Orlando Sentinel | By Leslie Postal | July 1, 2021
Already mired in educational culture wars over critical race theory and civics lessons, Florida has been fighting a similar yet quieter battle over its new initiative to teach students more about the Holocaust.
Experts tapped by the state to help write or review new Holocaust standards say Florida’s proposal fails to connect the horrors of the Holocaust to lessons that would encourage today’s students to understand the “ramifications of prejudice, stereotyping and racism.” That failure is a violation of the state’s nearly 30-year-old Holocaust education law, they say, and undermines the work of longtime Holocaust educators.
They are also upset the state invited Proclaiming Justice to the Nations — a Tennessee-based Evangelical Christian organization that has been called an anti-Muslim hate group — to weigh in and then created a mashup of what the experts proposed and PJTN suggested.
The result is a proposal, they say, that falls short of the requirements of Florida’s Holocaust education law, first passed in 1994 and expanded in 2020. The law requires students to learn about the murder of six million Jews and others by Germany’s Nazi regime but also broader lessons.
“Any legitimate Holocaust education expert” would advise that students learn what happened from 1933-45 and about antisemitism and also be encouraged “to make connections between the past and their own roles and responsibilities today,” wrote Yael Hershfield, interim regional director of the Anti-Defamation League Florida, in a June 11 letter to Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran.
Hershfield, a member of the Commissioner of Education’s Task Force on Holocaust Education, said she had “deep concerns” about the Florida Department of Education’s proposal, which she and other task force members shared with the state numerous times since January, according to letters sent to Corcoran.
“If we truly want to educate our next generation to understand the evils of hatred, as exposed during the Holocaust, so that history does not repeat itself, as it did in Rwanda and other genocides, we must address the universal lessons,” Hershfield added.
Proclaiming Justice to the Nations, which says its goal is to educate Christians about their “biblical responsibility to stand with their Jewish brethren and the state of Israel against the global rise of antisemitism,” is unhappy with the state’s proposal, too.
The group said the state proposal “falls dismally short” of what it wanted because it does not include its suggested lessons on Jewish traditions, symbols and beliefs, from lighting Sabbath candles to the star of David tothe biblical story of Mordechai and Esther, among other problems.
PJTN recently posted an “urgent” letter to Florida education leaders on its website calling the state’s proposed standards “revisionist” and urging Florida to fully adopt its recommendations.
Despite 27 years of Holocaust education, PJTN’s letter says, “Holocaust ignorance remains widespread and at an all-time high in Florida.”
Oren Stier, a professor of religious studies and director of the Holocaust and genocide studies program at Florida International University, says PJTN should never have been consulted, a view shared by other state experts.
Stier was part of the “expert group” the education department asked last summer to draft new Holocaust standards.
“I think the biggest frustration is that it was all for naught,” he said.
The group’s work was mostly ignored, as the state crafted a “deeply flawed” proposal that combined some of its suggestions with those of PJTN — an organization, Stier wrote in a February letter to the state, that has “neither the expertise nor the credentials” to propose Holocaust education standards for Florida.
PJTN was “ostensibly founded to combat antisemitism in education,” but its “ true agenda is to establish a foothold in the nation’s public schools to promote religious indoctrination and their selective, revisionist, conservative Christian conception of American history,” he added.
The group campaigns against school textbooks that are “anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, and anti-American” and the PJTN website says some textbooks used in Florida civics classes, for example, have a “leftist slant” and “indoctrinate” students.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has called PJTN the group an anti-Muslim hate group — a label it denies — and the Anti-Defamation League said it has a “well-documented track record of anti-Muslim bigotry.”
The State Board of Education willvote on the new Holocaust standards at its July 14 meeting, when it is also scheduledto take up revised civics standards. The civics bench marks have prompted controversy, too. DeSantis says he wants lessons that celebrate “the success of the United States” but critics have called the proposals biased and partisan.
The Republican governor also urged the state board to ban critical race theory — a legal framework that hasn’t been taught in the state’s public schools — pushing Florida into a contentious national debate fueled by former President Donald Trump.
DeSantis said he was making sure schools were not “teaching kids to hate their country.” But critics said he wanted to whitewash history and prevent lessons on slavery, segregation and other painful aspects of American history.
The board, whose members were appointed by DeSantis or by former GOP Gov. Rick Scott, approved the critical race theory ban at its June 10 meeting.
A 2020 law passed by the Florida Legislature and signed by DeSantis added to Florida’s 1994 Holocaust education mandate by requiring the state towrite standards spelling out specifically what students should learn about the Holocaust in kindergarten through 12th grade. The 1994 law only said the Holocaust must be taught.
Since early this year, the state has posted several drafts of its proposal on its website. The latest version does not include items that most worried the state experts, including what they thought were inappropriate lessons on Jewish religious practices that PJTN wanted.
“Our standards were gutted,” said Laurie Cardoza-Moore, PJTN president.
Cardoza-Moore became known in Tennessee about a decade ago when she fought plans to open a mosque, saying it was a front for terrorists.
Cardoza-Moore said the state invited PJTNto develop Holocaust education standards, and PJTN then tapped experts to help devise a proposal.
She is a staunch advocate for Israel, as is DeSantis, who led an economic development mission to Israel in 2019 and publicly defended it during its recent conflict with Palestine. PJTN’s letter to Corcoran was signed by nearly 100 organizations, it says, among them leaders of some conservative Jewish organizations.
In Cardoza-Moore’s view, the Holocaust should be taught without “universalizing” it.
“If you’re going to talk about the Holocaust you don’t bring in racism or xenophobia or all these other issues,” Cardoza-Moore said. “In Germany, Hitler established the final solution to the Jewish question,” she added. “That should be the focus of teaching the Holocaust.”
But other experts disagree.
The Holocaust Memorial Resource & Education Center in Maitland, for example, founded by a Holocaust survivor from Poland, says its mission is to “use the history and lessons of the Holocaust to build a just and caring community free of antisemitism and all forms of prejudice and bigotry.”
The center’s executive director serves on the Commissioner of Education’s Task Force on Education, which was created as part of the 1994 law. So do the heads of other Holocaust museums and centers across the state.
Florida has been “the standard-bearer in Holocaust education” task force members wrote in an April letter to Corcoran. But the state’s proposed standards fall short, the letter said, failing to provide students with a “broader understanding of where all group-based hatreds can lead” and leaving out “core concepts such as diversity empathy, responsibility, and fairness.”
Members also object to PJTN’s charge that they want to revise Holocaust history. Most have worked since the state’s Holocaust education law passed to provide teachers withresources for those lessons, often relying on Holocaust survivors to guide their work.
“We, from the Commissioner’s Task Force on Holocaust Education, are not ‘revisionists’ and want the best Holocaust education standards for the students and teachers,” said Barbara Goldstein, immediate past chair of that group, in an email.
Spokesmen for the education department did not respond to requests for comment about the issue.