Simplest, most important lesson of the Holocaust is missing

Simplest, most important lesson of the Holocaust is missing

“To me it’s just abysmal that out of 50 states only five currently have Holocaust education mandated … and Pennsylvania is long overdue,” said Rhonda Fink-Whitman, who wrote “94 Maidens,” a novel inspired by what happened to her mother, a survivor of the murder of European Jewry.

An educator and advocate, Fink-Whitman is no doubt proud of her accomplishment since largely due to her efforts, Pennsylvania now has a law that not only urges public schools to teach about the Holocaust, but there is a mandate that they do so should voluntary participation fail to materialize. “After two years of implementation of the program, [the Pennsylvania Department of Education] will be required to conduct a statewide study as to which schools are teaching the curriculum, and which are not,” said Sen. Judy Schwank (D-Berks). “And it will include recommendations on how to increase the number of schools that are offering this curriculum.”

Gov. Tom Corbett, who signed the measure on June 26, may have the best of intentions, as do the supporters of this law and the legislators who wrote and passed it. But intentions are no guarantee of outcome and in this case one of the most basic lessons of the churban is missing.

The trouble stems in part from a lack of focus on the purpose of such a curriculum. Fink-Whitman says it’s needed because children are confronted on college campuses by Holocaust deniers. “If we give them that knowledge, then when they get to college and they hear these liars come onto their campuses and tell them these untruths then they have something to counter with.”

Mike Crossey, president of the Pennsylvania State Educators Association, said Holocaust teaching focuses on “a human rights issue,” as is the teaching of “atrocities around the world.” Crossey adds that “by learning and understanding history, our children, hopefully, will be able to make wise decisions for the future” rather than repeat disastrous “mistakes,” let alone “atrocities” of the kind shockingly condoned and carried out during World War II. The new bill means “educating our students about our world’s historic atrocities [to create] an understanding of the need for tolerance and an understanding of the consequences of bigotry and hate,” said Matt Handel, chairman of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition. “We must never forget the horrors of what has happened so that we do not allow these tragic chapters of history to be repeated.”

Studying the Holocaust in Pennsylvania public schools is allegedly going to counter Holocaust denial on college campuses, lead to greater tolerance, prevent genocide, promote human rights and lead citizens to reject all bigotry, hatred and prejudice. A tall order indeed, and this isn’t even the full list of concepts included in the proposed curriculum.

While these are all laudable goals, it is worth considering what problem such an expansive curriculum is designed to solve. And it is especially important to remember that Pennsylvania already has curriculum and teacher training for Holocaust education at the high school level.

In 1990, historian Lucy Dawidowicz wrote an expansive essay for Commentary Magazine analyzing the then-available Holocaust curricula and found that Pennsylvania was among the various states engaged in the topic. But what she found to be problematic nearly 25 years ago is endemic today, namely the missing element from nearly every high school’s Holocaust education: the Sixth Commandment, thou shalt not murder.

Those who want Holocaust education argue that it will prevent further “atrocities” and “genocide.” The best way to do so, as Dawidowicz’s study of the then-available materials revealed, is “by enumerating supposedly analogous cases” and so “the curricula can make the issue ‘relevant’ by deflecting attention from the Jews as the sole or most prominent victims of genocide.”

Such deflection, however, necessitates leaving aside the specifics of anti-Semitism in Germany and the fact that the “solution” to the Jewish problem – their destruction — was embodied in law and public policy. Such specifics, happily, are anathema to American democracy, though. We do not have those kinds of laws so opposing hatred, bigotry, prejudice, and racism has become a matter of “human rights” and “conscience”. Students are taught that as individuals they are responsible for rejecting such characteristics because their conscience dictates it.

But conscience is not an effective moral guide. “Conscience can be especially unreliable when it comes to moral questions, which we have never before faced or imagined and for which we lack the wisdom to choose an honorable course of action,” Dawidowicz correctly argued. “The Jews who lived under Hitler’s rule were confronted with cruel dilemmas, forced to make difficult, even impossible, choices about matters of life and death for which conscience could offer no direction and the past could give no guidance.”  Students in Pennsylvania are no less ill-equipped for dealing with such dilemmas as were European Jewry, which is why teaching the Sixth commandment is both so important and “relevant.”

Dawidowicz again: “If conscience is not a satisfactory guide to moral behavior in times of duress, and if one is compelled to live in a society with unjust laws, by what standard then should people be guided? My own answer is simple: We turn to a more authoritative law, to the fundamental moral code of our civilization and of the three great religions whose basic text is the Jewish Bible. We turn to the Sixth Commandment, which prescribes: “Thou shalt not murder.” This, in my view, is the primary lesson of the Holocaust.

It is because of the Sixth Commandment that we must oppose mass murder anywhere, anytime, against anyone. Yet, this central lesson is nowhere to be found in Pennsylvania’s new law.

Abby W. Schachter, a Pittsburgh resident, is senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and writes regularly for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. Follow her on Twitter @abbyschachter.