In August of this year, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed HB 2241, which requires students to be taught about the Holocaust and other genocides at least twice between 7th and 12th grades. This mandate has been pushed for because many Americans “know what the Holocaust was and approximately when it happened, but fewer than half can correctly answer multiple-choice questions about the number of Jews who were murdered or the way Adolf Hitler came to power,” according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.
This legislation was a big win for the Phoenix Holocaust Association (PHA), which had been working for years with state legislators, lobbyists, community organizations and individuals to pass a bill that would mandate Holocaust and genocide education in Arizona schools.
Yet after fighting to pass the legislation, the association's Vice President Janice Friebaum realized that passing the mandate wouldn’t be enough, and that it would have to be implemented in order to be effective.
“So far as I was aware, no comprehensive review has been conducted, to date, of the states that have passed some sort of Holocaust and genocide education legislation,” Friebaum said. “I proposed that PHA locate a graduate student researcher to look at the details of each state’s bill, learn – via direct communication with key stakeholders – whether the bill has been successfully implemented and if not, why.”
A project proposal was put together by Friebaum and was guided under the Phoenix Holocaust Association's President, Sheryl Bronkesh. They received a donation from Steven and Suzanne Hilton to complete the research.
The association contacted Assistant Professor of history Volker Benkert, who specializes in researching modern German, German-Jewish and European history in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at Arizona State University, to ask if he could help identify a student who would be best to take up this research.
One issue Benkert wanted the report to address is how these teaching mandates can “use our understanding of the Holocaust as the paradigmatic genocide to foster awareness of other genocides.”
Benkert approached student Lindsey Stillman as she was wrapping up her master’s degree in World War II studies, remembering she had discussed her interests in Holocaust education. As an experienced teacher already, Stillman was the perfect fit for the project.
“At the outset, we wanted this report to inform and influence the bill in Arizona to give it the best chance possible of success after its passage,” Friebaum said. “The collateral benefit of the report would be to assist other states in their efforts to pass or amend Holocaust and genocide education bills that will be successfully implemented. But the 2021 Arizona bill was on a much faster track than (Stillman's) study; its language was crafted before the report was finished. Consequently, the report’s importance for Arizona is in considering future related bills.”
Despite the focus of the report shifting slightly, Stillman was able to highlight the strengths of Holocaust education mandates currently in place across the U.S., as well as their need for improvement.
Stillman reached out and conducted interviews with many individuals and organizations who had worked to pass laws in their own states. However, one challenge she faced was in locating bills and state standards for each of the states due to there being no uniform system across the nation, and not all states provide information to the public the same way.
Using her skills in historical knowledge and analysis, research and presentation fostered during her studies in the WWII master’s program, she was able to collect the data from the 21 states she was researching.
“The most interesting part that I learned while conducting this report was the general consensus amongst those interviewed for the need for effective mandates in the U.S.,” Stillman said. “The majority of the people I contacted felt that their own mandates were not entirely successful as they lacked funding, task forces as administrative structures and oversight to ensure accountability and funding. Despite this, there was a general fervor and passion that stemmed from each of those involved to continue working on improving and including Holocaust education in their schools.”
The report was recently completed and is now in the process of being shared with Arizona legislatures, partners and organizations across the nation and other interested parties.
“It is crucial that students are taught about the Holocaust to prevent future acts of hate,” Stillman said. “With the rise in ignorance and anti-Semitic attacks, it is critical that the youth is taught not just about the events that transpired, but also about the events prior that permitted such an atrocity to occur. With the information gathered in the report, legislatures and those involved in education have the opportunity to assess their own systems, and hopefully, enact positive changes.”
The Phoenix Holocaust Association and many others will continue to help inform future mandates across the U.S. The full report by Stillman can be read here.