Words as weapons

Words as weapons

The harm of omitting the Jewish experience from California’s proposed curriculum

Illustrative photo: Visitors gather in the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem on Jan. 27, 2014, International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Getty Images
Illustrative photo: Visitors gather in the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem on Jan. 27, 2014, International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Getty Images

Earlier this summer, I traveled to England to visit with friends and serve as a consultant to a number of Holocaust institutions and individuals in the field of Holocaust education. Sharing intellectual property and contacts has an exponentially beneficial effect. This was made evident through an email I received this month about a new ethnic studies model curriculum in California, considered valuable but extremely problematic.

The email was sent to the listserv of the Association of Holocaust Organizations (AHO) by Dr. Kori Street of the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation, who studied and discussed the document with experts in the field and concluded that a revision was due. The AHO membership includes the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Yad Vashem, other Holocaust and genocide museums and centers, and scholars from every continent except Antarctica. It is an exchange for sharing the most recent scholarship, pedagogy, and publications as well as best practices for archiving materials, institutional fund-raising, and current concerns.

The email warned that the model curriculum proposed to the California State Board of Education was inaccurate and misleading because it “omits anti-Semitism, and effectively erases the American Jewish experience,” reflecting “anti-Jewish bias.” Neither the Shoah Foundation nor the AHO are advocacy groups. However, Street suggested that it was incumbent upon members to write letters to the Board of Education addressing concern about the omissions.

That a state that owes so much to Levi Strauss, and the Jews who turned a sleepy outpost into Hollywood, would omit Jews from their curriculum on ethnic groups who really did help make America great was more than problematic, it was dangerous. Dismissing Jews from the mix is anti-Semitic in fact, if not by intent, particularly as the publication has the gravitas of having been produced by the state’s Board of Education. One could give the board a pass by arguing that they did not include Jews among other ethnic groups because they consider them part of mainstream America. Certainly, many American Jews do consider themselves so. Or did. It took the shootings at the Tree of Life and Poway, Calif., synagogues as well as the steep rise of anti-Semitic incidents in America to lift the blinders.

“When did Jews become white?” is a question that many Jews are now asking. Those who know the history of the rise and fall of Jews in Spain, Germany, Iraq, and other nations where Jews lived for centuries, even millennia, do not ask. Those who know the long history of anti-Semitism in the Americas do not ask.

In 1980, Ku Klux Klan leader Tom Metzger won the Democratic primary for California’s 43rd Congressional District, representing San Diego and neighboring counties. The “Grand Dragon” went on to lose the election in that predominately Republican area.

During my visit to England, I attended a conference on Racialization, convened by the African Studies Department of Oxford University. Racialization is the nefarious practice of marginalizing a group using the social constructs of ethnicity and/or race.

Charles Asher Small was one of a few Jewish presenters at the conference. Born and raised in Montreal, he earned his doctorate from Oxford, where he became friends with many African students. Small began his presentation with the statement that whereas he had graduated from McGill University, his father had been denied entry. In that era of quotas, the prestigious Canadian university did not readily admit what we have come to call “people of color.” At the time Jews were not deemed white no matter the color of their skin, hair, eyes, nor how perfectly they spoke English and French.

There, as in the United States, Jews were excluded from educational opportunities and prestigious professions. Neighborhoods, hotels, and apartment buildings were restricted as were business and career opportunities. Jews accommodated. They did not establish their own country clubs, colleges, hospitals, and hotels because they found existing ones wanting. They built them because even after they had achieved success, they remained unwanted.

Knowing the pain of baseless hatred, Jews became active supporters of the NAACP and other civil rights and social justice movements, a fact that often goes unmentioned in the field of black history studies. Small was active in the anti-apartheid movement, meeting and working with its leaders, often at considerable personal risk.

He finds it maddening that Israel is slandered as an apartheid state because he recognizes that this is yet another anti-Semitic trope spouted out of either ignorance, malice, or political expediency. Anti-Semites consider the tiny Jewish homeland a physical manifestation of a Zionist conspiracy to rule the world. It is especially infuriating that professors voice this and other slanders because their academic standing gives these calumnies the gloss of credibility. Repeated ad nauseum, these lies have a strong and lasting influence on their students and younger, untenured, often intimidated scholars eager to ascend the academic ladder.

To counter anti-Semitism, Small founded the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP). He travels the world to lecture and convenes annual conferences at Oxford for international groups of professors, many who come from countries without Jewish populations. Scholars and other experts educate them about anti-Semitism and its global dangers so they can educate their students.

As the blood libels in medieval England and France so mercilessly proved, words have the power to destroy entire communities. Education can be weaponized. The Nazis knew this and forced teachers to join the Nazi party to spread their evil ideology. Madrassas use propaganda to teach radical Islam.

In the 1990s, master educators Sister Dr. Rose E. Thering and Dr. Paul Winkler, founding director of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, joined forces with other community leaders to implement a mandate to teach the Holocaust and genocide in all New Jersey public schools, grades K-12. They supervised the creation of a comprehensive curriculum that addressed genocides from Native Americans to 9/11. Their activism and support of teachers and centers has made our state a world-renowned model and educational resource.

New Jersey and California are among the nation’s two most diverse states. They also have some of the highest numbers of hate crimes in our country. Fortunately, enough people protested to the Instructional Quality Commission of California’s Board of Education. Their faulty curriculum is now being revised. The harm the original would have caused was, thankfully, averted.

Let this serve as a lasting reminder that vigilance, action, and support of institutions that battle the war against anti-Semitism are absolutely crucial.

Barbara Wind, former director of the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest NJ, is a writer, Holocaust scholar, speaker, and consultant.

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