Addressing Gaps in Holocaust and Genocide Education

By Joseph Hedger

According to a September 2020 survey of millennials and Gen Z respondents in 50 states conducted by the nonprofit Claims Conference, 63 percent of respondents did not know that 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Although there were more than 40,000 camps and ghettos in Europe during that time, 48 percent of those surveyed could not name one. At the same time, the Anti-Defamation League reported that the American Jewish community in 2019 experienced the highest level of antisemitic incidents since tracking began in 1979.

A number of states have begun to deal with the lack of knowledge of the Holocaust by enacting legislation, some of it passed only in recent years. Fifteen states now require Holocaust and genocide education in schools, and 15 states support a Holocaust education commission or task force, according to an interactive map created by education nonprofit Echoes and Reflections.

Some state boards of education have been discussing ways to improve students’ understanding about the Holocaust in schools, an analysis of their meeting agendas in 2019 and 2020 reveals.

On October 26, 2020, the Arizona State Board of Education adopted a rule “to reinforce and emphasize the importance of instruction on the Holocaust and other genocides at least twice between 7th grade and high school graduation.” Although these requirements were already part of history and social science standards the board adopted in 2018, the new rule was expected to underscore its importance and to fill a gap that arose when a bill introduced earlier in the year did not advance when the pandemic cut short Arizona’s legislative session. The board heard from three Holocaust survivors in support of the rule.

In July 2020, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed into law HB20-1336, which includes elements on Holocaust and genocide education. On or before July 1, 2023, each school district and charter school is to incorporate standards on Holocaust and genocide studies into an existing course that is currently a condition of high school graduation. A stakeholder committee is to recommend the standards, which Colorado’s state board is to adopt on or before July 1, 2021.

At their September 2019 meeting, the Florida State Board of Education approved Rule 6A-1.094124, which requires each school district to submit a report to the state’s commissioner of education by July 1 each year that describes how they provided required instruction in Holocaust education, African American history, Hispanic heritage, women’s history, and civics during the previous school year. The report must list specific courses in which instruction was delivered and a description of materials and resources used.

The following year, the state board conducted their September 2020 meeting at the Florida Holocaust Museum, where they heard from a founding board member about how the museum educates students on the Holocaust. Their digital resources include a Zoom with a Survivor program, virtual tours, interactive online activities, and a pivot to being completely virtual this spring.

In July 2019, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed a law requiring public school students to learn about the Holocaust and other genocides and to confront the immorality of those events and reflect on the causes of related historical events. The law went into effect during the 2020–21 school year.