BELOIT — State lawmakers and Jewish leaders are touting a bill that would mandate Wisconsin middle schools and high schools to teach courses on the Holocaust and other genocides.
The Holocaust Education Act was unanimously approved in the Wisconsin Assembly and the companion bill was accepted into the Senate. The new bill would incorporate the Holocaust and other genocides into the state model social studies standards.
The bill comes on the heels of a scandal involving Baraboo High School students displaying a Nazi salute last year, and a study by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany that found 22% of millennials are unaware or unsure of what the Holocaust was.
The Holocaust was the systematic murder of over 11 million people by the Nazi regime during World War II. European Jews made up the largest total of those killed, around 6 million; other ethnic and social groups were targeted, including ethnic Roma and Slavic peoples, LGBT individuals, people with disabilities and many others.
Beloit School Board member Megan Miller, who also serves as a religious school teacher at B’nai Abraham in Beloit, taught history, reading and English from 2010 to 2015 at Beloit Memorial High School.
“It’s a cornerstone that offers depth and breath and gets us to the idea of what the dangers of extremism are that values ideas over people’s humanity,” Miller said.
In the classroom, Miller said Holocaust history was a “highly-engaging subject matter” for students.
“There’s so much young adult literature, articles and different poems that really pull them in,” Miller said. “I used it as a tool for teaching empathy based on using narratives and telling people’s stories from that time.”
While she said she supported the legislation receiving bipartisan support, she called upon lawmakers to also highlight current issues affecting minorities in Wisconsin, including the mass incarceration of African American residents, as well as teaching African American and Latino histories and literature.
“Are our legislators brave enough to call attention to the voices and stories of groups of people by asking that we teach culturally relevant issues?” Miller asked. “As a Jewish person, there’s also this undertone that (Jewish people) are a ‘safe’ minority to talk about. Model minority ideas can be very damaging in passing over one group of people for another. I would like to see this momentum continue for our African American, Latino, and Native American students who are marginalized and suffer in our achievement gaps.”
B’nai Abraham Rabbi Shlomo Wing said the legislation was “a very worthwhile idea.”
“We should learn about things like that because you hear about young people not being familiar with the Holocaust or other atrocities,” Wing said.
Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, and Rep. Mark Spreitzer both supported the bill.
“The goal of the bill is to ensure that Wisconsin students understand the important lessons of the Holocaust and the dangerous consequences of rising anti-Semitic and religious bigotry,” Loudenbeck said.
Sen. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville, said the bill could come for a vote before the Senate in March.
“In light of the fact the Assembly passed it unanimously, I would hope we would take it up quickly as it’s a very important issue,” Ringhand said.
Hate crimes have risen sharply over the last 16 years, according to the FBI. Anti-Semitic incidents in Wisconsin rose 21% in 2018 compared to 2017, a Milwaukee Jewish Federation report found.