Missouri’s Holocaust Education and Awareness Commission is working on holding or participating in some prominent and public events in the coming months and years to raise awareness in a time of fading firsthand history and reportedly rising anti-Semitism.
“I’m just pleased we’re having more action,” the commission’s Chairwoman Jean Cavender, of St. Louis, said Thursday. Cavender said Thursday’s meeting and the previous one in September of the group within the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education were the first in a long time, and she’s happy to see some concrete events taking shape.
The group talked Thursday about organizing a Holocaust remembrance event at the Governor’s Mansion or Capitol Rotunda — likely in April — and another event in the Capitol Rotunda in 2020.
Invitees to the event this spring would likely include community leaders, rabbis, other religious leaders, Holocaust survivors, or their immediate descendants and politicians.
Warren Solomon — who is a friend of the commission, serves on the board of the Temple Beth El synagogue in Jefferson City and used to work in DESE’s curriculum office — suggested curriculum leaders from large school districts also be invited.
The commission may also have a proclamation to be read at the event that decries anti-Semitism, and the group debated Thursday whether to adjust the language in the commission’s charge to be more inclusive of people murdered in the Holocaust who were not killed at Nazi concentration camps.
Solomon raised a concern about the commission calling attention to itself through legislative channels in that way, given former Gov. Eric Greitens’ desire to cut back state commissions and the group’s uncertainty about Gov. Mike Parson’s stance on that agenda. The group seemed to agree to proceed, with caution.
Cavender said Parson did make it a point to personally visit folks at the Jewish Federation of St. Louis after the killing of 11 people in October at a synagogue in Pennsylvania.
Those killings brought renewed public attention to anti-Semitism in the United States. The Anti-Defamation League — which tracks and responds to anti-Semitism in the country — reported in February that despite an overall half-century decline in anti-Semitic attitudes in the U.S., anti-Semitic incidents in the country increased 57 percent from 2016-17 in “the largest single-year increase on record and the second highest number (of 1,986 anti-Semitic incidents) reported since ADL started tracking incident data in the 1970s.”
The count of anti-Semitic physical assaults reported last year was down 47 percent from 2016, but harassment including bomb threats had increased 41 percent, and vandalism had increased 86 percent.
The ADL added the overall increase “was in part due to a significant increase in incidents in schools and on college campuses, which nearly doubled for the second year in a row.”
“Anti-Semitism, bigotry, hatred doesn’t start with putting people in gas chambers,” said commission member Sam Devinski, of Kansas City, but it starts with things like bullying in schools, and people not standing up for others.
“Education’s the only way to fight this,” Devorah Goldenberg said. “In terms of this commission, I think it’s more relevant than ever.”
Education about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism will continue to gain importance as survivors and others involved die of old age and are no longer able to share their testimonies firsthand.
Solomon and commission member Lolle Boettcher, of Owensville, said explicit Holocaust education should not start when children are too young to handle the subject matter, but there are opportunities for applicable lessons.
“Are there certain foundational things kids should be learning in those grades?” Solomon asked of lessons for younger students, such as how to treat one another and standing up for people.
“Have you thought about teaching cultural diversity first?” Boettcher said of a question she asks elementary school teachers who want to begin education on the Holocaust by diving into the more difficult subject matter first thing.
There was hardly any discussion Thursday about whether to request that Missouri schools be mandated to teach about the Holocaust. DESE has some expectations of content and skills that districts should use to frame curriculum, but curriculum decisions are largely left to individual school districts.
DESE has previously shown in its stated curriculum expectations that there are opportunities for teachers and students of later elementary years on into middle and high school grades to seek out or be encouraged to seek out engagement with history, depictions of and responses to the Holocaust and other genocides. Some other states, though, such as Illinois, have more specific requirements about what schools teach about the Holocaust and other genocides.
The mandate approach can have its drawbacks, though, members of the commission said.
“If teachers don’t know how to do it, it could do more harm than good,” Devinski said.
Boettcher advocated that educators should have rationale and guidelines presented to them along with any educational resources made available to teachers.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, for example, has specific advice for each of the guidelines for teaching about the Holocaust that the museum lists on its website — along with “essential topics to teach,” common questions and answers to the question, “Why teach about the Holocaust?”
The commission’s DESE member — Dixie Grupe, who is director of social studies in the department’s Office of College and Career Readiness — said she is working on putting Holocaust educational resources on DESE’s social studies website.