The year 2020 was a disturbing one for everybody, impacting the Jewish community in the form of a surge in violent anti-Semitic attacks and conspiracy theories blaming Jews and Israel for the coronavirus. An arguably anti-Semitic member of the Arizona House of Representatives is now fueling the policy debate surrounding HB-2241, a bill designed to promote Holocaust education for students in seventh through 12th grade.
In a recently surfaced video, State Rep. Athena Salman (D-Ariz.) claimed that she previously used her position in the state legislature to block the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Anti-Semitism from being adopted as Arizona’s standard. She notes, “We were very fortunate to stop it this year. … I think if I wasn’t there, I think that thing would have sailed through and become law already.” Following the November election, she has enhanced her leverage after ascending to the position of Minority Whip as part of the progressive takeover of the Democratic House Caucus.
The 2020 bill that Salman claimed to have killed in order to hold off the IHRA definition was sponsored by Rep. Alma Hernandez, also an up-and-coming House Democrat. Last year, Hernandez championed both the IHRA bill and the Holocaust Education bill (both of which timed out at the legislature due to the pandemic shutdown). Hernandez initiated this year’s Holocaust-education legislation with the threat to block her own bill if it’s returned from the Senate with an amendment mandating the teaching of the IHRA definition. Further heightening tensions is the circulation of a video of Salman on the floor of the Arizona House accusing Israel’s military of having a history of abducting children, rhetoric that has been characterized as a blood libel. Hernandez was contacted for comment about Salman’s statements but did not respond.
A key question being posed by legislative proponents of the IHRA definition is: “Who benefits from its exclusion?” This seemingly points directly to Salman. She has previously appeared alongside Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who is commonly called out as a leading anti-Semitic voice in Washington. Salman also has ties to American Muslims for Palestine, an extremist organization that uses inherently anti-Semitic rhetoric and bears “organizational roots in the Islamic Association of Palestine, a propaganda proxy for Hamas in the United States until it was dissolved in 2004.”
The policy implications of excluding the IHRA definition from Holocaust education are ominous. Many are concerned that this would create an opening for the memory of the Holocaust to be misappropriated and abused by bad actors who make false comparisons of Israel to the Nazis. This is the reason why hundreds of Holocaust survivors, their families and concerned citizens around the state weighed in with the legislature through a grassroots email campaign urging the inclusion of the IHRA definition.
Since being formulated in 2015, the IHRA definition has gained widespread bipartisan support by the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations. The definition has likewise been adopted by the governments of approximately 30 countries, including many in Europe, as well as in South America and the Muslim countries of Albania, Bahrain and Kosovo. It has also been endorsed by the student governments of more than 30 North American universities and by the largest organization of imams in the world, the Global Imams Council.
The majority Republican legislature and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey appear opposed to permitting the “problematic” version of Holocaust education to pass as is. Ironically, if progressives continue to block the inclusion of IHRA and the bill does not pass, the Republicans seem certain to come under fire with cynical suggestions that they oppose Holocaust education, primarily from those who oppose the IHRA definition because of its implications for effectively confronting modern-day anti-Semitism.
Because it is inconceivable that those who embrace the Holocaust’s existential lesson of “Never Again” could tolerate 21st-century anti-Semitism, they are likely to suggest that Ducey veto the bill and ask the Republicans to sponsor it with IHRA included several months from now. This also raises future questions about whether the Republicans will again be unwilling again to permit a Democrat to take the lead in sponsoring legislation that impacts the Jewish and pro-Israel community.