Holocaust education in Iowa schools should paint the full picture

Henry Jay Karp is the Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanuel in Davenport, Iowa, which he served from 1985 to 2017. He is the co-founder and co-convener of One Human Family QCA, a social justice organization.

Governor Kim Reynolds came to Beit Shalom, the home of the Quad Cities Jewish community, on May 15 to sign House File 2545, a bill containing controversial new social studies curriculum requirements.

Why Beit Shalom? Because the bill requires Iowa schools to teach Holocaust education, following the model of Illinois, which has required it for several years.

Though members of the Quad Cities Jewish community are divided about the policies of the governor and the Republican-controlled legislature, we do stand united on the issue of Holocaust education in our schools. According to FBI statistics for the past several years, more than 50 percent of religion-based acts of hate in the U.S. targeted the Jewish community, more than all the other faith groups put together. Since the atrocities of the Hamas attack on Israeli communities on October 7, 2023, the number of antisemitic attacks in the U.S. has more than tripled.

It was in that spirit that Rabbi Linda Bertenthal, Cantor Gail Karp, and I composed the letter enclosed below. We were mindful of all the Iowa legislature’s work over the past few years, including bills targeting the rights and freedoms of several marginalized groups, such as African Americans, the LGBTQIA community, women, and aspiring Americans. We hand delivered the letter to the governor following the bill signing ceremony.

For most of the members of the Jewish community, Holocaust education is not only important as a reminder of the horrors of the past and as a memorial to the martyrs of the Holocaust, but also as a much needed safeguard for the future. When it comes to the Holocaust, the Jewish people are united in the call for “Never Again!” Of course, that call is about “Never Again!” to the Jewish people, but not only to the Jewish people. It applies to any other people as well.

When it comes to antisemitism, we Jews consider ourselves to be “The Canary in the Coal Mine.” It used to be the practice of coal miners to place a caged canary in the mine with them. If the air became toxic enough to kill the canary, it was their warning to evacuate the mine. We believe that while acts of hate may start against the Jews, they rarely end with the Jews. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

May 15, 2024

Governor Kim Reynolds

1007 East Grand Avenue Des Moines, IA 50319

Hand delivered

Dear Governor Reynolds,

We write, first and foremost, to thank you and the Iowa Legislature for enacting the requirement to include Holocaust Education in Iowa’s school curriculum. We are grateful that Iowa has now joined the other state in our Quad City community, Illinois, in undertaking this important measure.

Today, more than ever, with the forces of hate on the march across our nation, we feel that the study of the Holocaust is important for our children. We are grateful that you recognize that Jew-hatred has been rising for some years and has spiked alarmingly following the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel on October 7, 2023, and throughout the ensuing war in Gaza. Slander against Israel and against the Jewish people is rampant, and the parallels between this current attempt to destroy Jews and the Holocaust are obscured by today’s false rhetoric of colonization, apartheid and genocide.

It is our deepest hope that when our Iowa schools teach about the Holocaust, they will paint a full picture of that dreadful chapter in world history. For example, to accurately portray the horrors of the Holocaust, our teachers must include in their lessons that while the Holocaust is most known for the murder of 6 million Jews, there were also 3 million non-Jews who fell victim to the Nazis’ murderous hatred. Some of those non-Jewish groups then targeted by the Nazis find themselves today still targeted for discrimination.  Among the 3 million non-Jews persecuted by the Nazis were members of the LGBTQIA community, Blacks, and the Roma & Sinti peoples, who were considered by nations across Europe to be “outsiders.” In other words, the xenophobia of the Nazis did not extend to Jews alone, but also to other vulnerable minority groups, and so the lesson of the perils of xenophobia must be broadly taught.

Another crucial lesson of the Holocaust is the lesson of the complicity of the bystanders. The hardest part of Holocaust education for American Jewish children to bear is learning that many nations, including our own beloved America, closed their doors to the immigration of Jews fleeing the Nazis. Pictures of the ship MS St. Louis, filled with Jewish refugees fleeing from the fate of Jews at Auschwitz and the like, turned away from safely at the coast of Florida, fills our youngsters with the deepest sorrow of all. They understand that it was not only the hatred of the Nazis but also the lack of concern of the rest of the world that doomed their fellow Jews to death. For all of our Iowa children, this is a crucial lesson to learn.

We are blessed here in the Quad Cities to live in a community in which our commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) is not undertaken solely by Jewish residents, but also by members of our fellow faiths, including Christians and Muslims, and by the academic institutions of our area. Each year, as we develop our remembrance program, we are deeply mindful that for the teaching of the Holocaust to have true meaning for today, it must lead not only to mourning the dead of yesterday but also to heeding the warning of the profound dangers of hate that plague our world and our nation today. Our mission is to try to prevent such a horrible event from ever taking place again, and we hope that the state’s curriculum will likewise attempt to educate our children to eschew dehumanization of and violence against any group.

From our perspective, the purpose of teaching the Holocaust to our children is so that they learn of what happens when hate runs rampant in society, giving birth to inhumanity; from that lesson, they may take upon themselves the task of working to transform our world to be hate-free and inclusive of diversity. Its purpose is for them to learn that evil is only possible if good people stand idly by while the evil people do their harm; from that lesson, they take upon themselves the duty to be upstanders rather than bystanders.

Beyond the Holocaust education requirement, we hope, in general, that this legislation leaves room not only for students to learn about the exceptional people who brought America’s founding ideals to life, but also those times when America did not make the most righteous choice, so that our students can learn the important skill of learning from our historical mistakes. For example, though the bill promotes the teaching of American and Iowan history, there does not seem to be any requirement to teach about the people who were indigenous to these lands and the wisdom and richness of their cultures, nor to teach about the harmful ways in which our nation treated the indigenous peoples. Our study of history is most complete and most educational when we study both the best and the worst of our national choices.

We look forward to seeing our state grow stronger in unity and integrity as the result of robust Holocaust education and a full social sciences curriculum that allows our students to cultivate strong citizenship capacities, to build upon our historical merits and to learn from our mistakes.

With gratitude and with hope,

Rabbi Linda Bertenthal, Congregation Beth Israel & Temple Emanuel

Rabbi Emeritus Henry Karp, Temple Emanuel

Cantor Emerita Gail Posner Karp, Temple Emanuel

About the Author(s)

Henry Jay Karp

  • anti-Semitism and hate speech on the rise

    Good article! Its sad to see anti-Semitism and hate speech is alive and well on America’s campuses of “higher learning.”

  • No title

    Until now, I wasn’t aware of this important new requirement. I hope that in addition to the Holocaust there are discussions of the pogroms that occurred earlier in Russia and throughout Europe. Like all genocides, the Holocaust was not an ahistorical. A failure to tell the whole story will make it difficult for students to understand the origins of the contemporary surge in antisemitism.