Bungling Arizona’s Holocaust Education Bill

Sadly, the success story of Arizona’s Holocaust Education bill trembles on weak knees, false premises and a skewed public narrative.
July 29, 2021
Arizona Governor Doug Ducey (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The multi-year effort to pass a Holocaust Education bill in Arizona bore fruit on July 9, when Governor Ducey announced he signed HB2241. Before arriving on the Governor’s desk, the bill was subject to a “strike everything” amendment by Senator Paul Boyer. A “strike everything” amendment is a versatile legislative instrument, often used to bypass certain procedural deadlines to fast track revisions or whole new bills on a shortened timeline. Boyer’s “striker” bill copied the text of the original Holocaust bill, with one additional page: an added provision that Holocaust Education must adhere to the guidelines outlined in the IHRA definition of antisemitism. The original bill did not include the IHRA definition.

Per Arizona procedure, Boyer’s amendment would have to pass the Senate, then required approval from the sponsors of the original Holocaust Education bill to proceed to a final vote in in the Arizona House of Representatives.

Just a year earlier, in 2020, a bill containing the IHRA definition passed the House, breezing through with bipartisan support to a final vote of 52-8.

After that vote, the 2020 bill was sent to the Senate, but not without controversy. Antizionist activists, in league with the ACLU, targeted the Senate with a campaign against the IHRA, recycling the false yet pervasive claim that defining antisemitism is tantamount to a state-sponsored crackdown on free speech. The ACLU letter was signed by characters like Amer Zahr and Marc Lamont Hill, among others.

The 2020 campaign against the IHRA caused enough stir for Democratic Representative Alma Hernandez and Republican Senate President Karen Fann to respond with a letter to colleagues, addressing misinformation spreading on social media, with straightforward clarifications about the IHRA definition.

Due to the pandemic, the 2020 IHRA bill never came to a Senate vote, delaying any showdown over the definition until the next legislative session. The campaign attacking the IHRA, though unable to claim any specific victory, pushed hard enough to cause an attitudinal shift toward the IHRA definition, even among its previously strongest advocates.

The campaign attacking the IHRA, though unable to claim any specific victory, pushed hard enough to cause an attitudinal shift toward the IHRA definition, even among its previously strongest advocates.

Democratic Representative Athena Salman was one of the eight in the House to vote against the IHRA definition in 2020. Months after the vote, on December 2, She was interviewed by the aforementioned Amer Zahr. She claimed responsibility for stopping the earlier legislation, boasting, “Fortunately we were actually able to stop that bill this year.” She warned that the IHRA definition is “a very dangerous piece of legislation,” and insisted, “I know for a fact that because I’m in the legislature, I was able to do a lot of organizing on the inside in tandem with people organizing on the outside.” She added, “I think if I wasn’t there, that thing [the IHRA definition] would have sailed through.”

Conversely, only a month later in January of 2021, Representative Alma Hernandez, who previously lobbied in support of the IHRA definition, sponsored a Holocaust Education bill that excluded the IHRA definition(HB2241). Regarding the IHRA definition, Hernandez told Jewish insider, “I won’t be bringing it this year” because it was “too much drama.”

In April, three months after the Holocaust Education bill was officially sponsored, it was reported that Republican Senator Paul Boyer was advocating for including the IHRA definition in the Holocaust Education Bill via an amendment.

Shortly thereafter, Representative Hernandez published a statement responding to Boyer. She unequivocally stated that she will not support any amendment to her Holocaust Education bill, asserting, “Proponents of the IHRA definition, of which I am one, should run separate legislation instead of attempting to seize this bill.”

When Hernandez went public with her position, mainstream Jewish, Holocaust and pro-Israel organizations that support the IHRA definition in any other context seemed to line up behind Hernandez with unquestioning faith.

Jacob Milner of the AJC stated, “While we support the IHRA definition in Holocaust Education as a general matter, we do believe that it’s better to pass an otherwise sound Holocaust Education bill without IHRA than to not have a Holocaust Education bill.”

Ari Morgenstern of CUFI stated, “In Arizona, it is our understanding that it would be best, based on the timeline, to advance appropriate IHRA policy separate from the Holocaust Education bill.”

Tammy Gillies of the ADL stated, “Certainly the IHRA definition serves a useful purpose, but we’re not looking for it to be codified into law.” On Twitter, she added, “There is no need to politicize Holocaust Education.”

Paul Rockower of the JCRC of Greater Phoenix stated, “While we do support the use of the IHRA definition in a variety of contexts, we believe there are more appropriate avenues to address the public policy in Arizona statutes.”

StandWithUs initially opposed the decision to pass the bill without the IHRA, but then promptly retracted their opposition and fell in line. They released a statement saying, “While we continue to believe IHRA is critical, we also support swift passage of the Holocaust Education bill. We respect Rep. Hernandez and other stakeholders who want to advance these important priorities.”

