Albany N.Y. teacher assignment asked students to argue that Jews are evil

By Melanie Nathan, April 13, 1013.

Screen Shot 2013-04-12 at 1.59.56 PMHaaretz is reporting that a high school English teacher could face disciplinary action for giving a writing assignment that asked students to make a persuasive argument blaming Jews for the problems of Nazi Germany, as noted by Albany school district officials on Friday.

School district spokesman Ron Leskosaid administrators were discussing what official action the 10th-grade teacher at Albany High School could face for the assignment given to students on Monday.

The assignment, first reported Friday by the Albany Times Union, asked students to research Nazi propaganda, then assume their teacher was a Nazi government official who had to be convinced of their loyalty. The assignment told students they “must argue that Jews are evil.”

A third of the students refused to complete the assignment.

Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard said she doesn’t believe the teacher who handed out the assignment had malicious intent. The purpose of the assignment was to have students make an argument based on limited information, but it should have been worded differently, she said.

“I don’t believe there was malice or intent to cause any insensitivities to our families of Jewish faith,” the superintendent told the newspaper.

Vanden Wyngaard scheduled a news conference Friday afternoon at the United Jewish Federation to discuss the controversy.

The school district has not named the teacher.

Opinion: It seems the students had more sense than the teacher and the superintendent, who, by the way should be fired with the teacher.

What prompts such insensitivity? What prompts the thought that an argument could even begin to be made for genocide? There can be no good reason other than a rotten antisemitic mindset to start.

The mistake (?) here is in thinking that an argument can be made for scapegoating – for genocide – for the Holocaust. It seems this teacher thinks that Hitler is an historical figure who is worthy of any argument for the genocide he intended.

If I were at the pending press conference I would ask that superintendent and teacher if they would ask their students to justify the mindset of Charles Manson and the  Sharon Tate killings, and if the answer was no, I would then assume that they consider that there is indeed a justifiable argument for the Holocaust.

There can be no justification for asking a student to even begin to delve into the mindset of maniacal murderer and then justify the murders – Hitler was just that and as it happened he managed to get an entire nation involved via the engendering of hate through propaganda and scare tactics.

Source: U.S. teacher’s assignment to students: Explain why Jews are evil |  10th-grade teacher in Albany, N.Y., asked students to make a persuasive argument blaming Jews for problems of Nazi Germany.

Update:  The Albany Times Union is reporting “The Albany school district has placed on leave a teacher whose persuasive writing assignment was for students to argue that Jews are evil in order to convince a Nazi official of their loyalty.”

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17 Comments on “Albany N.Y. teacher assignment asked students to argue that Jews are evil”

  1. Dr. Rex April 12, 2013 at 2:10 PM #

    Very interesting topic. How can someone still think this way?? And a teacher at that. Thx for sharing!

  2. Suzanne April 12, 2013 at 2:22 PM #

    Tremendously insensitive considering how uncomfortable any jewish kids – and their friends – in the class must be, and how immature some minds are in 10th grade. Must say though that I think I understand the teacher’s intent.
    The truth is that of course there can be an argument made for genocide, and it’s an argument that even was tremendously persuasive at one point in time for plenty of otherwise perfectly intelligent Germans. It’s just that it’s actually a terrible argument based on, as you say, a toxic mix of racism among other elements.
    I would guess that the teacher wanted to get across that it was after human brains and hearts, similar to ours, that engineered and sanctioned the Holocaust, and I think that’s an extremely important lesson to learn. But no, I definitely don’t think it can be done this way.

    • Melanie Nathan April 12, 2013 at 4:35 PM #

      I cant even begin to give t the amount of credit you do Suzanne – to even suggest that an argument can be made out for what is tantamount to insanity blows my mind -and actually provides it with the element of validation it does not deserve – hence I cant agree with you….

      • Suzanne April 14, 2013 at 3:54 AM #

        I may well have given her too much credit here. It was an outrageously bad idea, and at the very best there’s a lack of empathy and understanding, at worst there was true antisemitism behind it.

        I guess my reaction is in part because I personally have always needed to understand “evil”, and when I was fifteen I actually read a lot about Nazi Germany, Nazi ideology and such. For me it was NOT some sick “fascination”, or any form of sympathy, or excuse. (There is no necessary contradiction in my mind between, say, understanding a psychopath’s mind and history and killing them for the protection of society.)
        Our school was pretty good at impressing upon us what the Holocaust really entailed, and that helped plunge me into an existential crisis (as it tends to do). I needed to understand how this worked. Because as “insane” as it was, many of the people engineered it and certainly the German people who sanctioned it were not clinically psychologically sick, and the make up of their brains were not actually very different from that of my brain.

        So I just wanted to say, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong in temporarily trying to place yourself in the mindset of people who do horrific things – really placing yourself there, which means arguing from their point of view.

        But all this is rather beside the point, I apologize. I would never in a million years suggest approaching it in this way.

