The Governor's Holocaust and Genocide Education Council meeting for the first time on Feb. 15, 2023. (Photo/Office of the Governor)
The Governor's Holocaust and Genocide Education Council meeting for the first time on Feb. 15, 2023. (Photo/Office of the Governor)

Meeting kicks off attempt to improve Holocaust education in California

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

A council formed to address Holocaust and genocide education in California schools convened for the first time last month with its first initiative: surveying school districts to evaluate the state of Holocaust education.

“We’re making sure that future generations avoid making the same painful mistakes, and instead forge a better way forward,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement.

Newsom announced the formation of the Governor’s Council on Holocaust and Genocide Education in October 2021 and participated in the meeting, along with co-chairs Anita Friedman, executive director of S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services; state Sen. Henry Stern; Attorney General Rob Bonta; and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond.

The meeting comes amid rising rates of antisemitism across California and the country and a series of incidents in schools, including the recent exposure of a high school teacher in Hayward who, during a unit on the Holocaust, distributed teaching materials promoting antisemitic conspiracy theories. Last year, high school students in Wheatland, in Yuba County, were disciplined after posting a photo on social media of displaying swastikas and SS bolts they’d drawn on their bodies at a party.

The goal of the council’s upcoming survey is to determine what is already being taught to California’s students, said regional director of the Anti-Defamation League and council member Seth Brysk. A 1985 addition to the California Education Code requires schools to teach “human rights issues, with particular attention to the study of the inhumanity of genocide, slavery, and the Holocaust.” The survey will aim to discover what that looks like in practice, Brysk said.

“We know that it’s important because Holocaust education has been shown by studies to improve students’ ability to have empathy for others [and] to have the ability to think more critically, particularly when they’re being confronted with misinformation,” said Brysk.

With the announcement of the council in 2021, Newsom outlined a series of goals, including the development of a bureau of volunteer speakers who could engage students in learning the lessons of genocide. The council would “provide young people with the tools necessary to recognize and respond to on-campus instances of anti-Semitism and bigotry,” the governor’s office said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announcing the formation of a Council on Holocaust and Genocide Education at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, Oct. 2021. (Photo/Office of the Governor)

In November, Newsom announced nine new members of the council, fulfilling his promise to involve “academics, advocates and community organizations” on the board. These included Brysk and Joyce Newstat, former chair of the Council of Children of Survivors at the JFCS Holocaust Center, along with other experts from Northern California. Also on the council are state Sen. Scott Wiener and Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan.

The council was allocated $1.4 million in the state’s 2022-2023 budget, with a total of $93.2 million assigned to issues highlighted by the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California.

Bauer-Kahan, who represents a district that includes Walnut Creek and Livermore, said the first meeting included “meaningful” discussions of the experiences of communities who have faced genocide. Bauer-Kahan is especially interested in the council’s work on elementary and middle school education, her office said, as she has three children in those grades.

“It is critical that our children learn about our history — good and bad — so these brutal tragedies never happen again.” Bauer-Kahan said in a statement to J.

Also on the council is Roxanne Makasdjian, co-founder and executive director of the S.F.-based Genocide Education Project, a nonprofit that helps educators teach about genocides, including the Armenian genocide.

While the 1985 mandate on genocide education included the Armenian genocide, no state funds were set aside to teach the topic, Makasdjian said. After a 20-year effort to include the Armenian Genocide in Social Studies curriculum, Makasdjian is excited to be a part of the governor’s council and expand that education more consistently and rapidly statewide.

“I’m encouraged by the new hope that the council affords to institutionalize the teaching of genocide, hate, the Holocaust, the Armenian case and other very relevant cases of genocide,” she said, “in a way that we can get to a point where all California students who graduate from high school will have an understanding of this phenomenon.”

Lillian Ilsley-Greene
Lillian Ilsley-Greene

Lillian Ilsley-Greene was a staff writer at J. from 2022-2023.