A bill to require Holocaust education in Wisconsin middle schools and high schools is gaining steam in the state Legislature. The bill is strongly tied to the local Jewish community.
The bill comes at a moment when, according to recent research, Americans are sorely uninformed on the Holocaust as antisemitism is growing.
At least 45 state senators and members of the assembly have co-sponsored the bill to require Holocaust education in Wisconsin. The exact number was being finalized as the Chronicle went to press.
The bill requires that the state superintendent consult with an organization in the state that provides Holocaust education programs – the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center, a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, is an indisputable leader on this in Wisconsin. Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) wrote the bill after HERC’s Holocaust Education Task Force Co-Chair Bev Greenberg approached her with the idea in September 2019.
Darling said support for the bill has been bipartisan and it has not been a tough sell with many of her peers in the Legislature. She cited the recent rise in antisemitism and how about a dozen other states require Holocaust education, but not Wisconsin.
“I thought this was a major oversight,” Darling said, adding that the bill is particularly important “with the country so divisive right now.”
Preparing for the work
One of the original co-sponsors, Rep. Jon Plumer (R-Lodi), sent a memo to all state legislators that connects HERC to the bill: “The Wisconsin-based Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center is committed to providing materials, programming, and professional development necessary to implement this requirement at no additional costs to schools.”
HERC already does this work, but only when schools invite it or accept it. At present HERC serves about 4 percent of Wisconsin middle and high school students; once the bill passes it could find itself suddenly serving 100 percent.
HERC is already building a new website that can be used to meet the possible leap in demand, said Shay Pilnik, executive director. The site will offer lesson plans for teachers. At the site, teachers will be able to sign up for seminars led by HERC educators visiting their area.
“We will be prepared at all levels,” Pilnik said. The key to success, he said, will be “further investing in our interactions with teachers.”
Other early co-sponsors of the bill are state Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) and Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison). Subeck said that as a Jewish woman, this issue is somewhat personal.
“It’s so critical that we never forget so that we reach never again,” she said. “Kids now don’t have the opportunities that we had to meet Holocaust survivors.”
The bill would require that the state superintendent of public instruction and local schools must “as part of the social studies curriculum, include instruction on the Holocaust and other genocides at least once in grades 5 to 8 and at least once in grades 9 to 12.”
The requirement may not seem stringent, but that helps make the case for the bill, for any legislators with concerns about legislative overreach.
“I think that we feel that is very reasonable. We see it as the floor, as the minimum,” said Michael Blumenfeld, director of the Wisconsin Jewish Conference, a state government affairs office affiliated with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Milwaukee Jewish Federation. Blumenfeld is an advocate for the bill.
Antisemitism and the Holocaust
Half of American adults are unaware of basic facts regarding Nazism and the Holocaust, including the number of Jews who were killed and how Nazis came to power, according to recent research.
A study released by the Pew Research Center in January 2020 asked nearly 13,000 respondents about the Holocaust.
Most knew that the Holocaust took place between 1930 and 1950, and that Nazi ghettos were areas of cities where Jews were forced to live. But only 45 percent knew that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust.
Also, 43 percent of American adults knew that Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany through a democratic process.
Meanwhile, both out-of-state organizations and the Jewish Community Relations Council have been reporting rising antisemitism.
Wisconsin is experiencing an “alarming” rise in antisemitic incidents, the JCRC announced with its 2018 Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents in March of 2019. The audit reported a fifth consecutive year of increased incidents, with a 20 percent increase from 2017. A new audit is set to be released in March 2020.
Race against time
The bill on Holocaust education is to be referred to a committee. After that, it could see public hearings and a possible vote in the Legislature. But the business of the Legislature’s current session is expected to conclude within months, so advocates will be racing against time to get it to a vote.
If it does pass, it will be a big win for the Holocaust Education Task Force, which has been investigating what other states do and forming plans to advocate for statewide Holocaust education. This, now, may be the moment when it all comes together.
“I’ve been calling lots and lots of senators this week,” said Greenberg in January, on trying to get more co-sponsors. “It really is a bill to encourage human rights.”