Curriculum Trak’s The Teacher’s Lounge was pleased to share a podcast interview with two people: first, Dr. Josh Holtkamp, principal of Whitwell Middle School in Whitwell, Tennessee. Whitwell Middle School is known for its Children’s Holocaust Memorial commemorating the children we lost in the Holocaust. Second, a friend that Curriculum Trak podcast listeners have met before, Anna Eisen. Both of her parents survived the Holocaust in Poland. Her father was in a concentration camp. Her mother survived mostly in hiding during the war and also helped the children of Poland during and after the war. Anna founded the Jewish congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, and that synagogue experienced its own tragedies around antisemitism that made national news at the time.
Michael Arnold: We try to make The Teacher’s Lounge typically a happy place, a place to share ideas and laughs and encouragement. Today it’s a little bit more somber, I’m afraid, but I think our times call for that. I personally have been glued to the news coming out of Israel. We actually planned to have this conversation together before the events in Israel occurred a couple of weeks ago, but I think it’s really timely for us to come together like this.
And I just wanted to ask both of you how you’re reacting or how you have been processing the news that you’ve heard out of Israel and maybe share what has driven that reaction and those feelings that it’s brought up for you. Josh, why don’t you go first, if you don’t mind.
Josh Holtcamp: Sure. I appreciate that, Michael. And thank you for allowing me to come to The Teacher’s Lounge. One thing that I’m very concerned about is I live in a community of about 1600 people who are not well traveled, so these are folks who really don’t know what Judaism is, who Jews are, what the conflict is in the Middle East. They just know that the Palestinians have invaded Israel and there’s a war. And the big thing I’m trying to teach my students is Hamas does not represent the Palestinians and vice versa. And so it’s become a school issue because our school focuses on the Holocaust, focuses on Holocaust survivors, focuses simply on memories of the Holocaust, and we give tours of our museum. So students want to know what’s going on. And parents want to know what’s going on.
Unfortunately, our memorial has suffered, and has been shut down because of this. So, personally, I’m also glued to whatever I can be glued to because there are questions daily, and they will know what the public school principal thinks about this message.
Michael Arnold: You and I were able to spend a couple of weeks in Poland and Israel over the summer together, sponsored by CUFI, Christians United for Israel, which is how we met. I found that being present, being there, seeing the sites that are currently under attack has probably impacted me more than I thought it would now that this news is coming out. Have you felt the same way in recent days?
Josh Holtcamp: Yeah, we were there. We saw the borders. We were actually there. So, when I see these attacks, and when I see and hear of this, it really has affected me. I was able to share that first hand experience with my students. We have an 8th grade curriculum now and their focus is the Holocaust. Right now, they’re reading the Diary of Anne Frank. Things are really meshing together. I think it is somber, but it’s a time of learning above all.
Michael Arnold: Yeah. Hopefully we can unpack a little bit more of that as we go today. Anna, as soon as I started processing this, I started thinking about the other people who might be impacted and the fears, the concerns that would come to mind. You were one of the first people I thought of because of your work.You live the experiences or share the experiences of your parents, but also the leadership that you’ve provided to your community to start a congregation for Jews there in Texas. And even some of the attacks that they’ve had in the past. What would you tell people as we’re listening to the news? What are your fears and concerns? How would you address that?
Anna Salton Eisen: That’s a big loaded question. I would start by saying, for most of my life, I’ve been a Holocaust researcher, writer, filmmaker, educator. Never again was the vow we took, not necessarily thinking that this would happen again, but understanding it’s important to learn so it should never happen again. It has happened again. And I think the important parallel to draw is that the final solution was a government sponsored ideology put into practice to basically kill every Jew. And what we see today that’s happened in Israel is that in Gaza, where Palestinians live, there was an election in 2006, and they elected Hamas. And there has not been an election since then. In their charter, it says clearly the goal is to kill every Jew. Even poetically, it says, if you find a Jew hiding behind an olive tree, you must kill him. Even though there have been so many offers for two state solutions, they want a final solution, not a two-state solution.
And this act of massacre, even though it may not be on the scale, is as barbaric, as brutal, as medieval, with what they’ve done–the kidnapping of these babies– as what was seen during the Holocaust. I think the history is important, but it’s important to know what’s going on.
So when you see people saying, “Free Palestine,” Palestine is free. Israel doesn’t govern or occupy it. Whatever restrictions are there, are put on by Egypt, who doesn’t want weapons going in because it is a government that is basically considered a terrorist organization. All of the Arab countries there, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, have all been trying to develop peaceful relationships with the United States. And some people feel that this is even why Hamas chose now to act to disrupt any chance for peace.