        • Melanie Nathan April 14, 2013 at 5:19 AM #

          Admirable and great response and thank you. That makes a lot of sense.

          I think for me the big question is how an entire nation could have been so taken in and how so many millions of people were able to justify that treatment of fellow citizens, right before their eyes.

          I wish the teacher’s assignment could have been more along the lines of examining the weakness in our humans who succumb to propaganda rather than having the kids make the argument that justifies the murder. I am not an eductator – I would have no idea how to suggest doing that.

      • solidarityandexchange April 14, 2013 at 4:24 AM #

        I replied but “lost” my comment somehow… Anyway, mostly wanted to say that you may be right that I gave the teacher too much credit here.

        I disagree with the greater idea of not trying to “understand” (thorny word here) the arguments and mindsets that lead to these evils – because most of the German people weren’t insane during the Third Reich, that’s what is so frightening.
        But that’s maybe not a super relevant discussion when an assignment is this bad. To be clear, I wouldn’t in a million years suggest approaching the subject like this.

    • Cathy Kristofferson April 12, 2013 at 4:51 PM #

      what pray tell is the argument that can be made for genocide?

      and why only the Jewish kids might have been made uncomfortable? why not, say, any child with a shred of compassion?

      • solidarityandexchange April 14, 2013 at 3:36 AM #

        What do you mean? You only have to listen to any hate speech and propaganda that preceded genocides to hear lots of arguments for it. Are you really misunderstanding me to mean “good argument” or “logical argument”?

        The point is that good or horrific, these arguments sometimes win traction, or we would not have genocides. Like I said I don’t think this was the way to do it – clearly. But I sympathize with wanting to (if that was her intention) teach people to understand the mindsets and trains of thought that lead up to things like genocide, and to understand that as humans we’re all susceptible to propaganda, hate speech, prejudice etc, under the right circumstances.

        I don’t think that only jewish kids or their friends (as I stated) would be uncomfortable with this assignment. What I meant is that I am ok with assignments causing students some discomfort. Sometimes I think it can help us develop our ethical reasoning (though I’ve said, I don’t think this was such an instance.)
        But obviously, most certainly not at the level of “try to make a coherent argument in favor of the systematic murder that actually happened to your relatives”.

      • solidarityandexchange April 14, 2013 at 4:08 AM #

        Though honestly, feel free to disregard my comments on this – at closer thought I feel like I’m making an argument about something that isn’t really the point here.
        I tend to react when I feel like people are being discouraged from trying to “understand” evil perpetrated by clinically sane humans again and again. (Understanding being conflated with empathizing and empathizing with accepting or condoning – because they really can be hard to separate.)

        But this horrible assignment is not the place for me to argue about that. It was going off on a tangent. I apologize. You are 100% correct in your comment below about 15-year-olds not being in “academia” and how cruelly ill-conceived the assignment was. I felt that kind of goes without saying but I guess the point is that it didn’t in this case.

  3. TK April 12, 2013 at 3:21 PM #

    That’s the point of academia. There probably isn’t any antisemitism going on here. Just take the most controversial historical topic, get out of your comfort zone, and make a case for the unpopular view. Sounds like a great exercise.

    • Melanie Nathan April 12, 2013 at 4:38 PM #

      Apologist per chance? Have any family murdered by Hitler? Consider Nazi mind a valid argument? Shame! These are 10th graders not college grads!

    • Cathy Kristofferson April 12, 2013 at 5:04 PM #

      Do 10th graders really fit the label ‘academia’?!? What kind of teacher would ask a bunch of 15 and 16 year olds to argue that any subgroup of them are evil? And how can you be so sure there’s no anti-semitism going on here? Your apologist assumptions are amazing…

  4. FL Guy April 12, 2013 at 3:23 PM #

    I would gladly accept that debate. I love to debate anti-semites. Talk about evil! Homeschooling looks better and better… but the Nazis eliminated that too.

    • Melanie Nathan April 12, 2013 at 4:38 PM #

      There IS no debate – that IS the point

  5. Tracy April 13, 2013 at 1:47 AM #

    SMH…what the h*ll?? To do that & then to try to explain it away is even worse, somehow…Just admit: it’s either a monumental c*ck-up or you have anti-semites in charge of that school/district.

  6. Rod April 13, 2013 at 11:01 AM #

    In tenth grade, I think I was clueless of the horror of the holocaust. Not until University and Jewish Friends did I cry for the genocide. Kids today are more mature, still the teacher, the school is way out of line. They should be fired. Geees, if you disagree….watch the movie Schindler’s List. In addition, in more recent times, study the genocide in Cambodia. During the late 1970s Pol Pol, leader of the communist party killed over two million people. Watch Killing Fields, You can rent both movies, I mention. Now, for my gay arguement. Study how Hitler considered us subhuman. Thousands of gays were forced to wear pink triangles in their clothes. Then eventually, most burned to death! Someone wise said, know the past as it could happen again. Thank you Melanie for reminding us. Do something nice for someone today.


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