What Governor DeSantis needs to learn about the Holocaust and the Bible

On a daily basis, the anti-intellectual forces are gathering steam. What will we do about it?

I started my rabbinical career 42 years ago, when I served as an assistant rabbi at a large, urban synagogue in Miami, Florida.

Those were interesting and challenging times. I arrived in the wake of the Mariel boat lift. I experienced the plight of the Haitian refugees

Those were the days of “Miami Vice,” and I was living that television show. In 1983, I left Miami for points north, and I rarely looked back — even though my late father eventually moved to south Florida.

Time and circumstance changed, and eight years ago, I returned to south Florida. My career has flourished here, and it will soon come to an end (the full time congregational rabbinate part, at least). I have loved the two congregations that I have led. I have made some deep and lasting friendships and relationships. I have come to enjoy the climate (well, not in July). I have appreciated the cost of living. I have gotten used to eating dinner at 4 pm (that was a joke).

But, there is one thing that I cannot abide, and that is the growing sense that this state is becoming Ground Zero for the repression of women; LGBTQ people — and, increasingly, ideas themselves.

From today’s JTA:

Florida’s state education department rejected two new Holocaust-focused textbooks for classroom use, while forcing at least one other textbook to alter a passage about the Hebrew Bible in order to meet state approval…

Under Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, the state has made an effort to clamp down on what he calls “woke indoctrination,” mostly regarding race and gender. The textbooks’ rejection is the latest example of how that drive is affecting Jewish topics as well.

One of this year’s rejected Holocaust textbooks was called “Modern Genocides,” and the other was an online learning course titled “History of the Holocaust.” Both were intended for high school students…

Governor Ron DeSantis has portrayed himself as a friend of the Jews; witness his most recent trip to Israel.

And yet, his administration is censoring Holocaust education — which DeSantis made official in 2020, when he signed a law requiring public schools to certify that they teach about the Holocaust — as being part of “woke indoctrination.”

Let me be blunt about this. There is nothing “woke” about Holocaust education. There is nothing “woke” about educating about genocides. Unless you believe that teaching children about one of humanity’s greatest crimes, and one of modernity’s greatest moral failures, is somehow “woke.”

You know what scares the $!@$@$# out of me?

That this is precisely what some people believe.

Here is the other thing that scares me, and should scare you as well — wherever you might live.

On the one hand, DeSantis has championed Holocaust education.

But, on the other hand, he has allowed parent groups to remove Holocaust literature they don’t like from school libraries. All under the guise of anti-woke legislation.

If those parents even read those books.

Please understand the implications of what is going on.

Education about antisemitism — and, by extension, other acts of lethal hatred that became part of the Nazi concentration camp universe — can now be interpreted as “woke.”

And, by definition, if you are “anti-woke,” then you are opposed to teaching about those crucial subjects.

Or, you believe that a group of activist parents, who themselves are unschooled in the Holocaust, now have the right to censor books.

And, if you are opposed to teaching the fine points of that grim history, then you might be opposed to teaching students how it all started. It all started exactly ninety years ago, almost to this very day.

It started on May 10, 1933. It started on the grounds of Humboldt University, in Berlin. 40,000 people crowded into the Bebelplatz. 5,000 German students marched in a process with burning torches to ignite the pile of books. During that month, 34 additional book burnings took place across Germany. Nazi-dominated student groups carried out public burnings of books they claimed were “un-German.”

Joseph Goebbels proclaimed: “The era of exaggerated Jewish intellectualism is now at an end… and the future German man will not just be a man of books… I entrust to the flames the intellectual garbage of the past.”

A chilling question: Would anyone be surprised if, at some point in the near future, there would be bonfires of books across Florida?

And, if you would be surprised, then I am sad to say that you simply have not learned history.

I am even sadder, and enraged, to say that you have refused to learn history.

I would be even more enraged to say that it is highly probable that you have willfully forgotten history.

Holocaust education is one thing.

Let’s now turn our attention to the Hebrew Bible.

Again, JTA:

Meanwhile, another social studies textbook intended for grades 6-8 was forced by the department to alter a reference to the Hebrew Bible in order to meet state standards. According to state documents, the book’s original version included a question for students reading, “What social justice issues are included in the Hebrew Bible?” 

OMG (literally: Oh, my God!): the very idea that there are social justice issues in the Hebrew Bible!

Have any of those critics even opened the Hebrew Bible?

If they had, this is what they might have noticed — even over the last few weeks of Torah readings.

Like in the final chapters of the book of Leviticus.

As Rabbi Ed Feld has taught in his magisterial book, “The Book of Revolutions: The Battles of Priests, Prophets, and Kings That Birthed the Torah,” this is how the book of Leviticus — and much of biblical legislation — played out. 

At first, biblical priests wrote and taught about sacrifices, laws of purity, dietary laws, various skin ailments, and the rules of the ancient sanctuary.

But, at a certain point, they expanded their sense of the holy.

Those priests saw the classic priestly vision as too limited in its sole concentration on the purity of ritual and Temple space. They paid attention to what the biblical prophets were saying and they concluded that if society was unjust, there could be no true worship of the Divine. They taught that God’s presence is to be achieved both by proper ritual observance and through righteous activity in the workaday world.

They believed that all Israelites could achieve holiness through righteous acts. In particular, they brought new emphasis to caring for the ger, the stranger, the powerless, and the disenfranchised.

They expanded the scope of biblical teaching to include (in this week’s Torah portion) the notion that the land itself deserved a Shabbat of rest — and that once every fifty years, the yovel/jubilee would herald the return to their ancestral holdings of those who had lost their land through debt, and that the entire economic cycle of society would experience a control-alt-delete.

So, yes, Governor DeSantis and others: We might actually call that social justice. Biblical style.

So, here is my not so subtle message to Governor DeSantis.

Dear Governor: You took the time to visit Israel, and I hope that you enjoyed that recent trip. You spoke at the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem.

May I ask: Please do not mock that place.

In a state that until relatively recently housed the largest population of Holocaust survivors, you are failing to allow a true inquiry into the meaning of the Holocaust. You are allowing parent groups with their own political and social agenda to curate that teaching. You are gutting those educational programs.

Moreover, if you are truly a friend of the Jewish people, then do not allow the coarse and the ignorant to censor our sacred texts, such as the Hebrew Bible.

Any reading of the Bible — whether the Torah, or the prophets, or the stories of kings and the failure of monarchy — would reveal that the issue of societal dysfunction is at its very center, and that such dysfunction contributed to the failure of sovereignty itself. That, dear Governor, is the essence of biblical history, which is the sacred history of the Jewish people, and the inspiration for people of all faiths, or even no faith.

To my fellow Floridians: It is nice living here, isn’t it?

  • Nice beaches? Check.
  • Decent restaurants? Check.
  • A more or less laid back life style? Check.
  • No state income tax? Check.

But, these superficial qualities do not make for a true quality of life.

Quality of life means intellectual freedom; freedom for women to make their own health choices; freedom for LGBTQ people to live lives of human flourishing.

We can continue to turn a blind eye to these developments in the intellectual and social spheres of our state.

But, we should know that these developments are costing us, dearly. Teachers and academics are refusing to move here, for fear that their intellectual freedoms will be radically abridged.

The term for that is brain drain, and no state can survive in such a fashion.

It is not too late for us to turn this around. 

But, the clock is ticking.

It is time for us to wake up.









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