How the Israel/Hamas war influenced a WA genocide education bill

The proposal failed over a debate about the curriculum, its development and inclusivity.

House Minority Leader Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, speaks on the floor

House Minority Leader Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, bottom right, speaks on the floor on the first day of the legislative session at the Washington state Capitol in Olympia, Monday, Jan. 8, 2024. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

A proposed bill that would have required public middle and high schools to provide genocide education has died after failing to receive the support needed to move through the Legislature.

The story of how House Bill 2037 died, which would have also designated April as genocide awareness and prevention month, gives insight into how current events can influence what happens in Washington’s state capitol.

Prime Sponsor Rep. Travis Couture, R-Allyn, said that polling, conducted following the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel, that showed that a fifth of Americans aged 18-29 believe the Holocaust is a myth demonstrated to him that the curriculum should be required, instead of the current “strongly encouraged.”

Amid the ongoing conflict in Gaza, the bill became the center of a debate about the nature of genocide education and who should be responsible for developing this curriculum. Although some legislators say the bill’s connection by many to current events detracted from its original goal, activists say it was killed due to an inadequate investment in inclusion.

Legislators say the bill could be introduced next year after stakeholders work through disagreements.

“It just seems bizarre that they’re willing to kill this bill and not continue the conversation,” said Oliver Miska, co-chair of the nonprofit Washington Ethnic Studies Now’s legislative committee. “It really is disappointing.”

Washington Ethnic Studies Now collaborated with several organizations representing genocide-affected groups, including the Bosnian American Institute, the Seattle Amhara Association, and the Khmer Community of Seattle King County. The coalition called for several changes to HB 2037, including integrating genocide education into the framework of ethnic studies, arguing that this approach provides a more holistic understanding of genocide, humanizing communities beyond their tragedies.

The Washington Legislature currently directs public schools to incorporate ethnic studies – the cultural and historical study of racial-ethnic groups in the United States – in their curricula to “prepare students to be global citizens in a global society.”

“There’s nothing more hurtful to me than when someone comes up to me and goes ‘Oh, you’re a Bosnian, yeah, a lot of your people got killed,” said Nizama Djuderija, communications director for the Bosnian American Institute.

However, the proposal to include ethnic studies sparked disagreement. Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, argued ethnic studies and genocide education are not related and should not be contextualized together.

“I think there’s concern that the idea of a genocide gets diminished when wrapped in with other ethnic studies,” Braun said.

Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, chair of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Committee, said she believes the bill ultimately became too politicized, detracting focus from its initial mission.

“It did become something that became a vehicle for current events, and that I think derailed it,” Wellman said. “It was getting to be too political.”

Miska said proposals to include ethnic studies in the bill made some legislators squeamish, connecting this debate to the discussions about critical race theory (CRT) in the United States over the past couple years.

“The anti-CRT movement has gotten people so afraid of ethnic studies … I think a lot of this has to do with that,” Miska said. “They were panicking because they didn’t want to associate themselves with this group because ethnic studies was involved.”

Although the Senate version of the bill did include ethnic-studies language at one point, that version of the bill died early in the legislative session. Wellman said the conversation around including ethnic studies created complications that got in the way of passing the bill.

“More people came on wanting to include ethnic studies and other kinds of things and get much more political,” Wellman said. “It was expanding it much greater than simply putting a bill together.”

Sparking more debate, Washington Ethnic Studies Now and affected communities also asked the Legislature to allow communities impacted by genocide to tell their own stories by including them in curriculum development.

While the Holocaust Center for Humanity in Seattle said it has made efforts to expand genocide education in the curriculum the state asked it to create after the passage of a 2019 bill, Miska argued that those who have been personally impacted by genocide must be involved in the curriculum development about that particular genocide.

“Give us a stake in actually developing curriculum and training teachers in this state,” Miska said.

The original bill’s language specified only one organization, the Holocaust Center for Humanity, to develop a Holocaust and genocide-education curriculum. But an amended version from Rep. Emily Alvarado, D-Seattle, which passed the House on Feb. 10, called for collaboration with other communities that have been impacted by genocide.

“As a Jewish member of this body and as a Latina, I believe that in order to have high-quality instruction on the Holocaust and on genocide, we must be inclusive,” said Alvarado during a Feb. 10 House floor debate.

Activists said they saw this amendment as a step in the right direction, while others expressed concern that it detracted from the bill’s original goal – increased awareness of the Holocaust – and politicized genocide education.

“My concern is that the policy contained in the bill could inadvertently lead to folks being accused of genocide who have not actually committed genocide,” Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, said in the Feb. 10 House floor debate, presumably referring to Israel.

Dee Simon, CEO of the Holocaust Center for Humanity, said the Center’s concern with the amended bill was that it didn’t emphasize collaboration, and worried the Holocaust would be treated separately from other genocides.

“It’s not us or them, it’s us together, it’s us collaborating and building on what already exists and making it bigger and better,” Simon said.

Wellman later introduced an amendment that removed the bill’s requirements for bias screening, as well as removing a requirement that  the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction submit a report outlining how it would “meaningfully” include affected communities, but kept some language about including these communities in curriculum development.

Prime sponsor Rep. Travis Couture said he feels the amendments are ultimately what killed the bill. “The amendments from Rep. Alvarado and Sen. Wellman were both unnecessary,” Couture said in an email. “I think both amendments were a poison pill that killed the bill.”

Though legislators say the politicization of this bill contributed to its lack of support, Miska said efforts to build a more inclusive bill have been misrepresented by some legislators and stakeholders.

“The fearmongering about what this was … is just such a mischaracterization of what people were asking for,” Miska said. “We are disappointed the bill died and that was not our intention; we did not want to kill this.”

With the bill dead, some have expressed concern over the current state of genocide education in Washington. One proponent of expanding genocide education is Cindy Corrie, the mother of Rachel Corrie, killed by Israeli forces in 2003 while protesting the demolition of homes in Rafah, a city in the southern Gaza strip.

“We of course support Holocaust education, it’s very important that that happens,” said Corrie, president of the Rachel Corrie Foundation. “But we also feel like it’s very important … to really understand that genocides happened before the Holocaust and that they’ve happened after.”

Sen. Wellman said there is a possibility that the bill could be reintroduced next year.

As the war in Gaza continues to escalate, Miska, an educator, said teachers are fearful about approaching these topics in the classroom, and hopes that in the interim there will be conversations at the district level about supporting educators in teaching about current events.

“This has created a recognition and a momentum for the need for this kind of legislation moving forward,” Miska said. “I don’t think all is lost.” 

Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors


Scarlet Hansen

Scarlet Hansen is a student journalist at the University of Washington and Crosscut's 2024 legislative intern.