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Holocaust education requirement fails in Washington Legislature

By Jacquelyn Jimenez Romero, The Seattle Times
Published: February 25, 2024, 12:47pm

OLYMPIA — A bill in the Legislature to require schools to teach students about the Holocaust and genocide won’t become law, failing to move forward amid debate over the war in Gaza.

While no mention of Gaza was made in the bill language, the ongoing war crept into the measure’s journey through the Legislature.

“I think there’s all this effort to overlap the Holocaust with what’s happening in Gaza right now,” said Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia.

In 2019, legislators passed Senate Bill 5612, which strongly encouraged, but didn’t mandate, Holocaust education in schools. A year after the bill went into effect, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction recommended to the Legislature that the course be required.

The Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel and an increase in antisemitic acts pushed Braun to introduce Senate Bill 5851, to require middle schools and high schools to teach about the Holocaust and other genocides, starting in the 2027-28 school year.

During the Holocaust, Nazi Germany killed 6 million European Jews, most in killing centers, concentration and labor camps and mass shootings. The Nazis targeted others for killing, too, including the LGBTQ+ population, Poles, people with disabilities, and Roma and Slavic people. A poll released by The Economist and YouGov in December found 20% of people in the U.S. ages 18 to 19 believe the Holocaust is a myth.

When Braun introduced the legislation, staff at the Holocaust Center for Humanity in Seattle didn’t feel fully ready to move forward because the center had only recently begun expanding the curriculum it produced for the schools to include other genocides.

“Once he [Braun] initiated the legislation, we couldn’t say no, we’re not going to back you,” said Dee Simon, CEO of the Holocaust Center for Humanity. “We, of course, jumped in with two feet and really worked with him.”

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Members of various communities including those supporting Palestinian communities expressed concern over what they considered a lack of inclusivity in developing the curriculum.

Simon said people may have misunderstood the center’s intention as it began work on developing curriculum to teach about other genocides. Staff members didn’t want people to presume they wanted to tell other people’s stories. They wanted instead to provide a way for these stories to reach schools and students through their experience working with OSPI.

“It was a little shocking for us when there was so much opposition to the bill because the intent was really to hear other genocide voices and incorporate them,” Simon said.

So far, the center has speakers lined up from the Rwandan and Cambodian genocides and is working to include Native voices. After the public hearings, it was able to connect to the Bosnian community to work together to share their stories.

“We weren’t trying to take someone’s history,” Simon said. “We were trying to just provide a mechanism to make their stories heard.”

House Bill 2037, sponsored by Rep. Travis Couture, R-Allyn, was the companion bill that ultimately moved forward and passed unanimously in the House on Feb. 12 — but it did spark significant debate on the floor.

“For me, one of the best ways to curb hatred and antisemitism is through education,” Couture said in an interview.

Debate on the House floor showed disagreement over an amendment from Rep. Emily Alvarado, D-Seattle, that would have added more organizations to develop the curriculum.

Alvarado’s amendment sought to add organizations that include and work with people who survived genocide, were made refugees by genocide, or were otherwise directly impacted to create curriculum for OSPI to use.

“This amendment is about inclusivity and accountability when it comes to teaching about the Holocaust and genocide,” Alvarado said in a floor speech Feb. 9.

Couture said he was surprised by the amendment and did not learn about it until moments before it was introduced on the floor.

Concerns arose over the phrase “made refugee by” in the amendment.

“People were concerned that this is actually cutting out Jewish people in the Holocaust,” Couture said, adding that the Jews of Europe were forced from their homes, then systematically destroyed by the Nazi regime and therefore not made refugees by a genocide.

“That’s when you see everything pauses and both parties go to caucus to discuss what this amendment is,” Couture said.

Alvarado declined, through a spokesperson, to be interviewed about the amendment language or reaction to it.

The version of the bill the House was slated to vote on Feb. 9 would have OSPI continue to work with the Holocaust Center for Humanity to develop curriculum about the Holocaust and genocide education.

“Although yes, we do like inclusivity and having multiple voices at the table, we want the experts [Holocaust Center for Humanity] at the table who know how to teach about the Holocaust,” Couture said.

Alvarado’s amendment also would have required schools to screen materials provided by the Holocaust Center for Humanity to eliminate bias, and have a public university help develop curriculum and train teachers.

However, some lawmakers like Braun and Couture, said they believe the amendment opened the door to bring in discussion about current events in Gaza.

After the bill passed the House with Alvarado’s amendment, it went to the Senate Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee where it did not receive a public hearing.

Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, who is the chair of the committee, decided that since the committee had already heard public testimony, an additional hearing was not needed.

She then introduced an amendment to replace the version passed in the House with a Senate version similar to the bill Braun introduced. The new version from Wellman removed the Holocaust definition, collaboration with a public university, bias screening and OSPI’s report to the Legislature and added a definition for genocide.

A public records request was required to view how members of the committee voted, and it showed the bill did not receive enough votes.

Wellman; Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia; and Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, voted to pass the bill as amended.

Sen. T’wina Nobles, D-Fircrest; Sen. Claire Wilson, D-Auburn, and Sen. Jim McCune, R-Graham, voted against it. Sen. Brad Hawkins, R-East Wenatchee, and Sen. Perry Dozier, R-Waitsburg, voted “without recommendation,” meaning they were neither in favor nor opposed.

Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, did not vote.

A bill needs five “pass” votes to get out of the committee. Having received only three, it failed.

Wellman said she did not want the bill to weigh in on the conflict in Gaza and said that is not legislators’ territory or area of expertise.

“That is not what the bill is about and we’re not going to go there,” Wellman said. “That has been my very definite feelings about how I was going to handle this entire thing and that’s one of the reasons the bill did not get through.”

But students are asking about what’s going on between Israel and Palestinians and don’t know how to talk about it, said social studies teacher Oliver Miska, who is a board member of Washington Ethnic Studies Now.

“If the state can’t model open dialogue on complicated issues, then how are we going to expect teachers and our students to do that in the classroom?” said Miska. “I have to deal with the consequences of a state that’s not willing to produce resources to make our teachers prepared.”

Ultimately, with the bill failing the tragedy is that it’s now going to be harder to get stories of other genocides to more schools, Simon said.

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