Arkansas passes Holocaust education bill during increased antisemitism

No longer confined to the dark corners of the internet, groups utilizing antisemitic imagery and rhetoric have taken to the streets and social media to protest mask-wearing, vaccines and restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic.

In one instance, protesters wore yellow stars and carried “Covid 19 vaccine holocaust” banners in London on April 24, according to The Jewish Chronicle. The Auschwitz Memorial issued a statement on Twitter in response, saying, “Instrumentalization of the tragedy of Jews who suffered, were humiliated, marked with a yellow star, and finally isolated in ghettos and murdered during the Holocaust, in order to argue against vaccination that saves human lives is a sad symptom of moral and intellectual decline.”

Times of crisis often inflame tensions and prejudices, and the pandemic has been no different in this regard as attacks have increased against the Jewish community. Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released its annual Audit of Antisemitic Incidents for 2020 on April 27, showing a 49% decrease in physical assaults and a 10% increase in harassment. According to the report, while overall incidents decreased by 4%, 2020 had “the third highest number on record since ADL began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979.” In Arkansas, there were six incidents of harassment and one incident of vandalism.

The Moshe Kantor Database for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism issued a report analyzing global instances of antisemitism. Instances directly connected to the pandemic included comparing lockdowns “to incarceration in ghettos and concentration camps” and describing vaccine certificates as “the infamous ‘selection’ procedure in Nazi death camps,” according to the report. A Greek newspaper mentioned in the report compared Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer and a Greek Jew, to Josef Mengele, the infamous SS physician who experimented on prisoners in Auschwitz.

The increase in virtual attacks and a dangerous and incorrect view of history signal a lack of tolerance and education—a disturbing trend that Arkansas Act 611 confronts head on.

The act “To Require Holocaust Education Be Taught in All Public Schools” was signed into law by Gov. Asa Hutchinson on April 8, according to 40/29 News.

Arkansas public schools are required to begin teaching about the Holocaust in the 2022-2023 school year for students in grades fifth through 12th. The educational content must address “the causes, course, and effects of the Holocaust,” “the ramifications of bullying, bigotry, stereotyping, and discrimination,” and “tolerance of diversity and reverence for human dignity for all citizens in a pluralistic society,” according to the text of the act.

The U.S. Millennial Holocaust Education Survey, released by the Claims Conference in September 2020, ranked Arkansas as the lowest educated. Out of those surveyed, 69% of young adults and teens in Arkansas did not know that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, according to the survey data.

Building up support

For Barry Brown, retired professor from the University of Arkansas, this history is personal, as his mother and first cousin are Holocaust survivors. 

One of the most impressionable memories of Brown’s childhood came from a trip with his cousin. As it came closer to 2:00 in the afternoon, his cousin insisted that they pull the car over so he could use the restroom. Upon returning to the car, he said, “Well, I haven’t really told many people this, but during the three years I was in the concentration camp, they only let us go out with a shovel Sunday at 2:00 to build a latrine, and that was the only time we could go.” “To this day, his brain was so conditioned no matter where he is … at 2:00 on Sunday, he’ll go,” Brown said.

As a member of the Arkansas Holocaust Education Committee, Brown shared how the movement for the Holocaust education act started through the testimony of another survivor. Pieter Kohnstam, whose babysitter and friend was Anne Frank, spoke at the Holocaust committee’s annual conference in 2018. The following year, Kohnstam was interviewed by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where he encouraged Arkansas lawmakers to “initiate teaching, by law, that not only the Holocaust existed but also about standing up against genocide and racism.”

When Norm DeBriyn, former baseball coach for the Arkansas Razorbacks, read the article, he reached out to Brown and connected him with Sen. Bart Hester [R-Cave Springs] who offered to sponsor the bill. “Well at that point, it got me all excited … I said, ‘We need to put a committee together’ … and we came up with the name Holocaust Education Living Proposal,” or HELP, for short, Brown said.

