Congress’ Grassroots Effort to Make ‘Never Again’ Resound in Classrooms Across America
JNS.org – Amid the rise in antisemitism in the United States and abroad, President Donald Trump signed the Never Again Education Act last month as part of Jewish American Heritage Month, one month after the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany.
The story behind the passage of this landmark legislation is one that transcended the usual partisan politics of Washington, DC, bringing together Jewish and Christian groups, and liberal and conservative lawmakers in a rare display of bipartisanship to have a measurable impact on awareness and understanding of the ramifications of the Holocaust.
“Unfortunately, we have an seen a significant spike in antisemitic attacks and vandalism over the past few years, and these undeniably disturbing events spurred action,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), who introduced the bill in the House and has waged a multi-decade effort to pass such legislation.
Citing an Anti-Defamation League report released recently that showed that 2019 consisted of the highest number of antisemitic incidents in four decades, she said that “both sides of the aisle saw how urgent this is, and this bill was bipartisan from the start.”
The new law seeks to expand the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM)’s education programming to teachers nationwide, requiring the museum to develop and disseminate resources to improve awareness and understanding of the Holocaust and its lessons. There will be $2 million allocated annually for this year and each of the next four years to the Holocaust Education Assistance Program Fund, administered by the USHMM’s governing body, the US Holocaust Memorial Council. Private donations to the fund will also be permitted.
Maloney, the 13-term lawmaker who represents New York’s 12th Congressional district, noted her experience as a former educator played a role in pushing for the bill whereby “education is a key tool in fighting all forms of hate and bigotry, and by reaching children in the classroom, we can make sure they learn understanding and acceptance rather than discrimination.”
Antisemitism must not only be punished but also prevented, she said. By “giving educators the tools they need to teach about the Holocaust and the dangers of antisemitism and hate, I believe we can stop antisemitism before it starts,” said Maloney.
The bill had the support of “more than 50 national organizations and more than 250 local partners,” according to Maloney, who credited the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Hadassah, and the Jewish Federations of North America as “instrumental” in getting the legislation passed.
Hadassah CEO and executive director Janice Weinman told JNS that she attended the New York Congressional Breakfast hosted by the New York Jewish Community Relations Council in early 2018.
“I heard Congresswoman Maloney speak about her nearly 20-year fight to strengthen Holocaust education, and I knew this was the prescription America needed to guarantee the promise of ‘Never Again,’” said Weinman. “And I knew it was right for Hadassah to lead the effort because we are a Zionist organization with a large national membership that believes in the power of information and education to change the world.”
Hadassah director of government relations Karen Barall said that Hadassah appealed to the organization’s 300,000 members and other Jewish groups.
“We started to invite representatives from other large organizations to meetings Hadassah was arranging on Capitol Hill, and our first targets were the 55 co-sponsors from the previous Congress,” she said. “Support was built inch by inch, one office at a time, and was supplemented by a grassroots effort.”
“Before and after meetings, Hadassah chapters from the representative’s district would organize to contact their offices expressing their support for the bill,” she said.
Ultimately, the bill had 302 co-sponsors in the Democratic-led House — 205 Democrats and 97 Republicans.
While garnering support in the House, Hadassah recruited Senator Jacky Rosen (D-NV), who was “very responsive to our request from the start” and, meeting with Republican senators, got a receptive audience in Senator Kevin Cramer (R-ND).
Rosen and Cramer were joined by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CN).
Rosen told JNS that the Senate vote happened after “significantly increasing the number of co-sponsors of the bipartisan Senate bill and laying the groundwork for the House bill to clear committee and receive a vote from the full Senate.”
The Senate version was slightly different from the US House of Representatives one, which the Senate ultimately passed, in that the former had the US Department of Education — and not the USHMM — oversee the expansion of Holocaust education in the United States.
As to Rosen being the leading sponsor of the bill, she pointed to her time when she was president of Congregation Ner Tamid in Nevada, where she “heard the stories of so many Holocaust survivors, stories of resilience in the face of certain death, stories of loss as so many were taken from us.”
After first being elected to Congress in 2017, first as a Congresswoman from Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District, “I asked myself, what can I do as a legislator to fulfill the promise of the words ‘Never Again’ and ensure that they mean Never Again for anyone? I truly believe that education is the most powerful tool we have in the fight against hate and bigotry.”
Other groups that lobbied for the bill — an effort that included being in contact with Congressional offices — included Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress), the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC), the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), and the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC).
JFNA worked “closely with Jewish communal agencies to connect with Holocaust survivors and encourage them to sign on to a letter in support of the bill. This grassroots effort collected more than 1,800 signatures from survivors in 38 states — 350 community groups from every single state helped galvanize political support,” JFNA spokesperson Rebecca Dinar told JNS.
In Chicago, where there’s a large community of Holocaust survivors, Yonit Hoffman, director of Holocaust Community Services at CJE SeniorLife — a Federation-funded agency that serves 1,700 survivors on a regular basis — led the effort to garner 452 signatures on the letter.
