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State Sen. Henry Stern, whose district covers Malibu and parts of the San Fernando Valley, was one of the driving forces behind a new state bill on Holocaust education.

Holocaust education bill aims to combat ignorance, hate in California

With reports showing anti-Jewish incidents leading among religiously motivated hate crimes in California, and students in the Bay Area and beyond reporting a series of concerning antisemitic incidents, state lawmakers have introduced a bill aimed to bolster Holocaust education among middle- and high-school students.

The “Never Again Education Act,” introduced in February, sailed through the state Senate’s education committee by a 7-0 vote on April 14. It follows a similar federal law of the same name approved by Congress last year, which allocated $10 million for an online repository for Holocaust-education resources.

The bill, SB 693, was introduced by state Sen. Henry Stern, who said the issue of Holocaust education is “personal” to him, noting he has Holocaust survivors in his family. The curricula many schools are using today is “pretty stale,” he added. Most haven’t been updated since the 1980s.

“It’s read the ‘Diary of Anne Frank,’ read Elie Wiesel’s ‘Night.’ We know the boxes that have to be checked,” said Stern, a Democrat whose district includes Malibu and parts of the San Fernando Valley. “We’ve left teachers on their own with really tough subject matter.”

The state legislature neither writes nor mandates school curricula, but it does establish guidelines and allocate resources for the development of educational tools. For example, lawmakers in 2016 voted to require the creation of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum for high schools, overseen by the state Department of Education, even as it did not mandate it be taught.

The Never Again Education Act would establish a Governor’s Council on Genocide and Holocaust Education — 17 leading experts on genocide education — within the governor’s office. That council would serve as a “clearinghouse” for the latest innovations in Holocaust and genocide education.

It would help bring classrooms up to speed, incorporating, for example, the USC Shoah Foundation’s “Dimensions in Testimony” program, a digital experience that allows students to have a simulated conversation with a survivor using the latter’s recorded testimony. Also available is recently developed Anti-Defamation League programming on “how antisemitism takes root,” Stern said.

“To be clear, this bill is not a curriculum mandate,” state Sen. Steve Glazer of Contra Costa County said during the April 14 hearing. “It simply provides proven best practices for teachers within existing guidelines.”

The bill, which would allocate $2 million in grants for professional development for teachers, next moves to the Senate Appropriations Committee, where it is on the May 3 agenda.

A priority for the 18-member California Legislative Jewish Caucus, the bill also has the backing of the Anti-Defamation League, Hadassah, the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services Holocaust Center and the Armenian Assembly of America, among other groups.

Stern said the measure was spurred by a rise in antisemitic incidents, by the visibility of right-wing extremists nationally (such as those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6) and by a recent study that showed considerable ignorance among young people about the Holocaust.

YOUTH VOICE: Students are key to fighting antisemitism in high schools

In September, the Claims Conference released a survey showing that 63 percent of millennial and Gen Z respondents did not know that roughly 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, and 36 percent believed “2 million or fewer” were killed. Fifty-six percent of respondents could not identify Auschwitz-Birkenau. Gideon Taylor, the body’s president, called the results “shocking and saddening.”

In the Bay Area, Jewish students have dealt with a number of anti-Jewish bullying incidents, as well as outbursts from fellow students using Nazi symbols or cavalierly parroting Nazi gestures, demonstrating ignorance, insensitivity or both.

Several weeks ago, photos circulated on social media showing a group of Alameda High Schools students making Nazi salutes; one image bore the message “Hitler could like … get it.” In August and again in November, students in Marin County were messaged by antisemitic social media accounts, including one that said it was “organized against Semitism” and was compiling “a list” of Jews in the district.

Incidents like these are not new. Stern recalled that when he was in eighth grade in Malibu in the ’90s, the student newspaper was briefly being run by an antisemite who published cartoons showing hook-nosed Jews. Some of the cartoons were drawn on Stern’s backpack during geometry class.

When that happened, Stern took action with members of the Young Black Scholars and a campus Hispanic group, effectively “shutting down the school” for a week and bringing Holocaust survivors to speak with students in social studies classes.

“It wasn’t just Jews saying, ‘We’re being persecuted as Jews only.’ It was this whole reconciliation for all of us,” Stern said. “It was a powerful experience, to learn what these symbols actually mean.”

Stern’s bill calls for instruction not only on the Holocaust but on the 1915 Armenian genocide, the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and “other genocides committed in Africa, Asia, Latin America, South America and Europe.” It recommends the study of other “crimes against humanity,” such as the incarceration of Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants from the West Coast in internment camps during World War II.

In expressing support for the measure, the ADL’s Nancy Appel pointed to a 2020 survey from Yad Vashem and the Shoah Foundation that showed students who studied the Holocaust “have more pluralistic attitudes, are more willing to challenge intolerant behavior in others, [and] have a greater sense of social responsibility.”

“In today’s climate of heightened antisemitism, anti-Asian scapegoating and systemic racism, nurturing these values in young people could not be more important,” said Appel, senior associate director for ADL’s S.F.-based Central Pacific Region.

After the political controversy generated by the state’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, Stern said he hopes this initiative will help build solidarity among students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

“This doesn’t pit people against each other,” he said. “It’s not about comparative suffering. It’s about finding that, say, a white Jewish kid, the grandson of survivors, has much in common with an Armenian student in his class, or a young Black student in his class.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.