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Debate Continues Over Holocaust Education

May 28, 2014 By:
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Holocaust education advocates are again grappling with the best course of action in pushing for legislation that would increase the number of students studying the subject in Pennsylvania.
 
There still appears to be a divide over whether passing a bill that does not require students to learn about the Holocaust can be considered a success and, conversely, whether a bill that does include a mandate has any chance of passing in the Republican-controlled legislature. 
 
Earlier this month, the board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia endorsed the latest proposal, which does not include a mandate, marking the first time it had taken a formal vote on the matter.
 
Meanwhile, Rhonda Fink Whitman, one of the most vocal supporters of a mandate, has criticized Jewish groups for not pushing hard enough to get a more complete bill and continues to release videos lobbying for that.
 
The proposal supported by Federation would amend a bill introduced by state Rep. Paul Clymer, a Republican from Bucks County, and would: 
 
• provide teachers with Holocaust education and training;
 
• establish a statewide study to determine which schools are teaching the Holocaust and call for recommendations to the State Department of Education if targets are not met; and
 
• direct the DOE to create a statewide curriculum with the help of organizations like the Shoah Foundation. 
 
“Everyone — the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, the Federation, independent experts — wants there to be a mandate,” said Matt Handel, who chairs the coalition, which represents federations in Harrisburg, and who presented to the Philadelphia Federation board this month. “But the biggest change, I think, is a recognition of what can be achieved right now.”
 
The board initially supported legislation that would enable schools to receive funding for the subject, though it did not require it to be part of public schools curriculum. Some Federation leaders later changed their position to support mandating such education. Federation president-elect Bud Newman had said that making Holocaust education voluntary “is unacceptable to us.”
 
But after hearing from the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, he said, he and other Federation leaders understood the situation differently. “We as a board of directors embraced their approach and are 100 percent behind their perspective now.”
 
The bill could be passed into law before the end of the legislative year, said Robin Schatz, director of government affairs at Federation.
 
State Sen. Andrew Dinniman, a Democrat from Chester County, has proposed an amendment to Clymer’s bill that frames the debate over a mandate differently. The bill would require schools to recognize Holocaust Remembrance Day — the way other days are observed — with an assembly or activity and call for 12 hours of instruction on the subject before or after the program.
 
“I’m trying to avoid the controversy of mandate versus non-mandate,” said Dinniman, who is Jewish and chairs the Senate education committee.
 
It is not clear if his approach actually represents anything different from past attempts to require that students learn about the Holocaust.
 
“Of course it’s a mandate,” Steve Miskin, spokesman for the House Republicans, said of Dinniman’s proposal. “He’s trying to put another curriculum mandate on our schools, and house members are a little antsy about a curriculum mandate, but teacher training — absolutely.”
 
Miskin, who is also Jewish, said he doesn’t “comprehend the mindset” of Holocaust education advocates like Fink Whitman who have taken a hardline approach on the mandate. 
 
Fink Whitman produced a popular video last year showing the lack of Holocaust knowledge among college students in the Philadelphia area. In another video she produced a couple of months ago, she said, “We’re on our way, but we’re still getting resistance. Yeah, I’m talking to you, Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition. A little bit of sabotage going on there.”
 
Miskin and others have said mandate supporters have taken to bullying those who would like to see Holocaust education legislation passed but don’t see a mandate as realistic. 
 
“They’re threatening people,” he said. “I’ve been called a Nazi sympathizer. I’ve been called a Holocaust denier. I mean, come on. My mother’s entire family was wiped out.”
 
 

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