The RJC’s legislative affairs committee “wrote to every Republican in Congress urging them to co-sponsor the bill,” the organization’s spokesperson, Neil Strauss, said.
“Once the House passed its version of the bill, we began visiting Republican Senate offices, usually joined by colleagues from Hadassah and other groups supporting the bill, but we were forced to shift to most advocacy via email” due to the coronavirus pandemic making in-person meetings “impossible,” said Strauss.
The RJC put such an emphasis on the importance of the bill that the organization even withdrew its support for the four House Republicans who voted against it. Reps. Jodey Arrington (R-TX), Thomas Massie (R-KY), Tom Rice (R-SC), and Ralph Norman (R-SC) cited conservative dogma on spending and the need to have small-sized government.
The Anti-Defamation League, in addition to its lobbying efforts, had an action alert on its website in order to allow people to better engage with members of Congress about the matter, ADL CEO and national director Jonathan Greenblatt told JNS. Meanwhile, “AJCongress has always supported legislation promoting Holocaust education,” Akri Cipa, a policy analyst at the organization, said.
Cipa cited a Pew Research study in January that only “strengthened” his organization’s “conviction” over the need for the Never Again Education Act.
The study showed that less than half of Americans, some 45%, know that six million Jews perished in the Holocaust, while 29% weren’t sure or had no answer. (Simultaneously, 69% of respondents correctly said that the Holocaust was between the years 1930 and 1950, while 63% of respondents correctly defined the Nazi-created ghettos as “parts of town where Jews were forced to live.”)
Sandra Parker, chairwoman of CUFI’s political arm, CUFI Action Fund, said that her organization threw its support behind the legislation following Trump signing an Executive Order in December combating antisemitism by applying Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to Jewish Americans, especially on college campuses, where antisemitic and anti-Israel activity has run amok.
“This bill got on our radar during the current Congress, and we immediately decided to back it,” she said. “Combating antisemitism has always been a priority for our organization, but given the dramatic rise in antisemitism across the country, as well as the horrifically violent acts we’ve witnessed in recent years, I think it stands to reason that we are seeing an increased emphasis on policies aimed at contending with this issue, including the Never Again Education Act.”
In addition to meetings with members of Congress, CUFI leaders authored opinion pieces in leading outlets.
Rosen said that the bill’s passage through Congress “could not have happened without the tremendous support from so many groups across faith and party lines. We were blessed to have a broad coalition of outside groups advocating for the bill from the moment it was introduced. Some of these groups have been advocating for decades to ensure more robust Holocaust education.”
“Overall, dozens of groups lent their support to this effort,” he said, “with my office working directly with a core coalition of half a dozen organizations to move this bill to the Senate floor. Without their crucial support, we would not have been able to garner 80 bipartisan Senate co-sponsors and get this bill across the finish line.”
That rare combined effort from those organizations highlighted that fighting antisemitism and furthering the message of “Never Again” aren’t for only liberal or conservative groups.
The joint effort “reinforces the importance of the legislation, and it signals that despite differences of opinions and the multitude of voices and perspectives, the Jewish community at large is united on fundamental issues,” said Cipa.
With CUFI, Parker said, “as Hagee has noted previously, antisemitism is not just a Jewish problem, it’s everyone’s problem. As a Christian Zionist organization and the world’s largest pro-Israel organization, we’ve worked hard to forge trusting relationships throughout the Jewish community. We share the same concerns about Israel’s safety and security, rising antisemitism, and Holocaust denial — not just in America but everywhere.”
Strauss remarked, “Combating antisemitism is a cause that can unite groups that disagree on other matters, and we believe there is great potential for additional efforts going forward.”
Such efforts, according to some of the aforementioned groups that spoke to JNS, range from state legislatures mandating Holocaust education (currently, 18 states either encourage or require teaching about the Holocaust) to fighting the movement calling for boycotting Israel, to Congress upgrading the position of US special envoy for monitoring and combating antisemitism to an ambassador-level role. The House passed legislation last year to do that, while the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the upper chamber’s version last week, sending it to the full Senate for a final vote.
“Ultimately,” said Hadassah President Rhoda Smolow, “we hope the legislation will have a measurable impact on awareness and understanding of the Holocaust, particularly among students and to certain extent their family members. We have to do a better job of preserving the memory of the Holocaust. There is no better way to do so than through education — and no better equipped institution than the US Holocaust Memorial Museum to meet this challenge.”
“But we also hope that this will help to deaden the appeal of hate groups and communities that traffic in antisemitism,” she added. “The Holocaust offers us all universal lessons on the importance of tolerance, and what happens when we do not stand up when tolerance is threatened.”
Greenblatt said, “It’s our hope that the American people recognize how important it is to ensure that our future generations are taught the lessons and horrors of the Holocaust, because greater understanding of the Shoah is not only important for fighting antisemitism, it is also important for fighting hate against all marginalized communities. In this time of stark and ever-widening political divide, for both sides of the aisle to come and work together to pass this piece of legislation, it goes to show that our nation’s leaders recognize the pertinence of Holocaust education.”
Jackson Richman is the Washington Correspondent for Jewish News Syndicate.