Forget Christina Jeffrey. Her objection to the Holocaust-based junior high school curriculum "Facing History and Ourselves" -- that it omits the Nazi and Ku Klux Klan points of view -- remains as bizarre today as in 1988, when she expressed it in a critique for the Department of Education. The resurrection of that controversy last week ended Jeffrey's tenure as historian of the US House just days after Speaker Newt Gingrich hired her -- and rightly so.
But Facing History has been rejected by scholars far more prominent than the little-known political science professor from Kennesaw State University in Georgia. One of its most formidable critics was the late Lucy Dawidowicz, a towering scholar of the Holocaust and author of the landmark history The War Against the Jews: 1933-1945.
During the 1988 flap, Dawidowicz was asked to compose an article defending Facing History from its critics in the Education Department. "I never did so," she later recounted. "My own reading of the curriculum persuaded me that the Department of Education had ample reason to turn down the grant. . . . Putatively a curriculum to teach the Holocaust, Facing History was also a vehicle for instructing 13-year-olds in civil disobedience and indoctrinating them with propaganda."
Dawidowicz rebuked Facing History for twisting the Holocaust into a case study of ethical ambiguities. Its "message of moral relativism," she noted in 1990, "has reached the students using the curriculum; in the diary in which they are required to enter their reactions, one of them wrote, 'From the course I've learned that there is not just one right and one wrong answer.' This is a message that might have been useful to students in prewar Germany, the most flagrantly authoritarian society in all the West. But do American children, who have been raised in unprecedented freedom and permissiveness, need to be instructed in the virtues of disobedience?"
Facing History and Ourselves goes out of its way to detach the Holocaust from its historical moorings. The most monstrous crime of the 20th century is presented as just another, albeit a hideous, example of prejudice. One might have thought that if the Final Solution was about anything, it was about the uniquely virulent power of anti-Semitism, a hatred older than and different from any other in human history. Yet the Facing History curriculum urges students to see the Nazis' extermination of two-thirds of European Jewry, a crime so unprecedented that the word "genocide" had to be coined to contain it, as not unique at all.
You see, suggests Facing History to the 500,000 children it teaches, Auschwitz equals the American slave trade. Equals Ku Klux Klan lynchings. Equals the 1920s "Red Scare." Equals My Lai. We Americans, especially we white Americans -- we're not so different from the Germans, after all. The implication is that there's a little Nazi in all of us. Nazi-ish things happen in the USA, too. In its effort to de-Judaize and generalize the Holocaust, Facing History commits the unforgivable sin of trivializing it. Its newest (1994) curriculum manual and its daylong seminars use the Holocaust as an analogy or a key to dealing with every social ill from battered women to homelessness to the "stereotyping" of Asian-Americans.
Repeatedly, Facing History pushes students to see contemporary America as a latter-day Weimar Republic, slipping down the slope that leads to Dachau. The new curriculum opens by quoting welfare lobbyist Marian Wright Edelman: "The American Dream is collapsing. . . . American is pitted against American as economic uncertainty and downturn increase our fears, our business failures, our poverty rates, our racial divisions, and the dangers of political demagoguery." American children, says Facing History, have been "taught to hate and fear." It attributes "much of the violence that threatens our society" to "bigotry and hate."
This is a grim, bitter portrait -- and an apt introduction to a manual that constantly associates America with prewar Germany. In "classrooms across the nation," wrote Facing History's executive director, Margot Strom, in her 1994 annual report, "students learn about the events that led to the Holocaust and other genocides as they confront similar themes of violence in their own lives." As though anything in the lives of eighth-grade American kids is going to be "similar" to the atrocities of the Nazis and their collaborators.
By making the Holocaust stand for everything, Facing History is hastening the day when it will stand for nothing. Least of all anti-Semitism. Incredible in a curriculum centered on the Holocaust, but true: Facing History's manual, which runs to 576 pages, has nothing to say about modern anti-Semitism. The topic is alluded to once, in a short description of a 1989 vandalism spree in Wellesley, when some punks painted white-supremacist slogans and swastikas on cars and buildings around town. Meanwhile, the most poisonous source of Jew-hatred in America today -- Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan -- is described, astonishingly, with sympathy and admiration. Facing History's students are taught that Farrakhan "has attracted African-Americans by speaking directly to the pain and pride" they feel, and that this is why Farrakhan's "message has been so warmly received even though parts of it stereotype and demean other groups."
What irony. The justification that Facing History offers to excuse Farrakhan's vitriol was offered 50 years ago to excuse Adolf Hitler's.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe. His website is www.JeffJacoby.com).
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