The Christian Zionist Group Shaping Holocaust Education in Florida

The state’s new learning standards reflect the influence of Proclaiming Justice to the Nations, a right-wing organization that believes Christians have a “Biblical responsibility” to support Israel.

Corey Sherman
July 1, 2021
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis visits Yad Vashem on May 30th, 2019. Photo: Florida Governor’s Office

LAST OCTOBER, the expert panel appointed to write Florida’s Holocaust education standards—a group composed of scholars and Jewish communal leaders—received feedback on a draft of the standards from the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) provided by the right-wing Christian Zionist organization Proclaiming Justice to the Nations (PJTN). The group had inserted lessons that defined Jewishness solely in terms of religion, falsely implying that only devout Jews were targeted by the Nazis. The expert panel rejected PJTN’s recommendations, citing both historical inaccuracies and an inappropriately religious tenor, which, they wrote in a letter, “has no place in the public school curriculum.” But in the coming months, FLDOE continued to insert material into the panel’s drafts that appeared to have come from PJTN, though the department stopped specifying the source of the additions. Later revisions falsely framed the Holocaust as an event that specifically sought to root out Zionists, even though the Nazis killed Jews regardless of their political orientation.  

When members of the panel looked into PJTN, they learned that the group’s stated mission was to “educate Christians about their Biblical responsibility to stand with our Jewish brethren and Israel.” They also learned that the organization had been classified as an anti-Muslim hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Though PJTN’s executive director, Laurie Cardoza-Moore, declined to speak with Jewish Currents, her communications director, Jackie Monaghan, explained that “Jewish interests are a big part of our game plan.” 

The “game plan” of Christian Zionists is well established: They support complete Jewish control over Israel/Palestine based on the theological premise that it will bring about the rapture, or the end of days. In a June 11th monologue posted to YouTube about possible waning support for Israel among evangelicals, Cardoza-Moore told viewers that “being involved in education and textbooks and standards is critically important to making sure our children are going to stand on what is Biblically expedient, not what is politically correct.” In other words, the group approaches state education standards as an opportunity to cultivate political support for Zionism toward its theological ends. (FLDOE confirmed to Jewish Currents that Cardoza-Moore gave feedback on the standards, stating that “we do not exclude anyone from providing input.” The department declined to make staff or officials available for phone interviews, or to answer a list of questions submitted by Jewish Currents.)

Over the course of many months, the members of both the expert panel and a state-appointed Holocaust education task force of area experts fought to minimize PJTN’s influence on the standards—but the final draft still bears evidence of the group’s political project, and its efforts to overtly falsify history to build support for Zionism. The latest standards contain scaled-down versions of the inaccuracies that the experts have protested. Gone are the lessons that explicitly suggest that the Nazis only targeted religious Jews—but the current draft still defines Jewishness in terms of religious observance, requiring students to study “the basic beliefs of Judaism” as part of learning about the “planned and systematic state sponsored murder” of Jews by Nazis between 1933 and 1945. (The task force continues to object to this framing: “The Holocaust was not a religious war,” they wrote to FLDOE on June 15th.) Gone, too, is a mandate inserted in March to study the Zionist movement—but the standards continue to conflate Jewishness with Zionism and draw ahistorical connections between anti-Zionism and the Holocaust. For example, in the same standard on the Nazi genocide, students are required to “identify examples of antisemitism related to Israel,” even though Israel didn’t exist until 1948. “Nothing has been finalized yet,” task force and expert panel member Barbara Goldstein, executive director of the Holocaust Education Resource Council, told Jewish Currents. “But I still have some concerns, mainly, that antisemitism related to Israel has nothing to do with teaching about the Nazi genocide of Jews.” 

On July 14th, the Florida Board of Education—which is made up of members appointed by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis—is scheduled to vote on the standards. If they approve the current draft, the standards will be implemented in the fall of 2022—and will constitute yet another step in a larger effort to align public education in Florida with the ideology of the Christian right. This vote follows on the heels of the board’s decision to approve a state ban on the teaching of “critical race theory,” which forbids Florida educators from suggesting “that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons,” or from defining American history “as something other than the creation of a new nation based largely on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” PJTN is not the only group guiding the transformation of Florida’s schools: In 2020, FLDOE also invited Hillsdale College, a conservative college in Michigan with deep ties to pro-Trump Republicans, to weigh in on civics education standards. If DeSantis runs for president in 2024—a possibility about which some observers are already speculating—he may bring this evangelical vision of public education to the national stage. In the meantime, Holocaust education in Florida may soon bear the imprint of a Christian Zionist worldview. 

“This attitude that we should support Israel and Jewish people because of some belief of what’s going to happen in Christianity can really feel insulting to Jews,” said Alison Dobrick, a former Florida teacher who directs the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at William Paterson University in New Jersey. “And it certainly has no place in a public school curriculum about the Holocaust.”

PJTN’S ROAD TO INVOLVEMENT with the Florida standards appears to begin in 2014, when DeSantis, then a congressman, joined a trip to Israel and the occupied territories arranged by the organization. Between 2014 and 2019, PJTN funded over a dozen congressional trips to Israel, which were attended by prominent conservatives such as Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, and former North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, who later served as Donald Trump’s chief of staff. PJTN’s junkets emphasize contact with groups currently stoking violence in Israel/Palestine, including representatives of the City of David, the settler group seeking to evict Palestinians from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. The trips also include tours of the Al-Aqsa Mosque led by the Temple Institute, a Jerusalem-based “think tank” founded by followers of the Jewish supremacist leader Meir Kahane that advocates for Jews to dismantle Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock and rebuild a Jewish temple in their place. In 2019, PJTN brought Republican members of Congress to tour West Bank settlements with Trump’s US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman.

