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Florida rejects Holocaust education textbooks in clampdown on ‘woke’ instruction

(JTA) — Florida’s state education department rejected two new Holocaust-focused textbooks for classroom use, while forcing at least one other textbook to alter a passage about the Hebrew Bible in order to meet state approval. 

The books were rejected as part of a broader review of new K-12 social studies material. According to documents provided by the state, the education department did not approve any new texts on the Holocaust this year. Reached by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a spokesperson at the department’s press office was unable to confirm whether there are older Holocaust textbooks already in use that can still be taught in the state.

Under Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, the state has made an effort to clamp down on what he calls “woke indoctrination,” mostly regarding race and gender. The textbooks’ rejection is the latest example of how that drive is affecting Jewish topics as well.

One of this year’s rejected Holocaust textbooks was called “Modern Genocides,” and the other was an online learning course titled “History of the Holocaust.” Both were intended for high school students. “Modern Genocides” was rejected in part for its discussion of “special topics” prohibited by the state — a list that includes terms such as “social justice” and “critical race theory.” The department did not clarify which prohibited “special topics” the book included.

Both of the rejected works also received low scores from the state’s educational review committee, which determines whether a book meets state requirements for instruction on its topic. 

DeSantis has advanced Holocaust education while also enabling parents to effectively remove any Holocaust literature they don’t like from school libraries. Florida requires Holocaust education in grades K-12, and in 2020, DeSantis signed a law requiring public schools to certify that they teach about the Holocaust. But a law passed last year allows parents to challenge instructional materials and books in public school libraries, and parents in the state have filed challenges that have led to the temporary or permanent removal of Holocaust literature (including a new adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary) on the grounds that they are inappropriate for children. 

Another law, called the “Stop WOKE Act,” bans educators from making students feel guilt or shame in relation to historical events. The state education department also forbids the instruction of “critical race theory,” a term that traditionally concerns a method of legal analysis but that Republicans have used pejoratively to refer to discussion of systemic racism in the United States.

In addition, Republicans in the statehouse have passed a bill that would forbid state-funded higher education institutions from teaching “critical theory” — a change that scholars say could threaten the teaching of Jewish studies. DeSantis has yet to sign that bill into law.

“To uphold our exceptional standards, we must ensure our students and teachers have the highest quality materials available — materials that focus on historical facts and are free from inaccuracies or ideological rhetoric,” Manny Diaz, Jr., Florida’s education commissioner, said in a press release. 

The state’s education department announced Tuesday that it had approved 66 out of 101 submissions of new social studies textbooks under its new rubric — some only after the publishers agreed to extensive changes to the text. It rejected the other 35 textbooks that were submitted. Florida last reviewed social studies materials in 2017; state documents do not indicate the percentage of books accepted and rejected that year. 

The state did not elaborate on how the Holocaust books failed to adequately teach their subjects. The education department’s Bureau of Standards and Instructional Support, which oversees reviews of classroom materials, referred JTA’s request for comment to its press office, which did not respond to questions by deadline.

The publishers for the two rejected Holocaust texts likewise did not respond to JTA requests for comment. Florida, by virtue of its large population of school-age children, is one of the biggest textbook markets in the nation, and some social studies textbook publishers this year preemptively erased some language about race and segregation in their books in order to gain entry into the market.

Meanwhile, another social studies textbook intended for grades 6-8 was forced by the department to alter a reference to the Hebrew Bible in order to meet state standards. According to state documents, the book’s original version included a question for students reading, “What social justice issues are included in the Hebrew Bible?” 

That was altered to an approved version that replaced the phrase “social justice issues” with the term “key principles.” The state’s rationale for the change was that the original phrasing used “Politically charged language when referencing the Hebrew Bible.”

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