Michael Arnold: The phrase, “Kill every Jew,” obviously transcends any national boundaries that could be disputed, over the course of the last 50 or 60 years. That’s a whole other level of this conversation, but the charter to kill every Jew, chase them down, find them behind any olive tree, transcends the territory, transcends the region. That is looking for anyone who considers themselves Jewish, or maybe even people who don’t even realize their ancestry is Jewish, and seeking to exterminate them. That is all encompassing.
Anna Salton Eisen: And they’ve made it clear through some of the jihadists, the leaders have also proclaimed a day of jihad worldwide that after the Jews, they are coming for the Christians. We shouldn’t forget what happened on 9-11. That was not an attack on the Jews. And that, if by some terrible means every Jew is killed, or at least Israel is overrun, then the Holy Land will not just be devoid of Jews, but it will also be not open for Christians. And so I think that beyond democracy, the importance of this territory as a center for all religions, it’s important that we do what we can to protect the people and the country from falling into the hands of those that would utterly destroy it.
Michael Arnold: Right. There’s a strong case to be made for Israel just from that perspective. Josh, this might be interesting from your perspective: I think in some circles we’re trying to be nonpolitical. We’re trying to not take sides. We’ve got to be careful about whose toes we’re stepping on. But ultimately I think as Christians, as believers in truth, we have to first of all ask, What is true? You’re in a public school, which I think brings a whole new level of politics and carefulness. How do you address that in your circles?
How to Address Israel in Public Schools
Josh Holtcamp: Thank you for asking me that. I am blessed to be in a public school where I can tell a child, I’ll pray for you. We have a community of great folks who are okay with that. Now, politically, that’s probably not the best thing, but I’m okay with that, and people are okay with that. But I cannot say, as a middle school, that we stand with whatever side.
Now, people know that we are known for Holocaust education. People know that this school stands with Israel. But I don’t know if there’s anyone on the other side basically because we are just not educated in this school about what’s going on.
Michael Arnold: I appreciate the wisdom that you exercise as you’re trying to navigate the wide range of people that you’re serving, but, Anna, do you find it surprising for people to say they have to be cautious with just coming out and saying they stand with Israel at a time like this?
Anna Salton Eisen: My experience in Texas is different because first off, we have people that are saying, all the way from our governor and the mayor, “We side with Israel and their need for self defense and to eradicate Hamas.” Of course, everyone feels that the Palestinians should not be subject to dying and control and Sharia law under Hamas. They should live freely with their children, and they should have the right to worship. But we’re dealing with a terrorist regime now, just like the Nazis. I think you should feel that you’re not condemning the Germans when you say we condemn the Nazi government.
I have found people that say, Free Palestine! The Jews, this is their fault. They deserve it. False information. This has been a really big change going forward in how we stand together as brothers and sisters.
We’re not squibbling about, is it Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas? I think that this has changed the relationship. And what I’ve said before now is, yes, offer your Christian prayers for me, and I will offer our Jewish prayers. And I think as long as it’s couched in the right language, it’s inclusive and it has been an incredible thing. But overwhelmingly I’m finding that public officials in the government are right there with us. I just heard that in the state of Florida, the governor passed a policy that state colleges have disbanded all pro-Hamas, pro-terrorist student groups because it’s making it very unsafe.
So I think we’re at the beginning of seeing how this is going to change us because we don’t want these protests. We feel they’re dangerous. We’ve had to cancel events. And it’s changed the way we live.
Michael Arnold: Let’s just unpack that a little bit because you’ve had an attack on your synagogue there in Beth Israel there.
Anna Salton Eisen: January in 2022 there was a gunman who came from England, from Manchester. He had been radicalized. He was a jihadist that came in with a gun saying he had bombs and he held my rabbi and friends hostage for 11 hours. He was trying to get a terrorist who was a female, they called her Lady Al Qaeda, housed in a local federal prison near us in Fort Worth, released.
And he thought by taking Jews hostage, that he would get his demands met. I’m friends with with these hostages, and we’re going out together and speaking together at church events and just finding a lot of support.
When I look at Hamas, I can say, you are standing on the shoulders of giants, the giants of the Nazis. And to the Christians, you are also standing on the shoulders of giants from the Holocaust, but those giants are the Christians who hid Jewish children, who saved Jewish families, who took them into their homes, the convents, the orphanages, who risked their lives and sacrificed their lives. And when they say to the Jewish community, we see you, we’re with you, I say, we see you too, and we need you, and we will never ever forget that you are here for us.