PJTN Executive Director Cardoza-Moore first gained notoriety in 2010, when she led a campaign against the establishment of a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and claimed on The Daily Show that 30% of all Muslims are terrorists. In 2011, she asserted that Barack Obama had caused tornadoes by declaring his support for a Palestinian state. More recently, Cardoza-Moore has demanded that the Justice Department investigate Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, alleging that the congresswoman has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Journalists and education analysts in Tennessee have documented Cardoza-Moore’s support for the insurrection on January 6th and her presence in Washington that day—though Cardoza-Moore publicly insists that antifa was responsible for the attack on the Capitol. 

The group has also courted other forms of scandal: The Forward reported last year that in 2019 PJTN received a $40,000 grant from the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs, but its staff did not register as foreign agents with the US Department of Justice. Of the approximately one million dollars in revenue that PJTN received in 2018, more than 30% of it went to Cardoza-Moore’s family, for her salary and for contracting work for her husband and daughters. None of this has deterred the group’s influential backers, including board member Cherna Moskowitz, a right-wing megadonor who also funds both Israeli settler groups and Republican political candidates

Though the task force and expert panel rejected PJTN’s additions to the standards in late 2020, the material they’d sought to excise remained present in a draft that FLDOE sent in February to expert panel member Oren Stier, a professor of religious studies and the director of the Holocaust and Genocide Studies Program at Florida International University. Stier sent a sharply-worded letter to the department denouncing PJTN’s continued involvement. Task force member Yael Hershfield, interim regional director of the Florida Anti-Defamation League (ADL), also wrote to FLDOE, calling the decision to consult with PJTN “inexplicable” given the group’s “well-documented track record of anti-Muslim bigotry,” and emphasizing that its contributions should be “unequivocally rejected.” 

Tensions boiled over at a February meeting between FLDOE officials and members of the expert panel and task force. Stier likened the FLDOE’s reliance on PJTN to inviting a group “championing the so-called ‘lost cause’ of the southern states” to contribute to learning standards on slavery. At the meeting, Stier and Rositta Kenigsberg, President of the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center in Dania Beach, Florida, repeatedly pressed FLDOE to explain who had invited PJTN to weigh in on the standards. State law permits the department to consult with “any state or nationally recognized Holocaust educational organizations,” but the officials present at the meeting evaded the task force’s demands that they justify how PJTN met that requirement. After the meeting, the task force submitted the same questions in writing but did not receive an answer.

As the standards approach a final vote, Cardoza-Moore continues to rail against their failure to comply wholly with PJTN’s input: In a petition published on PJTN’s website the week of June 21st, she accused the task force—a group of mostly Jewish scholars and community leaders, among them Holocaust survivors—of being “Holocaust revisionists” and demonstrating “antisemitism” by, among other things, removing some of PJTN’s references to Zionism. The task force and expert panel, on the other hand, remain concerned that Zionism is all too present in the standards. “Relating antisemitism to Israel is misleading and does not belong in Holocaust education,” the task force wrote to FLDOE on June 15th, reiterating a point they have been making for months

The focus on Zionism in the curriculum is not solely the result of PJTN’s influence. The Florida bill that precipitated the writing of the standards requires that schools teach the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which has been criticized for conflating Judaism with Zionism by construing some forms of censure of Israel as antisemitism. This addition was made by State Rep. Randy Fine, Florida’s only Jewish Republican legislator. Fine also led a successful effort in 2019, backed by the right-wing Israel Allies Foundation and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), to enshrine the IHRA definition in a Florida law banning discrimination in education. 

Though several members of the task force and expert panel told Jewish Currents that they personally support the use of the IHRA definition in other contexts, they agreed that Israel and Zionism should be beyond the scope of Holocaust education. “When I train educators, I use the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s explanation of the origins of antisemitism, because it teaches the history of antisemitism that is relevant to the Holocaust,” Goldstein said. “I don’t use IHRA because it’s more about Israel and Zionism, and that is not territory I am veering into when I teach the Holocaust.”  

For the Holocaust scholars who have battled PJTN’s additions, the standards are flawed as much for what they exclude as what they contain. Holocaust education emerged in the US in the early 1970s as a grassroots effort by teachers to contribute to what is known as the “Affective Revolution”—the rise of an educational philosophy that encourages students to make connections between their coursework and their social and political surroundings. Starting with early curricula, such as the 1973 lesson plan “Society on Trial,” by Massachusetts teacher Roselle Chartok, the field has long used the historical specificities of the Holocaust to probe universal questions about morality. The task force’s official position is that the Holocaust should be “taught in ways that encourage a pluralistic perspective and democratic practices.” This view is standard among Holocaust education experts, such as Dobrick, the former Florida teacher. “The Holocaust should be studied in a way that builds empathy and focuses on social action so that it doesn’t happen again,” Dobrick said. “You have to also bring into Holocaust education things like hate groups today, and hate crimes against Asian Americans, and shootings at synagogues and mosques.” 

Though the final draft of the standards includes, at the very end, the mandate to “recognize the significance of ‘Never Again,’” Hershfield argues that the rest of the document fails to live up to that goal. “If we truly want to educate our next generation to understand the evils of hatred, exposed during the Holocaust, we must address the universal lessons,” Hershfield wrote in a letter to FLDOE on June 11th. “Failure to do so effectively makes the last proposed standard a mere label without any meaning or substance.”

Corey Sherman is an educator and organizer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.