For all the support it has now, New Jersey’s requirement that schoolchildren be taught about the Holocaust was hardly a given at its inception.
Yesterday at the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest in Whippany, more than 100 people – including at least a dozen survivors of the Holocaust, as well as original members of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education – marked the 20th anniversary of the state Legislature’s unanimous 1994 vote to make New Jersey the second state in the nation to mandate that every public school student learn about the Holocaust and other historic acts of genocide.
But even amid the celebration, the talk was as much about how the law could have easily not come to pass if not for some critical voices and the good timing of public sentiment.
Margit Feldman, a former commission member and a Holocaust survivor, remembered the commission meeting held at Stockton State College when members were still not certain whether to push for the legislation.
“I got very emotional, and with tears in my eyes, I said, ‘If not now, when?” she said yesterday.
Others recalled that Holocaust survivors on the committee pushed hardest, while educators on the panel were hesitant to add another mandate to various other requirements already placed on public schools.
“Our survivors made it clear that it must happen in their lifetime, it must happen now,” said Jeffrey Maas, vice chairman of the commission at the time.
Not just the moral point was debated, he and others said.
“What would be the curriculum, how would we train teachers, would there be need to be a certification?” said Paul Winkler, the commission’s longtime executive director who still serves in the post.
Politics also intervened. In the first iteration, the bill listed more than 30 different historic acts of genocide that would be included in the curriculum, which spurred political posturing and battles over what was listed or what was not.
The specific inclusion of the Armenian genocide even brought a letter of protest by the Turkish government. A push by then-Assembly Speaker Garabed "Chuck" Haytaian, who recalled a great-great uncle killed in the Armenian genocide, help keep the bill alive and gave it even more momentum.
Released in 1993, the Academy Award-winning film “Schindler’s List” had a profound effect on popular opinion, as did the media coverage that same year of an inflammatory speech given at Kean University by Khalid Muhammad, an aide to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
The Holocaust education bill, which was signed into law by then-Gov. Christie Whitman, was co-sponsored by a young senator who would go on to become governor.
He recalled yesterday the idea of a mandate initially made even some supporters uneasy.
“Everyone wanted to be true to the sense of democratic spirit,” said former Gov. Jim McGreevey, among a half-dozen people who spoke during yesterday’s ceremony. “But it was also my own sense of Irish frustration that if we don’t advocate for it, who will?”
New Jersey now stands as one of just five states where every school must include instruction about the Holocaust and other genocide in their curriculum.
But nobody yesterday was claiming total victory.
Some questioned whether such a law could pass now, when partisanship is so acute at all levels of government.
Winkler, who leads the commission’s staff of two people inside the state Department of Education, said, “We can’t sit back and feel good that we passed this law.”
He said the commission and groups like the Jewish Federation continue to organize meetings between the fast-declining number of Holocaust survivors and New Jersey young people, including upcoming events at Raritan Community College and Brookdale County College, which thousands of schoolchildren are expected to attend.
“Students don’t just learn with their heads, but also with their hearts and their hands to do something with it,” Winkler said.