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Americans know it’s not always pleasant to watch free speech in action.

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As we witnessed this summer in Charlottesville, free speech can be hateful. It can be corrosive and demeaning. And yet, as Americans, we are dedicated to protecting free speech to a degree that our counterparts in other countries find astonishing—even ill-considered. It’s part of our Constitution, and part of our national character.

A 2015 Pew Research Center study of attitudes in 38 countries found that Americans are more tolerant of free speech than citizens of any other nation. Seventy-one percent of US respondents said they believe people should be able to say and write what they like without government interference or censorship.

Our full-throated commitment to free speech doesn’t mean we always have an easy relationship with it—the First Amendment has faced countless legal challenges from those who argue that our freedom of speech has actually become a freedom to intimidate, or a freedom to instill fear. That tension was famously on display in 1978, when the city government of Skokie, Illinois, filed a suit to stop neo-Nazis from marching through their town. At the time, Skokie, a suburb of Chicago, was home to an unusually high number of Holocaust survivors, and the mayor and other officials argued that the neo-Nazis’ right to free speech paled in comparison to the survivors’ right not to be terrorized. The ACLU stepped in to defend the neo-Nazis’ First Amendment rights, and the case went all the way to the US Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the ACLU and the First Amendment. The neo-Nazis never marched in Skokie—they took their awful, legally-protected speech to Chicago, instead.

As a writer and researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, I know that the Skokie case remains painfully relevant, even today. I know how challenging it can be to balance the legal right to free speech with the much more human need for all citizens to feel safe.

My job involves monitoring and writing about some of the most hateful groups and people in America—from the Ku Klux Klan to neo-Nazis to anti-Muslim extremists. Every day, my colleagues and I are confronted with images and words of hate and vitriol. We read about Richard Spencer’s dreams for a white ethnostate. We listen to Milo Yiannopoulos disparage transgender people. We watch videos of speeches by anti-Muslim bigots like Pamela Geller and Frank Gaffney, who capitalize on fear and xenophobia and blame an entire religion for the actions of a few extremists.

We listen to these hateful people speak because it’s part of our jobs. We also listen because we need to know what they are saying. Their speech is real, and it affects people’s lives. And that’s the main reason we need to protect their right to speak publicly and freely.

Hateful speech that is muffled or suppressed will still exist. It will just go underground, where it has the potential to become even more powerful. People who are prone to extremism are often drawn to ideas and movements that society deems inappropriate.

I’m also a firm believer in countering vile speech with good speech. Whenever neo-Nazis march, the rest of us have to show up to peacefully protest the swastikas, racism and anti-Semitism on display. Whenever a Klan group leaves recruitment fliers on suburban doorsteps, the rest of us need to come together and make sure that every member of our community feels supported and safe.

The First Amendment is a right that confers huge responsibility. At this moment in history, the responsibility part of the equation seems to be falling to those of us who believe in civil rights, equality, and kindness.

Students who are keeping up with the news will undoubtedly have questions, and possibly concerns, about the practicability and ethics of protecting free speech, even when that speech feels confrontational, offensive, or just plain wrong. It’s a conundrum that can feel uncomfortable, and it’s important to allow the conversation to be in that place of discomfort. That’s where real critical thinking happens—about individual rights and the responsibilities inherent in living in a democracy. Ask your students how they feel about the rights of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie. Ask them how they might respond to a hateful person coming to speak in their city. Allow them to take up the different sides of the arguments, and help them understand that while the First Amendment is a bedrock principle, applying it fairly and objectively isn’t always easy.

After all, it’s no small feat to respect an individual’s right to express bigoted ideas. But that’s what Americans have always done. Just as one bigot has the right to speak his mind, the rest of us have a responsibility to let him know we’re watching, we oppose his hate—and we’re not going away.

Jessica Reaves is the senior writer and communications specialist at ADL’s Center on Extremism. The views expressed here are hers alone.



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CURRENT EVENTS

TEACHING



This year Echoes & Reflections created its inaugural Educator Advisory Committee (EAC). The purpose of the Committee is to gather thoughtful and diverse educators from around the United States to provide us with expert educational guidance and feedback so we can continue to offer the highest quality of Holocaust education professional development to teachers. In the aftermath of the events in Charlottesville, we reached out to our members to understand how as they return to the classroom they hope to inspire their students through the lens of Holocaust education.

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Here are some of their responses:

Susan Schinleber

“The events in Charlottesville over the weekend speak more eloquently than I ever could and explain in stark and horrifying terms why we need to teach the Holocaust to our students. I feel compelled to teach this subject now more than ever and for so many reasons: to bear witness; to teach students that their actions count; to show that the Holocaust was never inevitable. Learning about the Holocaust helps our students make the connection between what happened then and what is happening in the world around them. I never stop reading and studying what happened then and I bring that passion to the classroom and hope that it sows the seeds it needs to.”

