Oregon lawmakers back education bill to stem antisemitism

A proposal passed unanimously by the state House on Monday would require schools to teach the history of Jewish people and their contributions to society

By: - March 14, 2023 5:50 am

State lawmakers are considering a bill that would mandate the teaching of Jewish history in schools. (Andrii Koval/Getty Images)

State lawmakers want Oregon students to learn about Jewish history and their contributions to society.

House Bill 2905 would add people of Jewish descent to an existing requirement that schools teach the histories and contributions of marginalized or underserved people. That law, passed by the Legislature in 2019, requires schools to teach students the histories and contributions of people who are Native American, African, Asian, Pacific Islander, Chicano, Latino or of Middle Eastern descent, as well as women, people with disabilities, immigrants or refugees, or lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender individuals. 

It did not, however, specify Jewish people.

State Rep. David Gomberg, D-Otis, who is Jewish and the chief sponsor of the bill, told the state House education committee in a hearing in February that the proposal could help stem antisemitism. 

“If we know more about each other, we will be more accepting and appreciative of each other,” Gomberg said.

The bill was approved unanimously by the House education committee earlier this month and swept through the House on Monday, with all 59 lawmakers supporting it. One lawmaker, Rep. Anna Scharf, R-Dallas, did not vote because she was absent. 

The proposal comes at a time when antisemitism is on the rise, with high-profile entertainers like Ye, formerly Kanye West, calling for the death of Jews, and well-known athletes spouting antisemitic remarks. The Anti-Defamation League, which has tracked antisemitic incidents since 1979, said these attacks reached an all-time high in 2021, with 2,717 incidents reported, according to its latest data.

In 2022, more than one in four Jewish Americans was the target of antisemitism, according to the American Jewish Committee’s State of Antisemitism in America Report released in February. Of those individuals, 20% reported being the target of antisemitic remarks in person, and 13% say they were targeted online or on social media. 

In Oregon, antisemitism is present in schools. In testifying before the committee, sixth-grader Isidora Elkan Beinin remembers wanting to be the goalie in a game of soccer at recess. Another student spoke out against her with a remark about Hitler wanting to kill all the Jews in the Holocaust.

Antisemitism assumes all Jewish people are the same and is used as a justification for prejudice or violence against those who identify in that community. But as Michelle Bombet Minch with the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland explained, that assumption is far from the truth.

“Jews are a unique group connected through shared history, ancestry, culture, religion, sacred text, and more,” Bombet Minch said in written testimony. “We’re diverse in appearance, skin color, ethnic subgroups and religious practices. We’re only roughly 2% of the U.S. population yet have made a strong contribution to our country that can inspire people of all backgrounds.”

In testifying before the committee, Bombet Minch said Jewish people have struggled to find their place in America without being assimilated and that their stories are often untold. 

She said she recently spoke with an educator who praised Henry Ford. “Sure, he revolutionized manufacturing,” Bombet Minch told the committee, “yet this educator knew absolutely nothing of the power that Ford held in spreading conspiracy theories and fostering antisemitic tropes and publications still being used today.”

She listed examples of political activism by Jewish Americans in the U.S. labor movement and opposing working conditions in the garment industry to feminism and women’s rights. Jews were active in the Civil Rights movement as well, she said.

“We marched arm in arm with African Americans,” Bombet Minch said, adding that they also helped establish the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, known as the NAACP. 

“Don’t we want the children today, who become adults tomorrow, to know the history of obstacles that we overcame, and continue to overcome, as well as our positive contributions regardless of these hardships?” she said.

Since 2019, Oregon schools have been mandated to teach students about genocide and atrocities committed during the Holocaust. While this is a key part of history, proponents of the new bill want to ensure the Holocaust is not the only part of their history that children learn. 

“Being Jewish should not be a World War II lesson,” said sixth-grader Elkan Beinin when testifying to the committee. “We need to teach more broadly about what it means to be a Jew – our history, our culture, our ethnic heritage, our contributions to the world as means to combat antisemitism – so future students, teachers and society have a greater understanding far beyond the tragedies that have happened to us.”

The Oregon Department of Education is not taking a stance on House Bill 2905; however, department officials told the committee the bill would fit naturally into the next curriculum adoption cycle. 



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Natalie Pate
Natalie Pate

Natalie Pate is a journalist and author based in Salem, Oregon. She covered education for the Statesman Journal for more than seven years and was the co-founder and lead of the Salem Storytellers Project. She was an Investigative Reporters and Editors Fellow in 2021 and remains an IRE mentor and member of the Education Writers Association. She was named a 2022 EWA Reporting Fellow and published an in-depth series that summer on prison literacy programs. She is a graduate of Willamette University, where she majored in politics and French. Find her on Twitter @NataliePateGwin.