On February 15 two 17-year-old central NY high school students—Jordan April and Archer Shurtliff—raised objections to a homework assignment in which they were required to either oppose or defend the extermination of Jews.

Their teacher, Oswego County High School teacher Michael DeNobile, asked them to

write an internal memorandum within the highest ranking offices of the Nazi party in regards to your support or opposition to the Final Solution of the Jewish Question.”

Presumably the goal was to teach the students critical thinking, thereby promoting one of the Common Core’s desired skills.

But asking high schoolers to roleplay Nazi officials at the 1942 Wannsee Conference and “put themselves in the shoes of Hitler’s top aides” supporting a plan to eradicate Jews isn’t a lesson in critical thinking—it’s unethical and dangerous antisemitic crackpottery.

Jordan and Archer aren’t Jewish, and neither of them has had any extensive study about the Holocaust. But they both immediately intuited the problem with the “Wannsee Argumentative Essay”: forcing students to argue in favor of mass killings and genocide.

It took a lot longer for their “morally incoherent educators” to figure it out.

At first Jordan and Archer got the run around from their teacher and other administrators in their educational program, who dismissed their complaints.

NY State Commissioner of Education MaryEllen Elia also initially defended the exercise, noting the importance of “teaching students critical-thinking skills and the ability to understand all sides of an issue.” (She later claimed that she was speaking in general, without knowing the specifics of the assignment when she was first questioned by reporters about it).

Jordan and Archer wouldn’t let the matter go. As noted in The Syracuse Post Standard article which broke the story on March 30,

the classroom assignment took them on a mission: To make sure no other student would be asked to argue in favor of killing Jews again.”

By April 3, DeNobile had issued a formal apology and Elia released a statement retracting the assignment as inappropriate. She also promised that it would “not be used in the future.” The school district and the program in which the assignment was a part also wrote on their websites to that effect.

On Sunday April 23—on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah)—the two Oswego teenagers who spoke up against a modern-day example of Jew-hatred were recognized for their efforts at the Yom Hashoah Memorial Observance in Syracuse, NY.

Jordan and Archer’s Homework Assignment Required the Defense of Nazi Atrocities

Jordan and Archer are participating in the “New Vision” partnership program between the Oswego, NY County BOCES (Board of Cooperative Education)/ Center for Instruction, Technology, and Innovation (CiTi) and the State University of New York (SUNY) at Oswego.

The program is intended for academically qualified seniors interested in professional careers such as health, business, government, and law. They take college-level classes on the SUNY Oswego campus three days a week and spend the other two days at internships.

Jordan and Archer are both in the law and government internship track. According to the teens there are no Jews in the class this year, which by Archer’s estimation consists of some 75 students all of whom received the controversial Holocaust assignment.

The argumentative essay was a required assignment in DeNobile’s class “Principles of Literary Representation.”

Half of the class was randomly assigned to write in favor of the Final Solution and half against the Jews’ extermination. Jordan and Archer ended up being assigned to opposite sides of the “argument”—Archer was supposed to argue “for” and Jordan “against.”

Basically, half the class was told to justify and support the implementation of the Holocaust by “analyzing the issue”, finding the “evidence necessary to prove” the point, and providing “your Nazi point of view.”

Here’s part of the assignment (the full assignment is linked here):

Jordan and Archer’s Activism Against the ‘Final Solution Assignment’

Jordan and Archer brought their concerns to DeNobile and also to other administrators in the CiTi/BOCES New Vision program.

Eventually they also contacted educators and administrators in their home schools for advice and got in touch with the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL issued a statement condemning the assignment for even hinting at a “balanced perspective” to Nazi actions during the Holocaust.

To their credit, the teens kept a meticulous record of all these meetings and conversations, compiling what became a 14 page, single-spaced ‘Chronicle of Activism Against the Final Solution Assignment’ (I have a copy, but for now Jordan and Archer have requested that it not be released to the public or extensively quoted).

What I’m at liberty to note is that Jordan and Archer’s ‘Chronicle’ highlights how difficult it proved for them to get the offensive assignment pulled, following the CiTi/BOCES administration’s decision to offer an alternative assignment to the entire class within four days of the two kids raising their concerns.

Both teens jumped at the offer.

Jordan ended up writing about the response to America’s AIDS crisis while Archer wrote about the internment of Japanese-Americans.

