SALT LAKE CITY — Liz Nielson was walking her dog in the Holladay area when she noticed a group of teenage boys abruptly drive away as she approached the sidewalk.
While she thought it was odd, she didn't think much more of it. That was until she saw anti-Semitic rhetoric and symbols drawn in the snow outside.
"I just wish they knew the history behind that symbol and those words; and if they thought that was funny, that someone can educate them on what it means and what it means especially to the Jewish people in our community," Nielson said.
For Rabbi Samuel Spector of the Kol Ami congregation, the incident illustrates why a recent resolution on Holocaust education signed by Gov. Spencer Cox last week is needed in the state.
"I don't know if they intended to be malicious or not, but all they did was prove how necessary this resolution is," Rabbi Spector told KSL.com. "What they did was basically send a message that this resolution is justified and necessary and that we need to do a better job educating our youth."
The resolution highlights the importance of Holocaust and genocide education so students understand the event that took the lives of 6 million Jewish people. It encourages the Utah State Board of Education and other local education leaders to emphasize the importance of learning about the Holocaust.
"These things have gone on for years, but it certainly has gotten worse," said Patrice Arent, who previously served for 20 years in the Utah State Legislature. While still in office, Arent drafted the resolution late in the session last year. Lawmakers ran out of time to adopt it before the session ended.
"It is essential to provide students with knowledge of the Holocaust and other genocides to help them make informed choices as citizens and to help root out despicable acts of hatred, anti-Semitism, and other forms of prejudice," the resolution reads.
The resolution doesn't serve as a mandate but instead acts as a way for Utah to show its commitment to the issue.
"The state office (of education) is doing a good job, but it's just to really emphasize it," Arent told KSL.com.
This year, Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, took over the resolution for Arent and sponsored it. "We need to make sure that we keep this type of education in front of us," Vickers said at a recent committee hearing for the resolution.
Education about the Holocaust is crucial, especially in a time when it's common to hear flippant references to the devastating historical genocide — even in Utah.
Over the summer, a Piute County commissioner compared former Gov. Gary Herbert to Hitler over COVID-19 restrictions — something that cheapens the unique experience of the actual Holocaust, Rabbi Spector said.
"What we need, as well, in our rhetoric is to get away from Holocaust comparisons, and one of the things that this resolution does is focus on the uniqueness of the Holocaust; because I hear from both the far left and the far right how whoever they don't like is Hitler or Nazi Germany," Rabbi Spector said.
In 2019, a child at a Davis County school dressed up as Adolf Hitler for a Halloween costume, something the United Jewish Federation of Utah called "intolerably offensive" in a statement released at the time.
"Almost all Jews and Americans regard Hitler and Nazi symbols as signifiers of the worst hatred, racism, and crimes against humanity that the world has known. Dressing a child as Hitler is intolerably offensive and should never be suggested, permitted, or condoned," the statement reads.
Such incidents prove why the increased emphasis on Holocaust education is so important in the Beehive State, Rabbi Spector said. Teaching about the Holocaust and other genocides carry universal lessons about the human capacity for immorality, scapegoating, stereotyping and the role of bystanders, Arent said in a committee hearing for the resolution. It teaches children the importance of empathy, diversity and efforts toward justice, she added.
Having local resources, such as local Rabbis or descendants of Holocaust victims, speak to classrooms is another great way to help engage children in age-appropriate education of the Holocaust.
What we need, as well, in our rhetoric is to is to get away from Holocaust comparisons, and one of the things that this resolution does is focus on the uniqueness of the Holocaust; because I hear from both the far left and the far right how whoever they don't like is Hitler or Nazi Germany.
–Rabbi Samuel Spector of the Kol Ami congregation
A recent survey found there's a lot of misinformation surrounding the event among younger generations in the United States; 63% of respondents did not know Jewish individuals were murdered in the Holocaust and thought the death toll was under 2 million.
The lack of awareness and apparent growing ignorance is a worrying phenomenon to Arent.
"It needs to be in our schools. It needs to be taught, and the curriculum is there," she said. "One of the ways we … prevent these things from happening again is by teaching what happened in the past. Again, whether it's in terms of the Holocaust as well as other places that we've had horrible genocide."
While some remain simply ignorant of the facts of the Holocaust, others have spread conspiracy theories across the internet claiming the event never took place, breeding anti-Semitism against the Jewish community.
"It just shows that there's a lot of lack of awareness of something that happened not very long ago," Rabbi Spector said. "However, it happened long enough ago that, unfortunately, there are very few firsthand accounts and survivors who are still living who can tell us what occurred. And I think in an age where there's growing misinformation and anti-Semitism that's being generated across the internet, Holocaust denial is increasing."
Utah's new resolution is a great way forward in bringing attention to the issue and emphasizing this education in schools, Rabbi Spector said, applauding the state for adopting the resolution.
"The best thing that we can do in memory of the Holocaust is to talk about it and learn about it and make sure that … there are no such genocides and that we treat human beings with dignity," Rabbi Spector said. "I think the greatest tribute we can do for people who perished in the Holocaust is to treat each other with kindness."