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AZ Board of Education considers mandatory Holocaust education

holocaust_educationHolocaust survivors (L-R) Pawel Lichter, Theresa Dulgov, Sidney Finkel and Wanda Wolosky testify before the Arizona House of Representatives education committee, Jan. 27, 2020.

Holocaust education could be mandatory in Arizona as soon as Oct. 26.

The Arizona State Board of Education is considering a change to sections R7-2-301 and R7-2-302, the minimum courses of study for elementary school and high school. The proposed rule change would add “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.

The change comes after House Bill 2682, which would have mandated education on the Holocaust and other genocides at least twice between seventh and 12th grade, died at the end of the last legislative session amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although the Arizona Senate didn’t get a chance to vote on the bill, the BOE decided it was time to take up the issue and proactively make the change.

“Most of us who’ve been on the board for several years have seen many, many comments made at the podium to us regarding this need,” said Lucas Narducci, president of the BOE, at the Aug. 21 board meeting where the rule-making process was opened.

“I strongly support us being sensitive to issues and responding, rather than waiting for legislation that requires us to act,” Calvin Baker, high school district superintendent, added. “I appreciate us starting on this issue.”

While World War II and the Holocaust appear in the current History and Social Science Standards, adopted by the BOE in October 2018, advocates for mandatory Holocaust education argue that amending the minimum course of study is necessary to ensure that all students learn about the Holocaust and that the next generation never forgets.

“This doesn’t necessarily represent a change in policy … However, it does represent a change in emphasis,” said Catcher Baden, deputy director of the state’s BOE. “The legislature felt — and others feel — that it’s not getting the attention that it deserves.”

After the rule-making process was opened in August, the board held a public hearing on Sept. 15, and will discuss the issue further at its next regular meeting on Monday, Sept. 28. The board can vote to finalize the change and close the rule-making process as early as Monday, Oct. 26.

Steven Ugol, who advocated for mandatory Holocaust education at the BOE and the Arizona legislature during his junior and senior years of high school, was the only registered speaker at the public hearing on Tuesday, Sept. 15.

He urged board members to recall the four days of testimony that Holocaust survivors gave at the state House and Senate earlier this year in support of HB2682.

“We learned from survivors what it’s like to be someone who lives and thrives despite the worst horrors one could imagine,” Ugol said. “Today, you are here to consider their stories once more. Thank you for listening and ensuring future generations of school kids never forget.”

On Jan. 27, 2020, four Holocaust survivors now living in Tucson, Pawel Lichter, Theresa Dulgov, Sidney Finke,l and Wanda Wolosky, along with Sharon Glassberg, a clinical therapist and wellness and support specialist at Jewish Family & Children’s Services of Southern Arizona, testified before the Arizona House of Representatives education committee. Survivors from the Phoenix area also testified.

“I believe the survivor’s words were a powerful reason the bill had such strength at the legislative level but also is what propelled the language of the bill to go to the Arizona Board of Education,” says Glassberg.

Additional public comments have been submitted in writing. Björn Krondorfer, director of the Martin-Springer Institute and endowed professor of religious studies at Northern Arizona University, wrote to the board to share his experience working with teachers from across the state on Holocaust education.

“The best place to start with education toward inclusion and tolerance is in the public school system,” Krondorfer said. “Accurate knowledge of the past and compassionate witnessing of painful legacies today are vital components to resist hate and intolerance.”

The board of directors of the Phoenix Holocaust Association along with some of its members also submitted comments in support of the rule change. Holocaust survivors wrote that it is more important than ever to ensure people have knowledge of the Holocaust since the number of living survivors who can speak directly to students is rapidly declining.

The PHA’s board of directors informed the BOE of a task force formed with the three state universities that is working to make lesson plans, reading lists and video testimonies available for teachers to incorporate into lessons on the Holocaust and other genocides.

“It is critical that students learn about these most horrific examples of hate, bigotry, intolerance and, ultimately, the most extreme examples of inhumanity,” the board said. “Ignorance is the most dangerous threat to civility and peace.”

The Jewish History Museum/Holocaust History Center in Tucson also is part of the curriculum planning.

“Decades of work within our Jewish community collecting Holocaust survivor testimonials will be institutionalized in lesson plans and other curricular materials that the Jewish History Museum will be developing in partnership with a statewide consortium of Holocaust organizations, teachers, and scholars,” said JHM Executive Director Sol Davis, Ph.D.

“I see this as the pinnacle of our communal efforts of documenting survivor testimonials, an opportunity to present these illuminating testimonials in the statewide curriculum at both the middle and high school levels for years to come,” Davis added.

The proposed changes to Arizona state standards comes amid concerns that younger generations aren’t familiar with key facts about the Holocaust. The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany released a new study on Holocaust awareness in the U.S. on Sept. 16, which found that few respondents could name a concentration camp or say how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

“U.S. Millennial Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Survey” sought to assess the Holocaust knowledge of millennials and Gen Z, defined in the study as anyone aged 18 to 39. Researchers collected survey data from 200 respondents in each state.

In Arizona, the study found that basic awareness of the Holocaust was high: Ninety-five percent of Arizonans said they had heard about the Holocaust, and 95% believed that the Holocaust happened. Only 4% of respondents did not learn about the Holocaust in school.

Still, many respondents struggled to recall details about 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 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust and being able to name at least one concentration camp, death camp or ghetto.

One statistic from the report demonstrated strong support for Holocaust education in Arizona. Fifty-nine percent of respondents believed that Holocaust education should be compulsory in school, and 79% agreed that “it is important to continue teaching people about the Holocaust, in part, so it doesn’t happen again.”

Reprinted with permission of Jewish News (Phoenix). AJP Executive Editor Phyllis Braun contributed to this report.