But even though they were each no longer compelled to take the side of the Nazis and debate whether Jews deserve to be slaughtered, Jordan and Archer weren’t satisfied.

That’s because, with the exception of one student, all of their classmates chose to stick with the original ‘Final Solution assignment’ and they reportedly didn’t want their beloved New Vision program to be “tarnished by an assignment advocating for the death of Jews.”

What’s clear in the timeline is how reluctant CiTi/BOCES administrators were to meet Jordan and Archer’s three other demands—an apology from DeNobile, a retraction of the assignment from the curriculum, and a promise that it would never be given again (the students are adamant that they never called for DeNobile to be fired).

For weeks, DeNobile and administrators stood by the assignment and refused to retract it or apologize for it. In their Chronicle, they record being told on numerous occasions that the essay was a “lesson in seeing the other side of an argument.”

According to the students, the teacher himself admitted that he had used the assignment before, that no one had ever complained, and that all the prior times he used the exercise the class thought that writing like a Nazi in support of genocide was an “eye-opening and world-view expanding experience.”

Only after pressure was brought to bear by the ensuing media maelstrom, the intervention of the ADL, and condemnation by various local NY politicians, who called for Elia’s resignation (see here, here and here), did administrators begin to budge.

Jordan and Archer Get Support from Family and Their Home School Teachers, Flak from Classmates

Jordan and April both received a considerable degree of support from their families and from the teachers and administrators at their home schools (Archer from Paul V. Moore and Jordan from Hannibal).

According to the teens’ documentation, only one of the educators at their home schools who they approached about the situation was “disappointed” by what they had done.

Many of the others appreciated their actions and took the time to provide their own opinions as to why they too found the assignment deeply troubling.

In their Chronicle, several teachers noted that completing the assignment successfully would require students to delve into antisemitic sources and hate websites in order to get the information necessary to ‘convince’ Nazi officials in the mock assignment that Jews deserved to be reviled and even mass-murdered.

One teacher also raised a different point for Jordan and Archer to consider: even the part of the class selected to argue against the Final Solution wouldn’t be able to successfully roleplay their part since there is no record of any Nazi officials who attended the 1942 Wannsee Conference objecting to the plan to exterminate the Jews. Here too, students would be forced to write a paper based entirely on factual inaccuracies.

As for their own peers, the Chronicle reveals a more mixed picture.

A few students who also expressed feeling “weird” about the assignment preferred to free-ride off of Jordan and Archer’s efforts rather than saying or doing anything about it themselves.

But as documented by the two teens, most of their fellow New Vision classmates were angered by their activism, seeing it as pushing a negative narrative against their teacher.

One student subsequently wrote in defense of the assignment and DeNobile in a published letter for The Post Standard. In it, New Vision student Rachel Trumble insists that the purpose of the exercise was to “help us become more sympathetic to everyone” and to “humanize” the Nazis to “see their side of the story.”

Trumble seems like a well-meaning kid who isn’t interested in “glorifying Nazis or their agenda” but she might want to reconsider what gaining a “new sensitivity” to the racial, religious, and ethnic policies of Hitler’s henchmen looks like in practice: after being given the assignment, one of her fellow classmates thought it would be OK to make a Nazi salute; another voiced disappointment that he wasn’t assigned to the group arguing “for” the Final Solution “because Heil Hitler, duh.”

Even if most of her New Vision classmates aren’t Nazi sympathizers and wouldn’t treat the assignment as a license to feel comfortable, Trumble needs to realize that many of her friends will still remember only one thing: we debated the Holocaust in high school, so it must have a positive side and not be settled opinion.

Jordan and Archer Are Recognized as ‘Upstanders’ at the Syracuse Area Yom Hashoah Memorial Observance

This past winter, two gutsy Oswego high school seniors spoke up and objected to participating in an insane assignment that instructed them to defend Hitler’s systematic annihilation of Europe’s Jews.

If not for them, the exercise would never have become public.

After the article about the assignment appeared in The Post Standard, the Jewish Federation of Central New York invited Jordan and Archer to its communitywide Yom Hashoah Memorial Observance.

The teens include the invitation as an entry in their ‘Chronicle of Activism Against the Final Solution’, noting that they were “very appreciative and accepted the invitation.”

