‘Anti-woke’ legislation threatens Holocaust education in Missouri


Tim Bommel

Rep. Nick Schroer, R- O’Fallon

Russel Neiss

In 2006, the Missouri legislature unanimously passed SB 1189 which created a “Holocaust Education and Awareness Commission.”

The goal of the commission is to promote Holocaust education and awareness in Missouri, “in order to encourage understanding of the Holocaust and discourage bigotry.”

Since then, committee members have engaged in the serious, solemn, and important work of planning events that highlight the various dimensions of the Holocaust. They also assist various constituencies — students, teachers, and the general public — in becoming more familiar with the plight of the victims and roles played by perpetrators, bystanders and rescuers of Jews during the Shoah.

However, the commission’s work with teachers, along with all other Holocaust education in public schools in the state, is at risk this year due to an ill-defined law that is currently being debated in our statehouse.

Some members in the Missouri House are trying to pass an amendment to an education omnibus bill (HB 1141) that will prohibit schools and teachers from using any curriculum that, “assign[s] blame to categories of persons, regardless of the actions of particular individuals,” or that “identifies people, entities, or institutions as inherently, immutably, or systemically sexist, racist, biased, privileged, or oppressed.”

A plain reading of this amendment suggests that it would be illegal for a teacher to say, “the Nazis murdered Jews” since after all, not all Nazis murdered Jews, and assigning blame to entire categories of persons based on the actions of particular individuals would be illegal.

Under this law, it would be impossible to teach that Nazi Germany was inherently anti-Semitic, or that the Third Reich oppressed Jews simply because they were Jews, because that would identify Nazis as inherently biased and Jews as inherently and systemically oppressed.

In a survey conducted last year by the Claims Conference, only 65% of Missourians identified “the Nazis” as the cause of the Holocaust. More than a third couldn’t name a single concentration camp, ghetto, or death camp. Nearly a third thought fewer than six million Jews died.

The actions of the Missouri House will only accelerate this terrifying trend. And for what?

In advocating for this amendment, its sponsor, Rep. Nick Schroer, R-St. Charles argued that the amendment was necessary because “there have been many attempts to fundamentally change our traditions and our rich history,” and that “in no way should we as a society be charged with indoctrinating our babies with revisionist history, skewed political versions of history that did not occur.”

Schroer’s amendment is part of an ongoing attempt by some individuals to delegitimize anti-bias initiatives by derisively describing them as “woke,” or by giving them pithy names like, “cancel culture” or “critical race theory,” without ever defining what they mean. Instead, the goal of these people is to pander to our most base fears about public schools indoctrinating our children because they want to prevent us from building a more just and equitable society. One supporter of an earlier version of this amendment when the bill was heard in committee testified, “Hitler used the schools to indoctrinate children. The radical, Marxist left is doing just the same in our country. Spare our children from a potential Holocaust of liberty and free-thinking! Block the 1619 Project and any curriculum regarding critical race theory.”

(The 1619 Project is a long-form journalism initiative from The New York Times that aims to reframe the discussion about our nation’s history and slavery.)

The debate on the House Floor about this amendment went on for quite some time with folks arguing about American exceptionalism; whether systemic racism actually exists; and even whether folks should be held responsible for the sins of their ancestors. But when forced to clearly articulate and define what they really wanted to stop, the representatives who supported this amendment were unable to craft language that would only ban teaching that racism in America is a systemic problem, without also banning teaching that Nazis are anti-Semitic, or that apartheid in South Africa was fueled by white supremacy.

The narratives we tell about our histories are powerful. It’s the reason why in a 2013 Pew Study, more Jewish Americans identified “remembering the Holocaust” as personally essential to their own Jewish identity than any other single issue or practice. But these narratives aren’t only important to us, they are important for others as well. There’s a Holocaust Museum on the National Mall that was created after a unanimous vote by the U.S. Congress. More than a dozen states mandate teaching about the Shoah, dozens of others like our own have a state commission or board devoted to advancing knowledge about it. We believe that understanding how the systemic biases of the past transmogrified from fringe ideologies to state-sponsored abuses of power is worth studying and without understanding our history we are forever doomed to repeat.

We also know what it feels like when individuals deny our history. To claim, either explicitly or implicitly, that that history is a hoax or an exaggeration arising from a deliberate conspiracy designed to advance our own interests. We rightfully identify this as a form of anti-Semitism, seek to expose the underlying bias, and fight against them as forcefully as we can.

In attempting to deny supporters of the 1619 Project and other anti-bias activists a platform to tell their stories of oppression, members of the Missouri House risk preventing us from telling our stories of oppression. That’s almost certainly unintentional, but it’s not surprising.

As Jews, we must fight against this, not merely because it prevents us from telling our history effectively, but because it endangers all forms of education that teach racial tolerance and equity. This amendment has been “laid over” i.e. postponed for one legislative day — it will be taken up again on May 3. Please urge your representatives and House leadership to oppose it.

Equally fluent in Yiddish and JavaScript, Russel Neiss is a Jewish educator, technologist, and activist who builds critically acclaimed educational apps and experiences used by thousands of people each day. His work has been featured in The New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, Haaretz, the Jewish Telegraph Agency and other media outlets. In 2017 the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jewish Americans, and in 2020 he received the Covenant Award, one of the highest honors in the field of Jewish education.