Grotesque. That's what the Simon Wiesenthal Center called the assignment given to eighth-grade students in Rialto, Calif., to research and write an argumentative essay about whether the Holocaust actually happened or was "merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain wealth."
Who came up with this assignment? Apparently, it was a group effort, the work of a group of teachers and the district's "educational services division."
Once the Simon Wiesenthal Center got word of it on Monday, the district retreated under the heat, with spokeswoman Syeda Jafri telling reporters that interim Rialto Unified Superintendent Mohammad Z. Islam was not aware of the topic, was "deeply disturbed" by it, and acted swiftly to withdraw the assignment.
"Once in a while things fall through the cracks," the spokeswoman said.
Fall through the cracks? A little bit of an understatement.
Need I point out that Holocaust Remembrance Day, celebrated internationally, was all of one week earlier? Who needs to remember something that might not have happened, that might just be "a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain wealth."
The mere framing of the question should be enough for any teacher, let alone a group of them plus the educational services division, to reject it in horror.
So why didn't these teachers and administrators see what was so clear once the controversy exploded? Do they think of Holocaust Remembrance Day as a day for debate and not mourning? All those silly Jews in striped pajamas with their emaciated bodies — just a Hollywood set? Auschwitz nothing but a work camp?
One answer — which the Anti-Defamation League said on its website it found no evidence of — is that the assignment was part of a "larger, insidious agenda" of hate and anti-Semitism.
Another, which the ADL politely described as a "misguided" attempt to meet critical thinking standards, is that these administrators and teachers are simply too stupid to understand that by even offering up this topic for debate, they legitimize the hatred and anti-Semitism that are at the core of Holocaust denial.
For my part, I find it hard to believe they could be that stupid.
Something didn't just fall through the cracks. There is something vile at the core of an assignment like this, a willingness to have our students assume the role of Holocaust denier, as if that is a subject that can be debated and those who hold it are entitled to a seat at the table.
Not everything is debatable. Not everything is relative or contextual. Some things are just lies. Some positions are evil. The Holocaust did happen. It was not "merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain wealth." 9/11 did happen. Not everything is subject to a "conspiracy theory." There are truths. Critical thinkers should know that.
Rialto needs to do more than simply withdraw the assignment. It needs to get to the bottom of how its teachers could be so misguided in this particular way.
And the rest of us need to be clear that Rialto is not really alone and not so unique, that its teachers and administrators (who reportedly have been subject to death threats over this, which is hardly the way to respond) are probably not so different from those in other districts, that this is probably not the first time such an assignment has been conceived and certainly won't be the last, and that as the generation of survivors continues to reach the end of their lives, it will become easier and easier for haters and deniers to stake out the position that the Holocaust never happened.
Susan Estrich is a best-selling author whose writings have appeared in newspapers such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post. Read more reports from Susan Estrich — Click Here Now.