Through a months-long process the committee worked to formulate the bill with the help of Hester and his legislative attorney. More supporters jumped on board, including Steve Ronnell who served as a senior advisor to Sen. David Pryor, and, when the bill arrived before the Arkansas legislature, it had 52 bipartisan co-sponsors.

As word got out about the bill, letters of support flowed in from community leaders, including the business lobbyists, school district superintendents and chancellors and presidents of the University of Arkansas, John Brown University and Arkansas State University.

The bill passed both the Senate and House chambers unanimously, and the committee requested that it be signed by the governor on Yom HaShoah, the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

“We’ve spoken with the Anti-Defamation League person in charge of three states [Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi], and we think that we are going to serve as a template, lil’ ol’ Arkansas, for all of the southern states, which will just be amazing,” Brown said.

Arkansas joins 18 other states in mandating Holocaust education, and it is the only state in the South besides Florida to do so, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Designing the curriculum

With the act now law, the committee’s focus has turned to designing the curriculum in preparation for the 2022-2023 academic year. Brown said the committee is pushing for its members to be assigned to the Arkansas Department of Education’s committee, including Dorian Stuber, chair of the Department of English at Hendrix College, Ricky Manes, history teacher at Fulbright Jr. High School, and Kevin Simpson, department chair of psychology at JBU.

Simpson has studied the Holocaust for 12 to 13 years and is currently teaching a course titled “Hitler’s Genocide: The Psychology of the Holocaust.”

For deciding on the best pathway forward for Arkansas’ students, Simpson points to many of the curriculum options made available by organizations including Facing History and Ourselves and Echoes & Reflections. The committee seeks to educate students on this difficult history in ways that best fit each grade level. “I believe there’s no better way to reach a student than through memoir, especially if it’s age appropriate or age-matched,” Simpson said.

Through this education, Simpson hopes that students also develop their capacity for empathy and altruism. While some colleagues he has encountered tend to be more pessimistic due to genocides still occurring after 1945, Simpson said, “I see bright spots … possibilities when young people are actually on the front lines as activists saying, ‘No more. Not in our name,’ demanding that the government respond more forcefully to hate in its midst.”

He is also encouraged by growing student interest. “Students are curious about this history. It won’t be long until the witnesses of the Holocaust are gone,” Simpson said. “What are we left with? Who’s going to tell the stories?”

Connecting history to today

Reflected in the rising levels of antisemitism, Simpson sees the need not only for education but also for real-world interaction between people of different backgrounds.

Hate groups, even within Arkansas, have used antisemitic and Neo-Nazi rhetoric as a part of their messaging. ADL has recorded 12 instances of white supremacist propaganda and two antisemitic instances in Arkansas since the beginning of the year.

“QANON, when you really start to peel back the layers, some of it is a recycling of the antisemitic hate we saw a century ago that made the ground fertile for the Nazi movement. I’m not saying necessarily that’s going to happen here in the U.S., but when that kind of mythology and hate goes unchecked, it has the potential to cause great harm,” Simpson said.

In response to the COVID-19 conspiracies reported by the Moshe Kantor Database, he said, “All of that shows an ignorance of history because before you ever get to the yellow star, you’ve got incremental persecution … If you make that false equivocation, you’ve lost the argument.”

Education can help students to confront these twisted histories, but Simpson also encourages students to interact with those who are different from them. “In this part of Arkansas, for instance, it might be very easy for us to not have much awareness of what it’s like to be Jewish unless we develop friendships or seek out those opportunities to learn and understand,” Simpson said. “It’s education-related, but seems more hands-on to me. You can read a lot about it, but it stays in the abstract until you’re actually in there mixing it up.”

In seeing the possibilities for future generations, Brown is hopeful for the impact of the act in Arkansas. “‘Never Again’ is a slogan without any teeth behind it, but now finally with Holocaust bill passed, we can say it has meaning,” Brown said. “Our hope is that even though survivors may no longer be with us, that it’s through educating our youth and public schools that it will be kept alive and the lessons will be learned to eliminate hatred, bigotry and prejudice.”

Photo courtesy of Frederick Wallace