Susan Schinleber teaches English and Public Speaking at North Shore Country Day School, a K-12 private school in Winnetka, IL.

Eden C. Stein, Ph.D.

“This year my 8th graders will return to school horrified, with questions and anger over what has recently transpired in Charlottesville. “Why do people hate the Jews?” is a question I have often heard. They will be eager to read a Holocaust memoir and to learn about the history of antisemitism along with the history of racism. Following the reading of these important books they will be inspired to do something.  In my Language Arts classroom, that something will be to write letters for social change – real letters that will actually be sent to a local, state, or national legislature. My hope is to also inspire them to recognize bigotry, racism and antisemitism in the world surrounding them and speak up to eradicate it.”

Eden C. Stein is certified for Language Arts and Social Studies 4-8 and History 7-12. She teaches at Worthington Hooker School in New Haven, CT.

Susan Davenport

“As we begin a new school year I hope to inspire my students to speak out. This hope was renewed over the weekend when there was very little being said about the events in Charlottesville, VA.  Elie Wiesel’s profound quote, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented,” seems extremely applicable to the current world climate. My goal for the school year is to encourage my students to be brave and stand up for what is right; for them to understand that silence does not help. It is my hope that they lead their lives by Wiesel’s quote.”

Susan Davenport teaches English 10, English 11, Humanities, and Speech at John S. Battle High School in Bristol, VA. 

William Mason

“In light of the most recent current events, Holocaust education is more important now than ever. It’s our sacred duty as teachers to inspire our students to be a voice of reason and understanding that the events of 80 years ago cannot be permitted to happen again. Holocaust education can be the inspiration for students to see the evil and work against it.”

William Mason teaches American History & Government and Holocaust Studies at Bishop Loughlin High School in Brooklyn, NY.

Let us know: How do you hope to inspire your classroom in the New Year?



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CURRENT EVENTS

TEACHING



“It is one thing to read about hateful actions in other cities across the US, but this is different. This hits too close to home. Hate is in our backyard.”

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Anyone who knows me would say that I am infrequently at a loss for words; however, the events of last weekend have caused me to struggle with a way to verbalize my feelings and process the images. On Saturday and Sunday, and several times since then, I have opened my social media accounts, determined to write an impassioned post about the events that touched our neighboring community and came up short each time. The only thing I could think to say is that these events are not what real Virginians stand for and the fact that I had just spent the concluding two days of our first week back-to-school discussing antisemitism and hatred made it unfathomable to have such a local and contemporary example. In my heart though, these words were not enough.

Charlottesville is a “big sister” city to the small city of Staunton that I have called my home for the past five years. Like Staunton, it has many traits that are more small-town than truly city. The downtown areas of both are dotted with locally-owned restaurants, boutiques and antique stores set against the backdrop of historical architecture, and the footsteps of a rich and sometimes challenging past. Like Staunton, it is a place where history is always present, sometimes taken for granted, but frequently a topic of conversation. Both cities are composed of moderately diverse populations; populations that have had their struggles, but who have, at least in recent years, dealt with them largely through peaceful discourse.

For me personally, Charlottesville holds a special place in my heart. It is the city where our daughter was born, six weeks early with a team of doctors on standby at the University of Virginia hospital. It wasn’t part of our plan, which didn’t include anything except our local hospital closer to home, but for the rest of our lives and hers, Charlottesville will always be a part of our story. It is a city I visit frequently for other reasons as well, to socialize with my friends, to utilize their airport, and to seek out its stores. Now, it will also be a location that I think of in other ways—as the home to events that will be ingrained in the minds of Americans for a long time to come.

As the weekend drew to a close, I found myself grappling with what to say and do when students arrived in my classes on Monday. In the back of my mind I was in “teacher-mode,” but like the social media post, clear answers were not forthcoming. I knew that our class discussions on Thursday and Friday had provided them with a foundation, but giving them both space and guidance to process the events was of foremost concern.

Going into Monday, I will say that I was thankful for incredible colleagues and friends who were available to bounce ideas off of as we collectively searched for ideas on how to aid our students. I was also grateful to have many resources available to help get the conversation started. Between Echoes and Reflections, USC Shoah Foundation’s IWitness, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), there were options for each of my classes for Monday and the days to come.

