By Ira Bedzow and Stacy Gallin
After refusing to admit that the Holocaust was a “factual, historical event,” Principal William Latson of Spanish River Community High School in Boca Raton, Fla., was removed from his position and reassigned to a different position in the Palm Beach County school district.
It is not that he personally denied the Holocaust. Rather, in an email to a student’s parent, he suggested that, as a school district employee, he was not in a position to say that the Holocaust is a factual, historical event since not everyone believes the Holocaust happened.
While it is important to recognize the limits of one’s own expertise, and it is usually a good idea to avoid speaking as an authority on issues that are outside of the scope of one’s proficiency, Latson’s claim is not only unacceptable, it is irresponsible. One does not need to be a professional historian to know that the Holocaust occurred.
We can visit Auschwitz and walk through the barracks of the concentration camps that now serve as memorials and house personal artifacts of the victims, such as clothing, shoes, prosthetic limbs, even human hair. We can stand in the gas chambers and see the ovens used to burn the bodies of those who were murdered. We can talk to survivors and see the numbers tattooed on their arms.
Moreover, when educating students, it is vital to provide them with the skills to analyze data, verify which data are reliable, and arrive at justifiable conclusions. However, it does a disservice to students to make them question the veracity of obvious facts, simply because “not everyone believes in them.”
Imagine if the principal questioned the importance of teaching “Introduction to Physics,” simply because not everyone believes that gravity exists, or banning globes because there are flat-earthers in the world. Having students “see all sides” of a complicated issue where values can be prioritized in different ways with varying implications so that they can arrive at a conclusion based on facts and their values is one thing. Having students exposed to truth and falsity as two equally valid options is quite another.
Underlying Latson’s refusal is a question of the importance of Holocaust education. Currently, just 11 states, including Florida, have laws requiring schools to provide Holocaust education. The most recent state to require it was Oregon in 2019, whose law stipulates that instruction be designed to “prepare students to confront the immorality of the Holocaust, genocide and other acts of mass violence and to reflect on the causes of related historical events.”
The importance of Holocaust education is not simply raising awareness of a historical fact. Holocaust education can provide a unique lens to many contemporary social, political and professional issues that challenge us today.
One can see the deleterious effects of hardening ideologies and prejudice, not only along the margins of society, but even within those sectors of society that have traditionally been seen as its stalwarts. For example, members of various professions, such as in law and health care, have allowed political, racial and religious bigotry to affect the ways in which they engage the most vulnerable.
By showing that the tragedy of the Holocaust is not only a tragedy in Jewish history but a lesson for everyone, Holocaust education can serve to foster civics and ethics education. The Holocaust can serve as a historical example for understanding the danger of placing societal progress and political expediency ahead of individuals.
Holocaust education is an opportunity to teach the next generation about the essential connection between the past and the future, to give them the tools they need to learn about moral decision making and to emphasize our responsibility to stand up and speak out when we see evil in any form. How we teach the memory of the Holocaust is intricately tied to our vision for the future of our society. Let’s stop thinking that “Never Forget” is enough of a message.
Let’s remember not only for the sake of remembering, but for the sake of developing our students to become people who respect each other.
Bedzow is the director of the biomedical ethics and humanities program at New York Medical College and Senior Scholar at the Aspen Center for Social Values. Gallin is the director of the Center for Human Dignity in Bioethics, Health and the Holocaust at Misericordia University and the founder and director of the Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics and the Holocaust.