It happened in April 2013 in my hometown of Albany, N.Y., and it happened again this year in Southern California. While the assignments given to Albany High School English classes and to 2,000 eighth-graders at five middle schools in the Rialto Unified School District east of Los Angeles were different, both projects crossed the same dangerous line.
A veteran Albany High School teacher gave students an essay to write with the goal of convincing the reader that the writer is a loyal Nazi who hates Jews. “You must argue that Jews are evil, and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!” In five paragraphs, students were required to prove that Jews were the source of Germany’s problems. Those who defended the assignment—during the public outcry after the story went national—said that it was to teach students how to formulate a persuasive argument.
This spring we learned that middle-school teachers in California had given their students a three-day assignment to compose an essay on whether or not they believe the Holocaust was “an actual event in history, or merely a political scheme.” As part of the homework, educators gave students resources including a website that denies the Holocaust.
Earlier this month Rialto officials said they regret the assignment and promised to revise what they said began as an effort to satisfy the Common Core standards. But the acknowledgment of an error in judgment was a long time coming and does not erase the damage.
In early May, after the Rialto assignment became public, Deborah Lipstadt, a professor at Emory University and expert on the Holocaust, said that, “At best, the teachers and so-called educators who took part in writing this question have been duped into thinking that there is a legitimate debate about whether the Holocaust happened. At worst, they knew better and looked the other way.” Also in early May, a school-board member emailed the San Bernardino Sun, defending the assignment because: “One of the most important responsibilities for educators is to develop critical thinking skills in students.”
Critical thinking and formulating persuasive arguments are essential skills for children to develop. But these projects aren’t appropriate for either goal. When educators encourage students to question the historical fact of the Holocaust or ask them to write an essay suggesting that Jews were the source of Germany’s problems, they are essentially fomenting a subtle form of anti-Semitism. It may not be their intention, but it is certainly the result.
And what can explain the lack of common sense, sensitivity and knowledge when educational professionals conceive such assignments? Why couldn’t those teachers choose topics such as the death penalty, health care, immigration, nuclear proliferation, capitalism, socialism, globalization, fossil fuels, alternative energy, tax policy, drone technology, privacy, civil rights, gun control or money in politics, to name a few? Those issues have two sides and can help students develop critical thinking and formulate persuasive arguments based on research and facts.
If there is a silver lining to these incidents, it is that some of the Albany High School students refused to do the assignment. In California, among the most eloquent of the students who spoke out at an emergency meeting of the Rialto school board was Oyuky Barragan, who insisted that the school district apologize because of “the idea they planted in kids’ minds.”
It is clear from these events that teachers and administrators need more sensitivity training and guidance. To that end, school districts in the U.S. could consider a program like the one an organization in Sacramento created. One of my congregants, Liz Igra, a Holocaust survivor and retired public-school teacher, began the Central Valley Holocaust Educators Network. This nonprofit organization of educators is dedicated to supporting public and private schoolteachers in implementing a Holocaust and genocide curriculum to help their students understand the roots and ramifications of prejudice and the dangers of apathy.
With these kinds of resources available, there is a chance that the teaching incidents in New York and California will be remembered as a blip on the screen and that these harmful decisions shall be turned into lessons learned.
Rabbi Taff, a former president of the Greater Sacramento Board of Rabbis, is the rabbi and spiritual leader of Mosaic Law Congregation in Sacramento.