New York State’s Holocaust Education: Well-intended, but dismal results

By David Drimer, executive director

It’s no surprise the U.S. state with the largest Jewish population is New York. So, you would guess New York is among the states with the highest level of Holocaust awareness. That seems especially likely since New York is one of only 18 states that mandate Holocaust education in its schools.

If you guessed that, you would be wrong.

We have the most Jews, plus required Holocaust study in high school, yet in a comprehensive national survey of Holocaust Awareness conducted by the Claims Conference focused on individuals 18 to 39 years of age, fully “36 percent of New Yorkers think the Holocaust and World War II are not associated” events.

New York’s Holocaust awareness ranked in the bottom 10 of all states; New York finished in a disappointing four-way tie for 41st place. One of the most shocking statistics was that, “19% of New Yorkers surveyed thought Jews started the Holocaust.” Next time you’re in a grocery store or a park or other public place, pick out 10 random people under 40 and think to yourself, “Two of these people likely think Jews brought on themselves a massacre that resulted in the murder of millions.” It will be chilling, to say the least. Keep in mind that 40% of them think only 2 to 3 million Jews perished, and many think the Holocaust is a hoax anyway.

How can we explain the bewildering disparity between the well-intentioned mandate for Holocaust education and the disappointing, even dangerous reality? I am perplexed. Without solid data on which to formulate a truly informed opinion, I venture to guess it’s an obstinate ignorance born of a climate of casual anti-Semitism. Students don’t learn because they simply don’t care. People need to be engaged enough emotionally to internalize the terrible reality of the Holocaust, and there is enough imagery available to provoke horror and disgust. But I suspect the watered-down Holocaust story as it’s told in schools in an age of absurd political correctness inspires none of those emotions. There is likely no shock value in the narrative.

According to David Marwell, former CEO of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, “There are a lot of headwinds that one must confront when teaching about the Holocaust. First, I think there’s a general lack of interest in history. Social media may play a role. There’s also the existence of the internet and some countervailing forces that intentionally distort and deny the Holocaust.”

What can be done now to address this disturbing phenomenon? Fortunately, some elected officials in both houses of the state legislature share our concern. There are twin bills currently in committee in both the Assembly and the State Senate calling for the Commissioner of Education to audit NY’s Holocaust Education efforts. That’s a prudent approach: first identify the nature and scope of the problem, then formulate a plan to address the obviously significant shortcomings of current efforts.

Ulster’s Senator Martucci is a co-sponsor of one Bill; Assemblyman Tague is a co-sponsor of the other. We applaud their sensitivity and commitment to this issue. The Jewish Federation of Ulster County is actively lobbying the remainder of the Ulster delegation to co-sponsor these Bills.

We are pleased to announce our efforts have already borne fruit. Just this week we obtained commitments from Assemblyman Jacobson and Senator Hinchey to sign on as co-sponsors, too. We are awaiting responses from Assemblymen Miller and Cahill, and Senators Skoufis and Oberacker. We plan to stay on this, in hopes we can create a unanimous united front by all of Ulster’s elected representatives.

We wish there was no opposition to these Bills, which we believe are essential to stem the tide of growing anti-Semitism. Sadly, the Assembly bill barely made it out of the Education Committee. The Committee chairman attempted to quash it, but a rarely seen revolt by several Committee members pushed it through.

Why would someone be opposed to this simple legislation meant to address a problem of grave concern that has already attracted media attention? Would an audit of Holocaust education lead to a scathing indictment of the program’s failures? That would lead to recrimination, blame, embarrassment and bad publicity. Politicians and bureaucrats don’t like that so much.

We need your help. If you are interested in supporting this important lobbying effort, please don’t hesitate to reach out to Desirée or me at 845.338.8131 or e-mail We have contact info and a template letter you can use to communicate with our representatives. There is also information about how to assist us is posted on the website and the Federation’s Facebook page.

It is the essential mission of the Federation to promote and defend the interests of our Jewish community in the county, the state, the country, and the world. Please pitch in and help get this important legislation passed in both the NY State Senate and the Assembly.