In May, Boyer’s IHRA bill passed the Senate with a final vote of 16-14. Not a single Democrat supported the bill. By the time of the vote, Representative Hernandez and others had already forcefully rejected the notion of including the IHRA definition in this Holocaust Education bill, thus truly rendering the definition a bipartisan issue.

During the vote, Senator Martin Quezada, a young progressive endorsed by Bernie Sanders, stood up to announce that he supported Holocaust Education because of the rise in “Populist and fascist white nationalism,” but, “despite that problem,” he continued, “There’s a strong and well-funded lobbying effort that’s underway right now to take advantage of this [antisemitism] crisis to redefine antisemitism as any criticism of the state of Israel.”

According to Quezada, the IHRA definition, which explicitly states that criticism of Israel is not antisemitic, is part of a well-funded Zionist conspiracy to trick people by “taking advantage” of antisemitic violence. His painfully ironic statement features both a condemnation of fascism and fascist conspiracy theories about Jews.

Senator Juan Mendez, another young progressive, also rose to declare that he would vote for Holocaust Education because “America has a problem with hate,” but added he would be voting against the IHRA definition because it “goes way too far.”

To support his position, Mendez read off a list of established Jewish organizations who had spoken out against the IHRA definition on behalf of the bill’s sponsors. He boasted, “All of these Jewish community groups that are opposed to this language agree with me.” He also expressed concern that the IHRA definition would lead to arrests of Palestinian activists and “upend the Palestinian narrative.” The short speech concluded by referencing mainstream Jewish organizations, again: “A large part of the Jewish community is against this [the IHRA definition] and that’s why I’ll be voting no.”

The bill passed the Senate despite the misinformation, absurd statements and partisanship. From there, Boyer’s bill was sent to its final destination in the House, where, on June 30th, it was brought before the sponsors of the original bill for their refusal or concurrence. By this stage the decision was a foregone conclusion; the sponsors elected to “refuse” the amendment. The bill proceeded to a final vote without the IHRA definition and was signed two weeks later by Governor Ducey.

In refusing the IHRA definition, Representative Aaron Lieberman explained:

“I think in situations like this, it is super important that we listen directly to the voices, in particular when you’re dealing with the Holocaust, of the Jewish community. And among the groups that have reached out to me directly on this, opposing this, are…” and he proceeded to read a list of Jewish organizations similar to those of Juan Mendez. He concluded by saying, “For all those reasons [the list of organizations], I’m refusing to concur with the amendment.”

Lieberman and the other sponsors of HB2241 lobbied Jewish organizations to support the bill without the IHRA, and then, when it came time to officially “refuse,” the sponsors abdicated responsibility and blamed the decision on those organizations to whom they appealed for support.

The main concerns expressed by the original sponsors—delays due to procedure or partisanship, with a full context of the events—are evidently inadequate explanations for not including the IHRA definition in this statewide mandated Holocaust education. While the sponsors’ assessment of those challenges may have been legitimate, the sponsors had a full year to address the misinformation surrounding the IHRA definition and organize support. While those eight House opponents of the definition organized, the supporters of the definition, who were sitting on a 52-seat advantage, abandoned any bipartisan potentiality and chose to capitulate to antisemitic forces. In doing so, they compelled mainstream Jewish organizations to follow them in supporting a peculiar premise where Holocaust Education and antisemitism education are somehow separate subjects.

In capitulating over the IHRA definition, policymakers passed a Holocaust Education bill with no protections, leaving open the potential for abuses. The evidence for this possibility is ample, but could be just as easily seen by those two state Senators, Quezada and Mendez, who claimed to support Holocaust Education while subscribing to pernicious ideas about Jewish people. Similar radicals with similar worldviews may very well be the people teaching Arizona’s newly-mandated Holocaust Education to the next generation of leaders in Arizona.

In capitulating over the IHRA definition, policymakers passed a Holocaust Education bill with no protections, leaving open the potential for abuses.

As a result of this process, moving forward, Holocaust Education bills targeted with similar attacks over the IHRA definition will have to contend with an established precedent in Arizona, where the definition was rejected. Opponents of the IHRA, in seats of power right now, have statements on record from prominent and mainstream Jewish organizations, supporting the exclusion of the IHRA definition from Holocaust Education due to this bungled process.

With the passing of the Holocaust Education bill, the earlier dispute over the IHRA definition was forgotten or explained away. Following the announcement came an outpouring of collective elation for the supposed legislative victory. A polarized Jewish community, increasingly fractured along the right-left political divide and under duress from increased attacks, finally had cause for a unified celebration.

Sadly, the success story of Arizona’s Holocaust Education bill trembles on weak knees, false premises and a skewed public narrative. Beyond the public facade, the full story of HB2241 reveals yet another instance of capitulation and malfeasance from certain leaders in the established American Jewish leadership.

Joe Duenas is an independent writer and filmmaker. His latest film, “The Conspiracy Libel,” covers the history of antisemitic conspiracy theory before the Holocaust.


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