New Jersey’s Holocaust Education Mandate:  Now, More than Ever 

steinberg

On Tuesday night, December 12, 2017, Jews throughout the world will celebrate the eight day holiday of Chanukah.  This holiday commemorates the successful Jewish revolt in the land of Israel, led by the Maccabees against the Seleucid Greek empire approximately 2,200 years ago.  This is a joyous holiday, celebrated with the lighting of candles, the playing of games, the singing of traditional melodies, and special Chanukah delicacies.  As long as there are free Jews, the holiday will be widely observed.

On Thursday, April 19, 2018, there will be a most somber day of remembrance for World Jewry:  the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto rebellion against the Nazis.  The Warsaw Ghetto revolt was an episode of heroism and tragedy for the European Jewish community, in the midst of the Holocaust, the Nazi extermination of six million European Jews- one third of World Jewry.  Indeed, in the words of scholar Deborah Lipstadt, the Holocaust was an organized program with the goal of wiping out a specific people from the face of the earth, the Jews.

I have serious concern that the one hundredth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt in April, 2043 will be ignored by the world community and even most of World Jewry.  There are two factors that pose a danger to the continuing remembrance of the Holocaust.

The first is the unalterable fact that the generation of Holocaust survivors is being numerically diminished due to age.  There is nothing more powerful to communicate the horror of the Holocaust, particularly to the young, than the in-person testimony of a survivor.  Prior to the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel in 1961, most Holocaust survivors were reluctant to publicly relate their unspeakable experiences.  The trial resulted in survivors coming forward in greater numbers to describe the story of their survival.  This resulted in greater awareness of the Holocaust on the part of Jews and Gentiles than ever before.  As this generation of Holocaust survivors diminishes in numbers, the awareness of the Holocaust among the young may inexorably decrease.

The second is a far more insidious danger to Holocaust remembrance.  It is the anti-Semitic agenda of the Alt-Right and their influence in the Trump administration.  A key component of their agenda is what Deborah Lipstadt calls “soft core Holocaust denial.”  The Alt-Right technique is to advocate the “de-Judaization” of the Holocaust: to deny that the Jews were singled out by the Nazis among all European peoples for extermination.

The Alt-Right already has achieved two triumphs within the Trump administration for their nefarious agenda regarding the Holocaust.  The White House released a statement in January for Holocaust Remembrance Day that did not mention Jews or anti-Semitism.   That was an ultimate triumph for the Alt-Right Holocaust de-Judaization agenda.

The second triumph related to the Alt-Right goal of Holocaust minimization:  the effort to put a human, benign face on America’s heirs to the Nazi legacy:  Neo-Nazis and White supremacists.  In Charlottesville, these two groups marched together, shouting the slogans, “Jews will not displace us” and “Blood and soil.”  When Donald Trump said that “good people” marched with them, he gave a large measure of fulfillment to the Alt-Right Holocaust minimization agenda.

The most effective way to deal with these two factors is to enhance Holocaust education in our public schools.  In that regard, New Jersey is ahead of virtually all the other states of our nation. 

In the spring of 1994, New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman signed into law the New Jersey Holocaust Education Mandate, a bill that required the inclusion of instruction on the Holocaust and genocide into the elementary and high school curriculum of every public school district in the state.  Since the passage of this act, the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education has been a national leader in advancing Holocaust education in our public schools.

In my political and governmental career, I have had the good fortune and opportunity to be involved in many meaningful public policy initiatives.  For me, however, my involvement with the New Jersey Holocaust Education Mandate was a true commitment of my heart, having been raised in an observant Jewish home with an extended family that included a number of Holocaust victims and survivors. 

As a Senior Policy Advisor in the 1992-1993 Assembly Republican Majority Office, I was responsible both for the crafting of the bill and outreach to all interested parties.  I had a unique vantage point to observe the development and ultimate passage of the Holocaust Education Mandate.  There are four individuals above all to whom I give credit for the enactment of this act:  1) Former Governor Tom Kean; 2) the then chair of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, Murray Laulicht; 3) the then Speaker of the New Jersey Assembly, Garabed “Chuck” Haytaian; and 4) Governor Whitman herself.

Of all the political families in American history, none has been a better friend of World Jewry than the Kean family.  As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Robert Kean was THE Congressional leader in calling for the admission into America of Jewish Holocaust refugees blocked from entry by the anti-Semitic policies of FDR’s Assistant Secretary of State Breckenridge Long.  Bob Kean also was an early advocate for the creation of the State of Israel.  And he passed on to his son and future Governor, Tom Kean his commitment to justice for the Jewish people.

Almost immediately after taking office as governor in 1982, Tom Kean created by executive order the New Jersey Advisory Council on Holocaust Education. The core mission of the Council was to be carried out through recommendations to the Commissioner of Education to facilitate and implement Holocaust education objectives through programs and curricula in the schools of New Jersey.  It was the forerunner to our present New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education.

Murray Laulicht was the Chair of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education at the time of the introduction and passage of the legislation creating the Holocaust Education Mandate.  He worked tirelessly for its passage with political leaders of both parties and with Jewish community leadership as well.  Murray has been an outstanding leader at the international, national, and state level on behalf of Jewish communal and philanthropic causes.  For his role in securing passage of the Holocaust Education Mandate, Murray earned an honored place in New Jersey history as well. 

I have always said that one of the real joys and honors of my life was serving on the staff of former Assembly Speaker Garabed “Chuck” Haytaian.  He is renowned in New Jersey political history for being one of the four most effective Speakers of the New Jersey Assembly during the 20th Century.  He also was a supremely accomplished New Jersey Republican State Party chair, playing a vital role in the reelection of Governor Whitman in 1997.  Few people are aware, however, of the role Chuck played in enacting the Holocaust Education Mandate, particularly as the prime sponsor of the originally introduced legislation.

Chuck’s commitment to Holocaust education came from his own personal experience as an Armenian-American.  He was named for his uncle, Garabed, who was beheaded in front of his family in 1915 by Turks at the height of the Armenian genocide.  When Chuck spoke about this at his initial meeting with the Holocaust Education Commission, this man of legendary toughness broke down and cried.  I have visited Yad VaShem, the memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in Jerusalem twice with Chuck, and his emotional reaction on each occasion was something to behold.

Christie Whitman’s commitment to Holocaust education was both heartfelt and total.  Her efforts on behalf of Holocaust education did not cease with her governorship.  After completing her years of service in public office, she continued to advocate on behalf of Holocaust education in speeches throughout the nation. The cause of Holocaust education could not have a more sincere and effective public advocate than Christie Whitman.

It is now nearly a quarter of a century since Christie Whitman signed into law the Holocaust Education Mandate.  Since then, the Almighty has blessed me with a granddaughter, Quinn, who although not yet even three years old, sings Chanukah songs she has learned at her Jewish day school.  This gives me what we Jews call in Hebrew “nachat” – true joy and familial pride. 

I pray that Quinn should always be happy and healthy and grow in a world that rejects hatred and bigotry.  At a time when the number of Holocaust survivors is diminishing and anti-Semitism, furthered by the Alt-Right is on the rise, Holocaust education is more essential than ever.  Indeed, in this regard, the New Jersey Holocaust Education Mandate is of prime importance – now, more than ever. 

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman. 

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