A video showing college students educated in Pennsylvania who know virtually nothing about the Shoa is piquing new interest in efforts to make Holocaust education mandatory in the statewide public and charter schools.
But that effort is in for a tough fight in the legislature, where many lawmakers are hesitant to pass a bill containing mandates (legislative requirements).
Nevertheless, legislation is pending, including one bill that, while not mandating Holocaust education, would make it easier for school districts to offer it.
The video shows Rhonda Fink-Whitman, an author and daughter of a Holocaust survivor, interviewing college
students on Philadelphia area campuses such as Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania, asking them very basic questions about the Holocaust. The students either cannot answer the questions or give grossly inaccurate responses.
The Times of Israel wrote a story about Fink-Whitman, who has actively pushed for mandatory Holocaust education in Pennsylvania, and posted her video, which has since gone viral, with more than 150,000 views on YouTube.
“What’s taking Pennsylvania so long?” Fink-Whitman says in the video. “I mean, the Holocaust was 70 years ago. This is the last generation of survivors, liberators, eyewitnesses. Frankly, it’s a little embarrassing.
“I’m concerned,” she continued. “I’m concerned as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, as an educator, as a mother of college age kids and as a human being. Because genocide is going on today, right now … while you watch this video. The lessons of the Holocaust still haven’t been learned.
“But you can’t blame the kids,” she added. “No one’s teaching them.”
Five other states — California, Illinois Florida, New York and New Jersey — have mandated Holocaust education.
In Pennsylvania, bills pertaining to Holocaust education have been introduced in the legislature. One of them, House Bill 1424, sponsored by state Rep. Paul Clymer (R-Bucks County), passed the House unanimously, was reported out of the Senate Education Committee last week and could reach Gov. Tom Corbett’s desk by the end of the year.
But H.B. 1424 would not mandate Holocaust education. Instead, it would leave the question to the individual school districts, but once they decide to teach it, then, according to Clymer, they would follow Pennsylvania Department of Education guidelines. The state would cover the training expenses for teachers.
“We have heard from our school … that mandates are just more than schools can bear,” Clymer said. “And with Keystone exams being mandated for graduation at different levels and grades, and teacher evaluations, which have now been put forward as well, the schools sometimes feel overregulated from the state, so they have asked us to go easy on the mandates placed upon them.”
Supporters of the Clymer bill refer to it as a “hybrid mandate.” Two other bills — H.B. 176 and 2396, both of which would mandate Holocaust education — are not progressing.
There are some advantages to the hybrid bill.
“Holocaust education has never had its own line item and statute for pay in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” said Hank Butler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition. “Both these bills [mandates and hybrid mandates] will enable Pennsylvania, for the first time, to financially support consistent Holocaust education — consistent and effective.”
“Unfortunately, in our current political climate, there is more momentum for the hybrid mandate bill at this time,” Butler said, “but the PJC is supporting both efforts and wants Holocaust education in our state. … We want progress on the issue.”
Sen. Jay Costa (D-Forest Hills) said he hasn’t read Clymer’s bill yet and he isn’t opposed to it, but amending it to include a mandate ought to at least be debated before it’s voted upon.
“At the end of the day we have to inject it into the conversation,” he said.
State Rep. Dan Frankel, (D-Squirrel Hill), saw the Fink-Whitman video for the first time this week.
“We ought to send a copy of that video to my friends in the Senate because it’s extraordinary,” he said.
He admitted any bill calling for mandate faces an uphill battle in the legislature.
“Any kind of mandate that involves expenditures is always a controversial issue,” Frankel said, “but when you take a look at the evidence — complete failure of our public schools to give our young people an understanding of a historical incident that was such a blight of the 20th century, and that we still have incidents of genocide occurring around the world — there ought to be a renewed effort to get a mandate to teach this.
“We have to have our young people armed with information about this part of our history so we can combat despots and efforts to murder groups of people,” Frankel added. “Otherwise, as people say, we’ll be destined to repeat history.”
If his bill passes and becomes law, but fails to encourage Holocaust education statewide, Clymer said he would then consider amending it to mandate instruction.
“If there is a lack of school districts doing the Holocaust it doesn’t mean we can’t later amend the law,” he said. “I would have no problem doing that.”
Watch the video posted by The Times of Israel.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)