Does “Understanding All Sides” Include Defending Hitler?

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Hitler Y"S

The title of this article is something of a feint. Of course, neither I nor this web site entertain for the slightest instant the possibility that “understanding all sides” could extend so far as justifying Hitler’s atrocities. This I’m sure comes as no surprise. What may surprise you – and should dismay you – is that there are educators who would have our children think otherwise.

Michael DeNobile, an Oswego County High School teacher, assigned students to roleplay Nazi party officials attending the 1942 Wannsee Conference. So far, so good, I guess. They were then to write in the form of internal party memos either supporting or opposing “the Final Solution of the Jewish Question.” In theory, this is an exercise in critical thinking. In practice, it’s a little more complicated than that.

This assignment is problematic even for students assigned to oppose the “final solution” since there is no record of any Nazi-party opposition to the plan. How does one effectively roleplay a position that never existed? That notwithstanding, the “in favor” position is inherently troubling, as the assignment requests that students justify the killing of innocents.

Consider how the following assignments would be received by parents, students, or the school board:

I don’t think any of those assignments would have gotten off the ground. The “final solution” assignment, however, had apparently been given several times before without complaint. That is in and of itself quite disturbing.

This year was something different, as two students, Ms. Jordan April and Mr. Archer Shurtliff, both 17 and neither Jewish, finally raised objections to the assignment. One would think that would be that but such was not the case.

MaryEllen Elia, NY State Commissioner of Education, at first defended the assignment, stressing the importance of “teaching students … the ability to understand all sides of an issue.” Because, you know, pro-genocide advocates have a position with which high school students should be taught to empathize. (Elia later backpedaled on her statement, claiming that she didn’t know the specifics of the issue when first asked about it by reporters).

Other teachers and administrators were likewise unfazed even after the troublesome assignment was brought to their attention. April and Shurtliff kept a record of their efforts to have the offensive assignment withdrawn from the curriculum. What they named their “Chronicle of Activism Against the Final Solution Assignment” ended up being a document 14 pages long, single-spaced. A single-paragraph email to the principal should have been sufficient to end this but the assignment was not withdrawn until the students’ efforts drew media and political attention, and the assignment received ADL condemnation.

Even the other students, whom one would expect to be more socially conscious, were disappointing in their lack of outrage. Within four days of April and Shurtliff’s initial objection, the administration decided to offer the option of an alternative assignment to all 75 students. April (who had been assigned the “con” position) and Shurtliff (who had been assigned “pro”) both took advantage of the opportunity, as did exactly one other student; the rest chose to stick with the original assignment.

Some students reportedly felt uncomfortable with the assignment but preferred not to rock the boat by joining April and Shurtliff’s protest. Most of the students were angered by the young activists’ efforts, seeing it as a slur against their teacher. One student (whose name I have chosen to omit) defended the assignment on the basis that it would “help us become more sympathetic to everyone” and “humanize” the Nazis by making students able to “see their side of the story.”

The assignment also gave license to one student feeling comfortable making a Nazi salute, while another expressed disappointment in not being assigned to the pro-genocide group “because Heil Hitler, duh.” (Great. Way to keep it classy, kid.)

Normally, around this point in an article, I include some Biblical verse or Talmudic aphorism to support my thesis. I’m not going to do that here. Do I really need to bring a proof text in support of the idea that we don’t teach our children to look for the good in genocide? Do we really have to argue the point that murderers and victims are not morally equivalent?

Officially, there are four volumes in Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law. There’s a popular saying that the fifth volume is seichel, common sense. Some things shouldn’t have to be legislated because any thinking person can intuit them for himself. Where was the seichel in assigning students a project that would have students visiting hate sites as “research?” Where is the common sense in presenting wholesale slaughter as a defensible policy? Where is the wisdom in teaching teens to justify morally-reprehensible positions? We have enough trouble raising kids properly when we actually try to teach them right from wrong; do we not even invest that much effort anymore? If that’s what we sow, I dread what we’re going to reap.

So many of our political hot-button issues are shades of gray. When it comes to topics like gun control and abortion, each side sees their own position as “good” and the other as “evil,” when clearly things are far more nuanced than that. The Holocaust is one of the few things in this world that are truly black-and-white. Hitler is universally recognized as history’s greatest monster. It’s not surprising that one unthinking teacher might assign a misguided topic. What is surprising – and more than a little distressing – is the widespread acceptance the assignment garnered once it had been brought to light. Teachers, administrators and students alike had reactions ranging from apathy to outright defense of the project. Where was the outrage?

Kudos to Jordan and Archer for their efforts, especially when they had no vested interest in that fight. Pastor Niemöller (“First they came for the socialists and I did not speak out for I was not a socialist…”) would be proud. But the absence of a more widespread outcry is more than a little disturbing. One fears that the lesson of defending the indefensible may already have been taught a little too well.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.