I began each class on Monday by allowing students simply to speak out, question and share. The one theme that resonated through and through was the discomfort of proximity—these hateful acts occurred in a place where my students eat dinner with their families, where their parents work, where older siblings attend college, and where many of them hope to find themselves post-high school. Over and over, I heard variations of what Henry, my first student of the day, shared, “It is one thing to read about hateful actions in other cities across the US, but this is different. This hits too close to home. Hate is in our backyard.”

Throughout the day, we talked about respectful discourse utilizing the framework of a mini-lesson created by USC Shoah Foundation’s IWitness entitled, “Promoting Effective Conversation Skills.” This lesson proved powerful not only for its fostering a skill that is sometimes overridden by emotion, but also because it includes the testimony of Henry Oertelt,  who is also a featured survivor in the Echoes and Reflection’s unit, “Contemporary Antisemitism.” His words are powerful and need to be shared:

“…it is time for people to recognize that the world is made out of many, many different people, different colors, different sizes, and all kinds of differences…. it’s about time that we recognize that.  It’s about time that we learn to live with it. And one way to learn to live with it is…we start to learn about each other, and while we may not agree with the ideology, and the lifestyle of other people, it is time to know about them, to respect them, as I expect them to respect me.

And if this can come done, and I think we’re making some progress, not a lot, but I see some progress here and there. If this can come about, then I think the world can be a much better place….That’s basically, my main message is because I tell them I am the prime example of what can happen to people that are suffering under prejudicial circumstances and biases and when nobody speaks up…we have to learn to speak up when we see prejudice and hatred.”

In the days since, we have talked about white supremacy more extensively than I have in years past. I have shared with my students the USHMM “Voices of Antisemitism” podcast by former Neo-Nazi Frank Meeink to show students that there is a path forward, even from the pit of hate. Students have discussed, debated, and respectfully disagreed as we have talked, and there is no doubt in my mind that this will continue for days and weeks to come; something I view with optimism. Although it feels at times like a small step, we as educators must firmly keep in mind every single day that our students truly do have the power to change the world. They are on a path to discovering how to be responsible citizens and it is our job to guide them. During a week such as this, it may be hard to come up with the right words, but we trust in the process, and we find the way.



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GET INVOLVED

Are you a parent, community member, or student concerned about Holocaust education and remembrance? We welcome the chance to connect with you about how to bring Echoes & Reflections to teachers in your school or district and can provide you with the materials you need to make your case.

Please send an email to us at info@echoesandreflections.org with a bit of information about your interests, questions, concerns. We will always respond within two business days.

Meanwhile, you may have some questions about Echoes & Reflections and we want to answer them. Please explore our site to learn more about the history of the Holocaust, the complexity of teaching it, and our approach and programs. Additionally, we’ve offered a few FAQs below.

1What are teachers saying about Echoes & Reflections?
“Possibly one of the best learning experiences I have ever been a part of.” This quote is from just one of the more than 40,000 educators who have participated in an Echoes & Reflections program since its inception; 99% of whom would recommend Echoes & Reflections to other educators.

2Where are programs held?
Echoes & Reflections provides programs online and in-person across the country. Please check out our Program Calendar to learn more about the educational opportunities we offer.

3How much does it cost?
Echoes & Reflections believes that learning about the Holocaust is a fundamental right of all students and thanks to our generous funders, we are able to offer programs and materials to secondary educators across the country at no cost.

4Is there evidence supporting its impact?
Echoes & Reflections is committed to a rigorous mixed-methods evaluation approach. In 2014, the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing (NCSS) released its findings of a study with educators using Echoes & Reflections. Findings included:
  •  94% reported the program increased or significantly increased their students’ knowledge about the Holocaust.
  •  92% indicated that Echoes & Reflections was a better or a significantly better program when compared to similar programs.
Further data is available on Our Approach page »


5How can I bring Echoes & Reflections to teachers at my school?
The first step is to familiarize yourself with Echoes & Reflections. We encourage you to take a look at the available in-person programs and encourage the teachers in your life to check it out as well.

6Does the program address standards?
Absolutely. Echoes & Reflections’ classroom content is designed to address rigorous national, state and local education standards in meaningful ways.

7Will teachers who receive the training receive professional development credits?
Because requirements for awarding professional development hours or continuing education units vary widely from state to state, teachers will need to check with their school administration to see if Echoes & Reflections meets specific requirements for their district. Many program hosts award credit that complies with local requirements, and a certificate of attendance can be provided to educators in attendance upon request. If you have any other questions or wish to receive an informational packet, please let us know here »

RESOURCE OVERVIEW
Echoes & Reflections delivers value to both experienced Holocaust educators who are supplementing their curricula and to teachers new to Holocaust education. Draw insights from our Blog and Newsletter, and contact us to learn about engaging others in the important work of Echoes & Reflections.

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