Did the University of Kentucky Remove Holocaust Studies in Order to Not Offend Muslims?

Years before outright campaigning on the idea of censoring education, the far right liked to cast themselves as the victims of that exact type of campaign. One example originated as a chain email targeting British readers before moving to the United States and becoming a rumor specifically naming the University of Kentucky.

As FactCheck.org reported at the time, the original email read:

This week, the UK removed The Holocaust from its school curriculum because it ‘offended’ the Muslim population which claims it never occurred.

This is a frightening portent of the fear that is gripping the world and how easily each country is giving into it.

It is now more than 60 years after the Second World War in Europe ended.

This e-mail is being sent as a memorial chain, in memory of the:

six million Jews,
20 million Russians,
10 million Christians
and 1,900 Catholic priests
who were murdered, massacred, raped, burned, starved and humiliated while the German and Russia peoples[sic] looking the other way!

Now, more than ever, with Iran, among others, claiming the Holocaust to be ‘a myth,’ it is imperative to make sure the world never forgets.

This e-mail is intended to reach 40 million people worldwide!

Be a link in the memorial chain and help distribute this around the world.

Don’t just delete this. It will take a minute to pass this along!

The basis for this claim was a section from a report by the British Historical Association discussing why some schools would avoid certain topics in their General Certificate for Secondary Education (GCSE) class offerings — the equivalent to elective courses. The section read:

In particular settings, teachers of history are unwilling to challenge highly contentious or charged versions of history in which pupils are steeped at home, in their community or in a place of worship. Some teachers also feel that the issues are best avoided in history, believing them to be taught elsewhere in the curriculum such as in citizenship or religious education.

For example, a history department in a northern city recently avoided selecting the Holocaust as a topic for GCSE coursework for fear of confronting anti-Semitic sentiment and Holocaust denial among some Muslim pupils. In another department, teachers were strongly challenged by some Christian parents for their treatment of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the history of the state of Israel that did not accord with the teachings of their denomination. In another history department, the Holocaust was taught despite anti-Semitic sentiment among some pupils, but the same department deliberately avoided teaching the Crusades at Key Stage 3 because their balanced treatment of the topic would have directly challenged what was taught in some local mosque.

“While GCSE courses are high school level, they function more like American college courses, with teachers free to choose the curriculum and students free to take or not take the classes,” FactCheck.org noted.

The England-based Holocaust Educational Trust reaffirmed in 2021 that learning about the Holocaust remains part of the country’s National Curriculum for History:

In England, by law children are to be taught about the Holocaust as part of the Key Stage 3 History curriculum; in fact, the Holocaust is the only historical event whose study is compulsory on the National Curriculum. This usually occurs in Year 9 (age 13-14). While academy schools do not have to follow this syllabus, it is assumed that they will deliver Holocaust education as part of a “balanced and broadly based” curriculum. Similarly, although independent schools are not obliged to deliver the National Curriculum, many in fact do.

Although there is no formal requirement for Holocaust education in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, participation in the Trust’s Outreach programme and Lessons from Auschwitz project as well as programmes sponsored by other organisations suggests that the Holocaust is widely taught nonetheless.

According to the New York Times, the chain emails took form after newspapers covered (and distorted) the Historical Association’s findings. But as the email migrated online, “one or several or many readers” mistook the “uk” suffix used for British email addresses to mean “UK” — the shorthand term for the University of Kentucky.

Thus, the second iteration of the rumor mentioning that school then made its way to email addresses on campus, including the inboxes of every member of the university’s Judaic Studies faculty. That department issued a statement refuting the claim and urging students not to continue circulating it.

“I understand quite well the power of the Internet,” said Lee T. Todd Jr., the university’s president at the time:

Information flows instantaneously without respect to somewhat arbitrary borders of geography or nation state. That’s a positive. In this instance, though, the University of Kentucky is experiencing the flip side of that power — the negative impact of an unfounded rumor that flows across a world seemingly without check. It’s disconcerting, although perhaps understandable in that context, that so many people would be the victim of a rumor so patently and obviously without merit.

Needless to say, this claim is also false; the university’s history curriculum still includes two classes devoted to covering the Holocaust.

Another version of the claim, one which continued spreading online years after the original iteration had been debunked, further tried to stir up fear around “the evils of Liberalism and Socialism” by attaching it to an inaccurate anecdote about former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower:

It is a matter of history that when the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, General Dwight Eisenhower, found the victims of the death camps he ordered all possible photographs to be taken, and for the German people from surrounding villages to be ushered through the camps and even made to bury the dead.

He did this because he said in words to this effect:

“Get it all on record now – get the films – get the witnesses – because somewhere down the road of history some bastard will get up and say that this never happened[.]”

In reality, he never said this.

Update 11/17/2021, 3:00pm PST: This article has been revamped and updated. You can review the original here. -ag