Jewish Journal


February 14, 2002

Changing Course

Lawmakers seek to improve the way genocide is taught.


Students learn about the Holocaust at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Photo courtesy Simon Wiesenthal Center

Students learn about the Holocaust at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Photo courtesy Simon Wiesenthal Center

In an assembly hall at a Burbank middle school, a Holocaust survivor answers questions from her young audience. The inquiries are thoughtful, and the children serious, some even close to tears. All have been prepared for the visit by their teachers and the readings they have been doing on the subject for several weeks.

On the same day, at a theater across town, a group of high school students is also being taught about the Holocaust with a special screening of "Schindler's List." Afterward, they gather in their classroom, but the discussion could not be more different than that of the middle school students. It appears that the movie is their only exposure to the Shoah, and their analysis of this terrible time in history is indifferent at best, even bordering on flippant.

To eliminate the disparity in the way the topic of the Holocaust and other genocides is taught, two state Assembly members are planning the introduction of the Holocaust Genocide Education Act. The bill is scheduled to be introduced this month.

Assemblymen Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood) and Mark Wyland (R-Escondido) are authors of the legislation, tentatively scheduled as Assembly Bill 2003. Although existing law requires the State Department of Education to incorporate lessons about civil rights, genocide, slavery and the Holocaust into the public school systems' curriculum, the guidelines for doing so and the resources for training teachers have never been formalized, according to Koretz.

"We wanted to do something dramatic to make California the leader in Holocaust and genocide education. The current legislation took the first step, saying we should be teaching about the Holocaust, but it did not provide enough resources," Koretz said.

The bill, if passed, would establish a 12-member Holocaust/Genocide Commission that would in turn create "centers for excellence" to provide resources, including teacher training and certificate programs for Holocaust and genocide studies. According to the Assembly counsel's summary of the bill, the centers would work with the California State University system, as well as with such established organizations as the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, the Northern California Holocaust Resource Center in San Francisco, the Cambodian Center in Stanislaus County and the Armenian Education Institute.

The bill also includes the recommendation that survivor testimony be more central to teaching about slavery, genocide and the Holocaust.

Koretz said he anticipates a positive reception for the legislation. In addition to himself and Wyland, the bill has received support from Assembly members Tony Strickland (R-Moorpark), Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), Keith Richman (R-Northridge), Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), Gloria Negrete McLeod (D-Chino) and Sally Havice (D-Cerritos), as well as from state senators Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), Richard Alarcon (D-Sylmar) and Jack Scott (D-Altadena).

The lawmakers have also been busy developing community support for the bill. The Southern California Region B'nai B'rith was one of the first Jewish organizations back it, thanks to Koretz's chief of staff Scott Svonkin, who also serves as the organization's public policy chair. Other formal supporters of the bill include the Shoah Foundation and the California Federation of Teachers.

"It fit in very nicely with our agenda. We were delighted to back it," said B'nai B'rith Regional Director Steve Koff. "We have a number of members who are Holocaust survivors affiliated with various outlets like the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who give their time speaking to community groups and schools. In light of their involvement, it's natural for B'nai B'rith to support the new curriculum."

The program is being modeled on those of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the two states with the most prominent government-sponsored programs for Holocaust studies. Koretz also credited California State University Chico professor Sam Edelman for his assistance in creating the program outlined in the bill.

Edelman, who along with his wife, Carol, has taught Holocaust studies courses for more than two decades, said he and his colleagues across the state have long despaired of the lack of support for teachers in this field and the differing, often inadequate results of having no set guidelines for school programs.

"Just to run a movie like 'Schindler's List,' as wonderful a film as it is, isn't enough," Edelman said. "The goal here is to provide the teachers with the right resources so they can teach children properly, to put them in touch with survivors and rescuers and academicians who know the histories of the various genocides."

Edelman said he could not stress enough the importance of these studies in giving children a "moral compass."

"When students understand the results of hatred and bigotry, that in the extreme result the results are the Shoah and Rwanda and Cambodia, they can begin to understand the implications of hatred in their own lives," he said.

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