Fears about controversial state law realized
AUSTIN, TX – JULY 08: People look over a railing in the rotunda of the Texas State Capitol on the first day of the 87th Legislature’s special session on July 8, 2021 in Austin, Texas. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott called the legislature into a special session, asking lawmakers to prioritize his agenda items that include overhauling the state’s voting laws, bail reform, border security, social media censorship, and critical race theory. (Photo by Tamir Kalifa/Getty Images)

By Sharon Wisch-Ray

Texas House Bill 3979, which Governor Greg Abbott signed into law in June, has some vague and confusing language. It was just a matter of time before that confusing language was interpreted in a “horrific” and “chilling” manner, according to local Jewish leaders.

At an Oct. 8 teacher training by Carroll ISD’s Gina Peddy, executive director of curriculum and instruction, it was demonstrated just how difficult the new law is to interpret when she told teachers that if they had books on the Holocaust in their classroom libraries, they should have ones with opposing views as well.

Cheryl Drazin, vice president of the Central Division of the Anti-Defamation league; Joel Schwitzer, regional director of the American Jewish Committee; and Anita Zusman Eddy, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas, shared their insights with the TJP regarding the gaffe made by Peddy.

While they don’t believe that Peddy intended to be antisemitic, her comments (see story p.2) are indicative of the unintended consequences that HB 3979 would inevitably elicit.

“There were those of us in Jewish organizational life that discussed the possible chilling effects of this legislation, when it was when it was being considered. And look, I think bad legislation predictively led to bad results. And I think it’s very easy to focus on Southlake as the problem, but it really is just a symptom of 3979 creating a lack of clarity.”

Teachers are struggling with how to interpret the legislation and they are on a slippery slope and “terrified of running afoul of this new law,” said Schwitzer.

“It is understandable that an educator could be confused about what, how do they make the distinction between what has an opposing view and what doesn’t,” said Drazin, who has a meeting scheduled with Carroll ISD Superintendent Lane Ledbetter this week. 

Although the spotlight is on Southlake-Carroll, the school is just an example of what is likely to pop up in hundreds of districts around the state.

“We need clarity from our legislature and our state educational infrastructure to make sure that our students can learn about and learn the lessons of the Holocaust, and other important historical events and eras, and the idea that this could be controversial is just a nonstarter,” said Schwitzer.

As executive director of the only full-time JCRC in the state, Zusman Eddy pulled together a coalition of Federations and their JCRCs from across the state; StandWithUs, the international and nonpartisan Israel education organization that inspires and educates people of all ages and backgrounds, challenges misinformation and fights antisemitism; and the Institute for Curriculum Services, which is dedicated to improving the quality of K-12 education on Jews, Judaism, Jewish history and Israel in the United States, to try and address the vague language in HB 3979 before the bill was passed. 

“While we were able to reach influential folks, legislators, just because of the nature of what happens in Austin, we did not successfully get that bill amended as we would have liked. And this is the feared result of that bill,” said Zusman Eddy.

Zusman Eddy said that she doesn’t think legislators or the governor intended teaching about the Holocaust to be in question when considering the bill and signing it into law. She said the governor and legislators have been very supportive of issues of concern to the Jewish community including anti-BDS legislation, establishing Texas Holocaust Remembrance Week each year and appointing the Texas Holocaust, Genocide, and Antisemitism Advisory Commission, which went into effect Sept. 1.

“The problem is the bill, and its vague and confusing language, but there is a deeper issue that I think the Jewish community should wrestle with,” she said. “And that is the idea that some historical events and theories must be taught with opposing views. And the reason that this is so risky is that, for example, white supremacy should also not be taught with opposing views because how can you teach about antisemitism without teaching about white supremacy?” 

Unless Governor Abbott calls a special session of the legislature to address 3979’s shortcomings, it won’t be dealt with until the legislature reconvenes in January 2023.

So Drazin, Schwitzer and Zusman Eddy will continue to work together and to connect with legislators and school districts to help educate them. 

Drazin sees this as an opportunity for ADL to engage more with educators.

“This situation shows what educators are really asking — what communities are asking for is more education, not less. They are seeking help and guidance and access, and of course ADL will be happy to provide all of that.”

On behalf of the Dallas Federation, Zusman Eddy is reaching out to the other Jewish Federations and organizations across the state so that the Jewish community can “craft a unified position with unified messaging about what exactly we want to do about this law and what, specifically, we want to ask our legislators, whether that is to amend the law or to repeal the law. We will be stronger, working together.”

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