I appreciated Cara Nixon’s reporting on the school district’s new Holocaust Curriculum last weekend, but I also walked away with deep concern. While I think the district is well meaning, I also believe they are confused, and set to mislead the students in their charge.
Like many Jews of my generation, I first felt my Jewishness as a teen. It came on as a sudden quiet sense of self, or more exactly, an unmistakable piece of self that I hadn’t yet encountered. I could feel my unknown and unnamed ancestors and forebears far beyond my own family – their sufferings and wisdom, and eldership – and of course, I could feel the camps.
This sensation from decades before, and lasting less than a minute, is like a permanent ink on the soul. I am not a religious Jew, but ethnically, I know where I come from. Of course, I now understand that my education on these topics contributed to this sense of myself.
Later, I would become a parent and move to Corvallis, where years ago my child would share their 5th grade textbook with me, which simply stated, “Hitler did not like the Jews” as its whole cloth to describe what happened to my ancestors in Nazi Germany. There was no mention of camps or deaths or torture. Just nothing.
When I asked the teacher about it, she said,“The book could be disappointing for a connoisseur of history.”
A connoisseur of history?
Fortunately, the district incrementally improved by the time my children started high school, depending on which teachers they got, but the material was nowhere near what I received as a child. Of course, knowing the history, I had the option to teach my children, which I did.
But most parents won’t know this history the same way as someone who grew up with survivors in their day-to-day life – which brings me to my concerns with the district’s new curriculum. With age being what it is, we cannot rely on the survivors to forever teach the lessons of the Holocaust. We will eventually have to rely on the judgments of society’s educators.
In my view, the district’s new curriculum needs sharper judgment applied. It needs more focus on the unique Jewish experience, and the uniqueness of antisemitism as a worldwide phenomenon– including how America’s antisemitism led to too little too late during and after World War II. It is worth teaching that, before The Final Solution there was the Jewish Question, which dates back to 1750’s Great Britain. And we shouldn’t forget about the pogroms.
Another problem with this curriculum is broader than its handling of antisemitism and the Holocaust. For instance, taking the genocide of the Holocaust together with the genocide in Rwanda, as the district plans to do, may seem to serve a laudable educational goal, but it’s reductive – minimizing both the Jewish and Rwandan experiences to mere examples, to abstractions.
Even more strange, the curriculum actually calls to conflate bullying prevention into the program. The perpetrators of genocide aren’t mere bullies.They are killers who believe that they stand on rational ground.
In the reporting we ran last weekend, Rabbi Phil Bressler from Corvallis’ Beit Am Jewish Community said the curriculum led him to feel unseen as a Jew, which is a feeling I too share. And it is that prospective unseeing from the greater community that is especially concerning.
There is nothing in this curriculum about signs to watch for when a society is breaking down. Nothing about the signs that fascism is taking root. We need to explain to our children that America is not exempt from the ravages of unchecked hate.
What happened in Nazi Germany could happen here.
This was once fairly standard material, and one need only look at the last five years in this country to understand why it should still be.
Commentary by Steven Schultz