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Classroom Hate, Antisemitism Targeted with New Legislation

Woman standing at podium
16-year-old Henrico County student Claudia Sachs testified before Virginia lawmakers on January 27th. (Photo credit Crixell Matthews/VPM)

Both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation designed to help teachers make connections between present day acts of hate and historical acts of violence - even genocides.

16-year-old Claudia Sachs, who attends Glen Allen High School in Henrico County, recently testified about antisemitism before lawmakers. She recounted an incident from a few years ago when two senior boys were passing around antisemitic and racist jokes.

One of them turned to her and said: “Claudia, take a shower. And at first, I didn't understand him and I said, What do you mean? Do I smell bad? What is this? And he looked me right in the eye and said, I meant the showers of the Holocaust,” Sachs said. “I was so afraid and I was panicking.”

Sachs says she remembers telling him that her great grandmother died in those showers. She also remembers asking him to write her an apology note. But the incident – and another in middle school history class – left her reeling. There, a student said only 1,000 people died in the Holocaust.

Ultimately, the incidents left Sachs feeling deeply disappointed in Virginia’s education system. She feels like there’s a fundamental problem with how the Holocaust is taught, although she admits that she did have a good history teacher who dedicated 90-minutes to the Holocaust during her freshman year of high school, unlike the 10-minute video on it she was shown in middle school.

“This is not a school with antisemitic children,” Sachs said. “It's a school that suffers from the ignorance that many Virginia's public schools suffer from.”

David Cohen, director of Jewish community relations for the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, says it’s about time the state does more, especially with rising acts of antisemitism across the country.

“And when it's rising as it has - and all statistics in Europe and America showing that it has been rising - we have to call attention to it,” Cohen said.

At the same time, knowledge of the Holocaust has been declining. A 2018 poll found that two-thirds of millennials surveyed didn’t know that Auschwitz was a Nazi concentration camp where over a million Jewish people and other minorities were killed during the Holocaust. 

Cohen wants Virginia to use the Holocaust as a case study to help students understand how jokes can escalate to genocide. He points to training he received on how to teach this, through the non-profit Facing History and Ourselves and using what’s called the Pyramid of Hate.

“At the bottom is this wide block of things that happen all the time: jokes, ridicule stereotypes,” Cohen said. Then comes discrimination, a step up on the pyramid.

“If that [discrimination] isn't addressed, and it isn't quashed then it can actually move up that pyramid to violence,” Cohen said. “Because once you think you can joke about someone - and once you think you can disenfranchise  them and not give them those same privileges everyone else has - it's really a short step to thinking that you can perpetuate violence against them.”

Sam Asher, executive director of the Virginia Holocaust Museum, said the museum’s exhibits aim to make the progression of hate and violence real for teachers and students. For example, a whole room is dedicated to Kristallnacht, known as the night of broken glass when Nazis ransacked thousands of Jewish storefronts.

“We have very loose tiles here for a reason, we want you to know that you’re not on solid ground,” Asher said.

Asher says the museum provides professional development training to middle and high school teachers every summer through the Alexander Lebenstein Teacher Education Institute. Teachers register online, and about 50-60 teachers complete the two-week training every year.

“And teachers have come to us from every county in the state of Virginia,” Asher said. “If I can hire more teachers, I guarantee you, we can teach the Holocaust outside of the Richmond area all over the state. And that's what we want to do.”

Legislation making its way through Virginia’s General Assembly requires the state, among other things, to update a 2009 teacher’s manual with more relevant and timely information about the Holocaust, and revisit Standards of Learning when it comes to teaching about the Holocaust, slavery and the often ignored history of Virginia’s indigenous people. The legislation would also require the state to recommend ways to improve how Virginia educators respond to racism, antisemitism and other forms of harassment.

“I know it happens in our school. I know that happens in our county and I know it happens across the state,” said Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg (D - Henrico). He’s taught history, civics and government for the past 15 years in Henrico County Public Schools. He actually works at Claudia Sachs’ high school right now.

“We're becoming such a diverse county, and that's a great thing,” VanValkenburg said. “But it does require teachers to understand how to deal with that diversity.”

The Northam administration supports efforts to ramp up anti-hate efforts in the classroom, and the bills have gotten overwhelming support from both parties. Still, some like Del. Mark Cole (R - Spotsylvania) think it’s an unnecessary way to spend taxpayer dollars. Others like Del. Amanda Batten (R - James City County) think the scope of work is too broad. The bill started just with the Holocaust curriculum and was later expanded.

But Claudia Sachs says she thinks it’s “really important that all forms of hate and all forms of anti-bias education are addressed within the bill.”

These days, Sachs is feeling more comfortable expressing her Jewish identity in school. She says she even wore a Kippah to school last fall.

“I was worried that people were judging me behind my back, just as they would if I wore the wrong pair of sneakers or the wrong shirt,” Sachs said.

But, she says, she didn’t get anything but positive comments from other students, expressing their support and a desire to learn more. Sachs says she’s noticed a shift since Glen Allen High School’s principal Reginald Davenport started a “culture of kindness” program.

“Rather than be a bystander, they become an upstander,” Davenport said. 

“It makes me proud that I have students who can state that they feel safe to come into this building and explore their identity as well as get an education without being ridiculed or judged because of who they are.”

Megan Pauly covers education and healthcare issues in the greater Richmond region. She was a 2020-21 reporting fellow with ProPublica's Local Reporting Network and a 2019-20 reporting fellow with the Education Writers Association.