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New bill proposes mandatory Holocaust education in all Arizona school districts

Michael Beller, left, and Josh Kay

Only 12 states currently require schools to teach students about the Holocaust. Michael Beller and Josh Kay, the founders of Arizona Teaching the Holocaust, want to make Arizona state number 13.

“It’s important to me that Holocaust education stay at the forefront,” Beller said. “We want to ensure that it’s taught in order to combat anti-Semitism and hatred.”

The number of states that require Holocaust education has been growing slowly in recent years. In 2014, five states had statutes requiring it. By 2017, the number had grown to eight, and legislators from 20 more states pledged to introduce genocide education legislation as part of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect’s 50 State Genocide Education Project.

“As the Holocaust becomes further in the rearview mirror and there are less survivors around, it doesn’t get the attention and the memory that it deserves,” said Steve Hilton, CEO and chairman of Meritage Homes Corporation and a major sponsor and supporter of Arizona Teaching the Holocaust.

The bill that Beller and Kay are proposing would require grade- and age-appropriate education on the Holocaust and genocides, but leave the specific education standards up to the Arizona State Board of Education.

“We don’t want the legislature setting education curriculum,” Beller said. “We want that to be left to the academics and educators. The curriculum requirements are set by the Board of Education, and we want to stick to that process.”

The current History and Social Science Standards, adopted by the Arizona State Board of Education in October 2018, include World War I and World War II education in seventh grade and education on human rights and genocides in eighth grade. The standards note that “in addition to the study of the Holocaust, other genocides should be studied.”

“As a basis for teaching genocide, the Holocaust is the best example of a man’s capacity for evil and also for good,” Beller said. “It’s an incredible teaching tool from that perspective.”

Beller and Kay both learned about the Holocaust from friends and neighbors growing up. Kay is the grandson of a survivor whose entire family was killed in death camps. Beller grew up in Vail, Arizona, where his next-door neighbor was a camp liberator who told Beller and his father what he witnessed, after Beller described hearing a Holocaust survivor speak to his middle school class.

“When you have a direct relationship with a Holocaust survivor or somebody who fought in World War II, your awareness level is different than somebody who is growing up reading textbooks and is exposed to campaigns of misinformation online,” Beller said.

Hilton’s father, Sam Hilton, also was a Holocaust survivor.

Surveys show that awareness of the Holocaust is declining in the United States. A study commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany in February 2018 found that 22% of millennials — defined in the study as anyone ages 18 to 34 — haven’t heard or weren’t sure if they’d heard of the Holocaust, compared with 11% of all U.S. adults. And 31% of all U.S. adults and 41% of millennials also believed that the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust was two million or fewer. 

“Resoundingly, people will tell you that it’s not a problem, that Holocaust education is already there,” Beller said. “But if it’s already being taught, then no one should have a problem ensuring that the suggestions become shalls.”

Kay, who grew up in the Scottsdale area, says the Holocaust was included in his textbooks, and it was only later that he discovered it wasn’t necessarily part of the curriculum throughout Arizona.

This month, the bill that Beller and Kay are proposing will be assigned to committees in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Once each committee approves the bill, it will be brought before state representatives and senators for a vote.

“Elie Wiesel once said, ‘for the dead and living we must bear witness,’ and that is why I am honored to sponsor the legislation that will forever change history in Arizona,” says Tucsonan Alma Hernandez, the first Jewish Latina in the state legislature. “Educating our children is essential to creating a safer and tolerant society. Nearly half of the world does not know the Holocaust happened, and that should scare us all.”

“Our goal, obviously, is to get as much bipartisan support as possible,” says Kay. “We view this not necessarily as a Republican or Democratic issue. We actually don’t view it that much as a Jewish issue as much as it is just an educational issue.

“I always view education as the only thing that can help prevent a lot of the negative, hate-filled feelings that are happening in today’s world,” he says.

If there is opposition to the bill, Beller predicts that it will come during the committee hearings from the Arizona Association of County School Superintendents or the Arizona School Boards Association. 

“No one’s told me that they oppose it, but generally those groups oppose anything that could be seen as a mandate or an imposition,” Beller said.

And if it reaches a vote?

“We don’t anticipate that there will be much opposition once it gets to the floor,” Beller said. “I don’t think anybody wants to be seen as opposed to Holocaust education.”

Arizona Teaching the Holocaust raised $5,276 on Facebook, surpassing its goal by $118, and so far has gathered 1,303 signatures in support of the campaign.

This article first appeared in the Jewish News (Phoenix). AJP Executive Editor Phyllis Braun contributed to this report.