Sunday, April 14, 2013

Anything wrong with high school students assigned to defend "Jews are evil"?

CNN  by Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

School officials in Albany, New York, are racing to control the damage after a teacher at Albany High School gave students a persuasive writing assignment that challenged them to defend the proposition that “Jews are evil.”

After studying Nazi propaganda and rhetoric, sophomores in three English classes were instructed to imagine that their teacher was “a member of the government in Nazi Germany” and to prove that that they were “loyal to the Nazis.”

But this unidentified teacher is now caught up in a propaganda swirl of his or her own.

Albany Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard, at a Friday press conference at which she was flanked by members of the Anti-Defamation League and Jewish Federation of New York, apologized and promised disciplinary action.
One student, Emily Karandy, told The Times Union of Albany that she kept putting off the assignment “because I didn’t want to think about it” and she felt “horrible” when she turned it in. [...]

When I was an assistant professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta, I used to teach Nazi theology. My students read sermons by Nazi theologians arguing that Jews were evil and were responsible for killing Jesus. They also read a book called “Theologians Under Hitler” by Robert P. Erickson, who tried to explain how and why Christian thinkers could come to believe that exterminating Jews was somehow Christ-like.

I am not a Nazi. I was not teaching Nazi theology as the truth. I was teaching it as propaganda, just like this Albany High School teacher was doing. My purpose was not to make my students sympathetic to Nazism. My purpose was to unsettle them. And to teach them something along the way.

I had two goals when teaching this material.

First, I wanted my students to realize that smart Christians with doctoral degrees supported the Holocaust. Second, I wanted them to grapple with the implications of this fact on their own religious commitments. Do Christians today have any responsibility to know this history and to try to make sure it doesn’t happen again? If so, how can they exercise that responsibility without coming to understand the contours of Nazi thought?

But instead of grappling with these questions, my students almost universally tried to side-step them. The Nazis were not Christians, they told me confidently, because Christians would never kill Jews just for being Jews. Case closed. Time to move on to more comfortable topics.


  1. I am a happily frum, Jewish-born BT, and I must say I find the assignment brilliant. I would think that it would yield definite insights, of various kinds, to any who'd undertake it in earnest. It's a shame the teacher's taking so much flak for it. Educational innovators never have it easy.

    1. I agree wholeheartedly. Unless the point of the exercise was to sway the students into believing that Jews are evil, than it was an extremely healthy and positive assignment.
      That a student found it difficult is easy to believe. She didn't want to think about 'it'. Does she actually think about anything? I wonder.

    2. Well, no student need be forced into such an assignment if they find it too disturbing, that's true. We all have different sensitivities & temperaments, and any healthy classroom accommodates, privately, special needs of individuals. She could participate in a different way.

      It even happens that classrooms sometimes rebel against assignments now & then, which in a healthy classroom may serve some educational value as well.

      But that the teacher should be forbidden from venturing such an assignment--nay, even attacked for it--well, that's more than likely parents with unfulfilled lives taking some target practice.

  2. I have spent years thinking of and researching how Nazis' minds worked. Until you understand that, you don't understand yourself.

    1. Why? I can not understand myself without understanding the mind of a Nazi? That doesnt make sense.

    2. The Nazis represented evil run rampant. Everyone has an Amalek (yetzer hara)within him that produces as many excuses to do evil as the most hard-boiled Nazi, plus the Nazi specialty of doing evil under guise of claiming it was the greatest virtue. Experiments have shown that under the right circumstances everyday people can easily be persuaded to behave like Nazis. It's good to know this sort of stuff rather than think of them as a different species.

    3. That is a different point. It may be important to understand the fragility of the human condition and the potential for evil as a means of averting another Third Reich. That is different than saying we need to understand pure evil in order to understand ourselves. Even if we all are capable of sinking to that level, it does not follow that an understanding of the mind of one who has sunk so low is necessary to the understanding of oneself.

    4. Really Interesting BookApril 16, 2013 at 7:12 AM

      Peter Sichrovsky's Born Guilty, interviewing children of Nazi officers.

    5. "Everyone has an Amalek (yetzer hara)within him that produces as many excuses to do evil as the most hard-boiled Nazi"

      What mentally sick nonsense. There is no Amalek inside me and no nazi inside me. And yetzer hara is not amalek.

      Yetzer hara causes normal people to desire pleasurable things, such as maybe non-kosher foods, or perhaps women outside the context of an acceptable relationship structure. Yetzer hara has never caused me to desire being a nazi or doing Amalek type evil against the elderly and against children. Only someone very sick indeed would have those impulses, and I'm sure they are in a tiny minority.

      You COULD argue that certain religious ideologies we are familiar with, recently making an appearance in Boston, are motivating its followers to behave as Amalek. But that's not a "yetzer hara" - that's a nazi ideology. You are very confused.

  3. IMO, incidents like this amount to little more than Abe Foxman (and others like him) justifying his existence. That guy and his organization, although once in a blue moon standing up to real antisemitism, for the most part make me sick.

  4. I beg to differ. If anyone in this country were to insinuate anything remotely negative about African Americans, even by using terminology that was acceptable in earlier years, such as blacks, Negroes, none of which are actually derogatory, they would be facing jail time. Political correctness is widely recognized as having nothing to do with Jews, and the principles of this are applied with discrimination. That is known universally. In this climate, this teacher went way too far. This is stuff that historical blood libels were made of. I say, terminate the teacher, don't bother listening to these justifications and rationalizations, and hold the superintendent responsible as the superior for allowing insensitivity to new heights.

  5. But let's be honest, Let's Be Honest. If the same assignment would have been received even more critically if it were about Black people, that still says nothing about whether it was a good idea in the first place.


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