So on April 23, Jordan and Archer sat attentively in the first row of a Syracuse-area synagogue during the 90 minute commemorative program. Archer wore a yarmulke. Out of respect, he kept it on even after the service was long over.

[Jordan April, left & Archer Shurtliff | Syracuse, NY | April 23, 2017 | credit: Miriam Elman]

Over 400 people attended the memorial observance.

When the teens were introduced as akin to the less than 1% of Europeans who, instead of acting like indifferent bystanders, stood up to defend and protect their Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust, those congregated stood to honor Jordan and Archer with an ovation.

It was the first time being present at a Yom Hashoah commemoration service, which was typical of many across the country this past weekend. It included:

  • reading of Psalms and prayers and the lighting of memorial candles;
  • recitation of names inscribed in the Jewish Federation of CNY’s Book of Remembrance, which includes hundreds of names of individuals lost during the Holocaust provided by their local family members;
  • recognition of living survivors and liberators from the central NY area;
  • communal recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish for Holocaust Remembrance Day followed by the Star Spangled Banner;
  • closing with Israel’s National Anthem—the HaTikvan (‘The Hope’).

Jordan and Archer Learn More About Their Home Town’s Connection to the Holocaust

Hopefully meaningful to the Oswego teens was the short address by this year’s featured speaker who was a child survivor rescued to Ft. Ontario in Oswego, NY.

The site is now recognized as Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Memorial, which also houses a museum and education center.

Located on what was a decommissioned WWII military base, in 1944 Safe Haven became home to 982 survivors from war-torn Europe—the vast majority of them Jews.

The U.S. Congress at the time refused to lift the quota on Jewish immigration from Europe, so the refugees were allowed entry into the U.S. through President Franklin Roosevelt’s executive authority.

Roosevelt considered it a symbolic gesture of good will.

How the refugees were selected and made their way from Italy to asylum in Oswego, NY is a remarkable story of the only attempt by the U.S. to shelter Jewish refugees during the war.

Yesterday our guest speaker helped to fill in some of the details of what life was like in the 1940s at the Oswego Army training base.

As Elfi Hendell explained, it wasn’t freedom but it wasn’t a prison either—there was barbed wire, chain linked fences and military personnel overseeing the camp. But the Oswego residents were kind and she and other children at the camp were welcomed into the area public schools.

[Safe Haven | Fort Ontario | Oswego, NY | Barracks]

Until the end of the war, the men, women and children who lived there were certain that they’d be deported back to Europe. So Hendell explained that things were always tense. (President Truman eventually decided to allow the Safe Haven refugees to apply for American residency).

You can read more about Oswego’s Safe Haven here and the support provided to the facility by Rep. John Katko (R-NY-24) here. Katko has spearheaded the effort to have Ft. Ontario, including Safe Haven, given National Park status, a move which will preserve the site and keep alive the story of Oswego’s Holocaust refugees for future generations.

Conclusion

Back in 2013, a teacher at Albany High School asked students to argue that “Jews are evil” and the “source of all our problems.”

In this case too, the high schoolers were tasked with roleplaying Nazi officials. They had to write a 5 paragraph “persuasive essay” using a “solid rationale from government propaganda” to convince the reader of his or her “loyalty to the third Reich.”

At the time, the school superintendent reportedly acknowledged that the teacher’s intent wasn’t to be malicious but that the assignment represented a “severe lack of judgment and a horrible level of insensitivity.”

This winter yet another group of central NY high schoolers were given an obnoxious assignment which required them to think like a Nazi.

Now too the current school superintendent views it as an “event that shouldn’t have happened” and hopes to use it as a teaching opportunity to develop appropriate programming for teachers and students.

This will be a positive development for the kids in Oswego.

But there’s still the rest of New York—and the country (another unbelievably antisemitic assignment was required for eighth-graders in a school outside of Los Angeles in 2014)—to worry about.

It’s unfathomable to think that at some other school in America the Holocaust is also being treated as a scenario for a mock debate and as a means for stimulating critical thinking. How many other middle and high schoolers are being asked to weigh the merits of genocidal action against Jews as part of their educational experiences?

Miriam F. Elman is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Robert D. McClure Professor of Teaching Excellence at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She is the editor of five books and the author of over 60 journal articles, book chapters, and government reports on topics related to international and national security, religion and politics, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also frequently speaks and writes on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel movement. Follow her on Twitter @MiriamElman