In West Virginia, ‘critical race theory’ bill leads to debate over Jews and race

(JTA) — When West Virginia lawmakers opened a discussion Monday on proposed “critical race theory” legislation, it wasn’t long before the topic of conversation turned to Jews.

The West Virginia House of Delegates was debating legislation, modeled on laws being considered or passed in a host of other states, to ban classroom instruction that might cause students to feel “discomfort, guilt, anxiety or any other form of psychological distress due to the individual’s race, ethnic origin or biological sex.

A retired public school teacher spoke out in opposition to the bill and described a hypothetical objection to a hypothetical lesson to show how the law could backfire.

“What if I teach about the Holocaust and a parent objects because [the parent believes] only 6,000 Jews were killed, not 6 million? Jenny Santilli, an adjunct professor at Fairmont State University and a retired public school Spanish teacher across the state, asked the House Education Committee.

“But it’s not race,” the committee’s chairman, Republican Joe Ellington, replied in the audio of the session. “It has nothing to do with race. It’s not race.

Santilli pushed back. “Jews are considered — however they are classified as a race,” she said.

Ellington replied, “I believe you are wrong there.”

“Well, see, here’s a perfect example,” Santilli said, before Ellington cut her off to keep the conversation going.

Ellington’s voice was identified on the audio by West Virginia reporter Kyle Vass, who was present at the session. Ellington, who did not author the legislation, did not return a request for comment to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The exchange centered on the Republican-backed “Creation of Anti-Racism Act of 2022” that would prohibit state teachers from teaching that “a race, ethnic group, or biological sex is inherently, morally or intellectually superior to another race, ethnic group or biological sex. It creates a reporting system to discipline teachers who have done so.

The West Virginia bill is nearly identical in wording and scope to more than a dozen other so-called anti-“critical race theory” bills that have been debated and sometimes passed in homes. status over the past few months. Their proponents have primarily focused their attention on race and gender theory. In a speech promoting an earlier version of the bill, West Virginia state Senator Mike Azinger, a Republican who attended a rally outside the US Capitol shortly before the violent January 6 insurgency 2021, said his main goal was to defeat “Marxism”. and “communism”, which he claimed were the true proponents of “critical theory”.

These debates also directly implicated Jews and Holocaust education. A Jewish lawmaker in Wyoming recently spoke out against a similar bill, saying he “cannot accept a neutral, nonjudgmental approach” to the Holocaust, and the issue of how to teach the Holocaust in the presence. such laws also emerged as a point of debate in Indiana, New Hampshire and other states.

“I don’t think this particular legislation directly affects us as Jews (although it could be argued with me that such proposed legislation could have a chilling effect on Holocaust education),” he said. said Rabbi Victor Urecki, one of six West Virginia rabbis, told JTA via email. He said legislation like SB 498 “is more of a sad reflection of the kind of politics our state is witnessing. And for people like me, that’s not good.

Urecki, who runs the B’nai Jacob Synagogue in Charleston, had tweeted about the Statehouse debate, calling the issue of Jews and race ‘complicated’ – and saying the complexity offered a strong argument against the bill .

“The fact that there is confusion means we probably need to expand education, not limit it like our West Virginia legislators are trying to do,” he wrote.

The conversation about Jews was only a small part of lawmakers’ debate on the bill, which Advanced after the Education Committee passed an amended version almost along party lines (one Republican voted against with Democrats). On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee again amended the bill – remove the provision prohibiting instruction that causes “discomfort” as well as removing the definition of “race” from the bill.

The West Virginia Commission on Holocaust Education, first established in 1998 to promote Holocaust education and awareness in the state, has previously denounced similarly worded bills on social networks. In a 2021 Facebook post, referencing a story about a Texas school administrator who informed his staff that their state’s new CRT law meant they would have to teach “opposing” views on the Holocaust, the commission said, “This incident demonstrates the importance of our work and illustrates the continued need for education in our schools and community.

The commission released no statement about SB 498 or Ellington’s assertion that Jews are not a race. JTA Request for Comment from Chairman Marc Slotnick Returns Out of Office Email.

The larger question of whether Jews should be considered a race is an important topic, both inside and outside of such legislation. Last month, Whoopi Goldberg sparked a storm of controversy and was briefly suspended from ‘The View’ after claiming on air that the Holocaust was not about race. Hitler frequently wrote and spoke of the Jewish people as a race and referred to his genocide of the Jewish people as a plan for racial extermination.

Sharon D. Cole