Arizona students will learn about the Holocaust, other genocides, under new law

By: - July 14, 2021 11:24 am

Arizona schools will be required to teach students about the Holocaust and other genocides twice in a six-year span under a new law. 

The law was the years-long project of Rep. Alma Hernandez, D-Tucson, whose House Bill 2241 passed in the final moments of the 2021 legislative session. Previous attempts had fallen short of winning approval in both legislative chambers. The new law requires instruction in the Holocaust and other genocides at least twice between 7th and 12th grades. 

Hernandez, who is Jewish, said in a press release that the passage and signing of the new law was “a community effort.”

“This legislation is an important step to honor both those lost in the Holocaust and the survivors who have worked tirelessly to tell their stories,” she said. “Knowing that all Arizona students will learn about the Holocaust gives me hope. We must teach the atrocities of the past to ensure it never happens again.”

Holocaust survivor Dr. Alexander White, who advocated for the measure, said he was pleased the bill passed.

“We hope that the young people will learn what hate can lead to,” White told the Arizona Mirror. “Before Adolf Hitler started the Holocaust, he preached hate. No one said anything against it and it ended in the biggest tragedy in the history of mankind. The Holocaust is not only a Jewish tragedy, it’s a human tragedy of extreme proportion.”

According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Nazi regime and its allies killed about 6 million Jews and millions of other children and adults including political opponents; gay people; people living with a disability and those convicted of criminal offenses; Jehovah’s Witnesses; Roma people; and Serb, Polish and Soviet civilians.

“It’s about time,” White said of the bill’s enactment into law. “It should’ve been done a long time ago, but it’s never too late.”

White, who is in his late 90s, lives in the Phoenix area. He was born in Poland and sent to concentration camps as a teen. Nazis systematically killed his family and an estimated 6 million other Jews. White worked in a concentration camp and was placed under what’s now known as the Schindler’s List, which saved some factory workers in camps from death.

This legislation is an important step to honor both those lost in the Holocaust and the survivors who have worked tirelessly to tell their stories. Knowing that all Arizona students will learn about the Holocaust gives me hope. We must teach the atrocities of the past to ensure it never happens again.

– Rep. Alma Hernandez, D-Tucson

New law codifies SBE rule from October 

The new law codifies into law a rule the State Board of Education adopted in October requiring lessons about the Holocaust and other genocides be taught twice between grades 7 and 12. 

The law makes this type of instruction “stronger,” said Sheryl Bronkesh, president of the Phoenix Holocaust Association.

“What we are advocating to teach is for students to understand the consequences of hatred and bigotry by showing and teaching about the Holocaust and other genocides,” Bronkesh said. 

She said the new law isn’t just about looking at one moment in history. The instruction on other systematic mass killings includes events of ethnic and religious cleansing preceding the Holocaust and others that took place decades after World War II. 

“Since the Holocaust, there have been dozens and dozens of other genocides,” Bronkesh said. “If you think of Rwanda, that happened decades after the Holocaust. We look at Bosnia, and before that Native American and Armenian (genocides) …. There have been other genocides. We believe that students can learn from these topics by studying what happened, and what led up to them.”

Since the October adoption of the SBE rule, the Phoenix Holocaust Association has worked with the Arizona Department of Education to compile books, lesson plans and other resources to help teachers to provide instruction on the Holocaust and other genocides, Bronkesh said.   

Ducey: New law a step in towards addressing antisemitism

Ducey said in a statement the new law will educate students on the killings “at the hands of evil.” He also cited Anti-Defamation League statistics about 10 incidents of antisemitism that have taken place in Arizona this year. 

“This bill is a step in the right direction to fight antisemitism in our state, but our work is far from over,” Ducey said. 

“Antisemitism has been on the rise in recent years with incidents in Queen Creek, Chandler and most recently at the Chabad on River Synagogue in Tucson,” the press release said.  

A controversial definition of antisemitism was tacked on to the Holocaust education bill, stalling its bipartisan support, but it ultimately didn’t make it into the final bill’s version.

ADE: New punitive law won’t contradict teaching of Holocaust

After Ducey’s signing of the Holocaust and other genocides law, some questioned how the new education requirement would fare with a controversial requirement on “prohibited instruction” lawmakers added to the education budget and which Ducey signed. 

The new Arizona law would fine schools up to $5,000 and strip teachers of their certification if they teach topics that presents “any form of blame or judgment based on race, ethnicity or sex.” 

Bronkesh, of the Phoenix Holocaust Association, said she doesn’t know enough about the new punitive law to say definetly whether it could lead to censoring of Holocaust instruction. 

“I hope that bill does not limit any teaching about or inhibit a teacher from teaching the Holocaust, because the Holocaust is the most well-documented genocide, and it is really not controversial whether or not it happened and how many people were murdered,” she said. “We know who perpetrated it … Perpetrators have taken responsibility for the Holocaust.” 

ADE spokeswoman Morgan Dick said the state education agency does not expect the prohibited instruction law “to impact learning significantly in Holocaust Education or other historical topics.”

Arizona’s social studies standards, Dick said, guide students to learn and discuss historical events through the use of primary and secondary sources. 

“(The prohibited instruction law) does not contradict the standards and does not preclude the teaching of any specific historical events,” she said. “ADE will release further guidance to school leaders and teachers to provide more clarity and address concerns about the bill’s impact.”

White, the Holocaust survivor, said even veterans of WWII are surprised to learn the death toll at the hands of the Nazi regime and its allies during the war.

White wrote and self-published a book about his memory’s of the Holocaust called “Be a Mensch.” The Yiddish word roughly translates to “a decent human being,” White said. And that’s one of the main messages he wants youth to understand from his experiences and from education on the Holocaust. 

“Be a decent human being, that should do everything that you need,” White said. “Spread the word.”

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Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez

Laura Gómez Rodriguez previously covered state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror.