pass while I have the survivors who’ve worked so hard on it to still be alive,” she said. “Every time a survivor dies, it’s a dagger in my heart. And I think, ‘Oh, there’s one more person that isn’t going to see this accomplished in their lifetime.’”
She added that the Holocaust bill also includes teaching about other genocides and that it would be unfair just to include anti-Semitism into that individual legislation.
“I truly don’t understand what’s holding them (Boyer and the amendment’s supporters) back from having their own bill, and allowing the Holocaust education bill, which is so close, to get a vote in the Senate and to get approved on itself,” she said.
Bronkesh surveyed the 20-member PHA board April 20 and found the vast majority, 19-1, favor moving the Holocaust education bill forward without the IHRA-related amendment.
Boyer said passing the bill without grounding it in the IHRA definition would “create a real possibility of seeing the Holocaust education curriculum corrupted in ways that could ironically boost contemporary anti-Semitism rather than combat it.” In support of that idea, he pointed to California’s recent passage of its Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum.
“One need look no further than the unrelenting attempts to turn California’s Ethnic Studies curriculum into a vehicle for anti-Semitic propaganda. How long will it take for anti-Semitic predators to show up wishing to invert the memory of the Holocaust with their comparisons of Israel to the Nazis?” Boyer said.
Jewish activists had criticized the first draft of the curriculum in 2019 for excluding and discriminating against Jews. But a reworked version passed in March with support from some of the Jewish activists that had denounced the earlier versions.
Ari Morgenstern, senior director for policy and communications with CUFI, said the group supports Holocaust education legislation and the IHRA definition.
“Depending upon the circumstances, the two work together quite nicely,” he said. “In Arizona, it is our understanding that it would be best, based on the timeline, to advance appropriate IHRA policy separate from the Holocaust education bill.”
CUFI was a strong advocate for Trump’s executive order, and is in favor of a wide adoption of the IHRA definition. However, he said that in this instance it doesn’t make sense to amend the bill.
“The strategy for success needs to take into account local considerations,” he said. “And the short time frame in Arizona, to our knowledge, does not lend itself to an amendment to the Holocaust education bill at this time.”
Paul Rockower, executive director of the JCRC of Greater Phoenix said the amendment jeopardizes the bipartisan support of the Holocaust education bill.
“While we do support the use of the IHRA definition in a variety of contexts, we believe there are more appropriate avenues to address the public policy in Arizona statutes in the future without causing unnecessary risk to current Holocaust education initiatives,” Rockower said.
Beller echoed Rockower’s concern, saying the amendment would make “a nonpartisan issue partisan.”
Tammy Gillies, the Anti-Defamation League's regional director in Arizona, said the organization also recommends the Holocaust education bill move forward without the amendment, but is not looking to work on IHRA down the road. "Certainly the IHRA definition serves a useful purpose, but we’re not looking for it to be codified into law," she said.
Multiple Holocaust survivors testified on the bill and have been involved in the legislative process.
George Kalman, 86, a concentration-camp survivor living in Phoenix, said he believes including a definition is important to teach about contemporary anti-Semitism.
But he doesn’t support adding an amendment this late in the legislative process. “I understand that adding to it now creates a lot of problems,” he said, noting the bill would have to go back to the House and the Senate to be discussed.
Given the timeline, Kalman said he would rather have the Holocaust education bill pass without a definition now than possibly be put on hold — again. “I want to have this bill passed fast,” he said.
If the bill does not pass this legislative session, it would be the second year in a row Arizona fails to have a Holocaust Education mandate.
A push for a similar amendment emerged last year before COVID-19 shut down the legislative session.
The Arizona Board of Education added Holocaust education to its administrative code last October. Hernandez briefly thought that might make her bill’s reintroduction unnecessary, but the governor’s office reached out to encourage her.
The bill aligns with Gov. Doug Ducey’s focus on expanding and increasing civic education, according to C.J. Karamargin, the governor’s spokesman.
“Knowing about a human tragedy on a scale like that is absolutely fundamental,” Karamargin said.
He declined to comment on the push to include an IHRA amendment, saying the governor’s office does not comment on pending legislation.
Hernandez said she has made it her mission for the past three years to ensure Arizona’s public schools teach the Holocaust.
“I made a promise to survivors from Pima County and from across the state to get this done,” she said. “Now is the time to pass the Holocaust education bill.” JN