Updated Jan 7, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Most states lack laws requiring Holocaust, genocide education

Data: National Conference of State Legislatures; Cartogram: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

A majority of U.S. states don't have laws requiring public school students to learn about the horrors of the Holocaust, according to an Axios analysis of data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Why it matters: Surveys show Americans — especially Millennials and Gen Z members — don't know basic facts about the Holocaust amid a rise in racist and antisemitic social media posts and a jump in antisemitic violence across the U.S.

  • And many Holocaust survivors who have spoken at schools as part of education programs are dying, depriving educators of a key resource to teach students about genocide.

By the numbers: At least 18 states have passed bills specifically requiring Holocaust and genocide education, the National Conference of State Legislature said.

  • Just five states had laws requiring Holocaust education before 2017, according to data collected by National Conference of State Legislatures policy associate Emily Ronco.
  • Then 13 states passed legislation after President Trump took office, and the nation saw a spike in antisemitic violence.

Zoom in: Some states that don't have laws mandating Holocaust education instruct schools to teach it through broad social studies standards adopted by state education agencies.

  • California, which isn't on the National Conference of State Legislatures' list, enacted a law in 1985 that said social studies should pay "particular attention to the study of the inhumanity of genocide, slavery, and the Holocaust, and contemporary issues."
  • Pennsylvania, also not on the list, passed a law in 2014 prioritizing Holocaust lessons. The instruction is not mandated but "encouraged," the state Board of Education said.

State of play: A 2020 survey commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany measuring Holocaust awareness in the U.S. found that roughly two-thirds of those surveyed didn't know how many Jewish people died.

  • The survey of Americans between 18 and 40 also found that 48% could not name one concentration camp or ghetto.

Zoom out: Antisemitic hate crimes are trending higher this year in several major cities and could surpass numbers from 2021 — a possible record year, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.

  • Hip-hop artist Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, and NBA star Kyrie Irving, have both made antisemitic social posts in recent months.

What they're saying: "Holocaust education is essential. But I also believe that it should be part of a chain of education that deals with the diverse groups that make up the United States," Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism director Brian Levin told Axios.

  • "It's important to establish that the Holocaust is not an outlier" and should be taught alongside lessons about slavery, Indigenous removal and threats to democracy.

Yes, but: Samantha Abramson, executive director of the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center in Milwaukee, said states like Wisconsin that require Holocaust education don't put funding behind it.

  • "The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction puts put forward guidelines and collaborates on workshops for educators," Abramson said.
  • "No one is keeping tabs on what each school is doing ... there's no time commitment. The bill does not stipulate that X number of hours is needed or do it at this time of year. So you'll see a lot of variation from district to district."
  • Abramson said her center provides teachers with lesson plans and ideas to teach the Holocaust effectively, but sometimes she finds a school doing something offensive.

The bottom line: Holocaust education shouldn't be simply about knowing how many Jewish people were killed, Amy Asin, vice president and director of strengthening congregations for the Union of Reform Judaism, told Axios.

  • "It should also be about recognizing the signs, the threats to democracy, and how antisemitism is the gateway to racism."
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