Michael Arnold: So you are making yourself available to talk with Christian leaders and organization leaders who just want to spread the word and make sure that the right information is getting out. But at the same time you were sharing that even that has to be limited for safety concerns.
Anna Salton Eisen: Oh, the security is remarkable. I go to an event, it has to be held indoors. We can’t be outside. Homeland Security has concerns. Then when we’re indoors, there’s SWAT, there’s police cars. There was a big march in Dallas downtown with 3,000 supporters of Hamas and Palestinians. We were told, Don’t go, don’t confront. We have to have bags searched by armed guards. We saw this in our synagogue. It just takes one person who decides, when the adrenaline is going, as the principal knows, and fight or flight takes place and the emotions take over without regard for consequences. And so in this highly volatile time it’s important to try and avoid confrontation, which is not going to lead to anything at all. It’s not going to free a hostage. It’s not going to free the Palestinians who deserve safety and a life from Hamas.
Michael Arnold: A lone vigilante, like the one that your congregation encountered in 2022, that’s scary enough, but when we see groups of people seeming to side with that kind of behavior on the nightly news, that takes it to a whole new level.
Anna Salton Eisen: Yeah. And I don’t think they realize. I think they don’t know the history, not the Holocaust and also not even the history of Israel, that the war of independence was not like America. It wasn’t like in 1948, they fought a war and they won their independence. It was the day after they received independence, they were attacked on multiple fronts and they’ve had multiple attacks. They have never instigated a war. When you see on college campuses people marching, they don’t understand that under Hamas, they would not have this free speech. It’s not a democracy. They would not be able to worship freely, and the women would not have women’s rights.
So I think that some think they want to support the oppressed and they are indeed oppressed, but they’re oppressed by Hamas, not by Israel. And I think that as you probably saw on your trip, Israel has Arabs who live there. They serve in the government and they’re elected to the Knesset. They serve in the military and they are not the ones here who are complaining. And many of them indeed died during the attacks on October 7th, trying to help save Israelis.
We Just Want to Get Along
Michael Arnold: Hey, Josh, I was fascinated on our trip how our tour guide, Ronnie, a proud Jew, loved to tell us Christians how we should be seeing these biblical sites. He was just amazing. And our bus driver was an Arab and they were the best of friends. They’d worked together a lot and Ronnie would say, “We want to work together. We’re not enemies. The other people out there make this up. We’re good friends. We just want to get along.”
Josh Holtcamp: I tell you, I went to Israel the first time back in 2018. We visited a lady who wrote a book, I Lived 10,000 Years. She was in a nursing home and her caregiver was an Arab and they had the best relationship. She would just, especially on Shabbat, let the Arab do it. They were the best of friends. And on the trip, the same thing. We’ve got friends that are riding together, they’re talking together, and my prayer is that this just doesn’t tear them apart because of the bonds that they’ve created.
All Israel has ever done is wanted to be friends. Israel is no place for there to be any attack. Israel has always been the land of the free. And especially for those folks that are Arab and do not support Hamas because now Hamas has come out as the supreme Arab and that’s not fair either. Hamas does not represent the Arab people.
Anna Salton Eisen: Well, even if you look at who was taken hostage, they’re not all Israelis. It shows you the melting pot that Israel is. There were Americans and British and Germans. There were 17 from Nepal. And, of all different countries, nationalities, and religions– not all Jewish. I think that shows you that this has affected the world.
Michael Arnold: And I think, Josh, you have a unique perspective. You were sharing that the memorial that your school hosts there in Tennessee, your school board has decided to shut it down for some of the same reasons that Anna was sharing as far as safety concerns. Do you want to tell us a little bit about the memorial and the thinking behind not making it available at the current time?
Josh Holtcamp: Sure. So our memorial hosts an authentic German rail car, and it hosts over 16 million paper clips after we got them all done, representing those Jews that had died off. So we are at a higher threat level because our school does have this, but the school board decided it was in the best interest of the safety of our children to go ahead and shut that memorial down.
We were actually set to host our 25th anniversary of the Paper Clips Project in November. However, we do expect the shut-down to go longer than 60 days. But some people look at this and say, You know what, by shutting it down, you are not standing with us. And others say, You’re doing the right thing. I don’t know what the boundaries are there. But all I know is we have fantastic tour guides. We have fantastic students that have trained the entire year to work with folks who come to the memorial that now are not going to get to.
Michael Arnold: Well, at the end of the day, you have to protect your students, and not to belittle the memorial, but it’s really just an object, a railway car with stuff in it, right? But yet it’s a magnet for hate for those who would like to fight against the truth of the atrocities that people have experienced. That’s just astounding, I think, to realize that it could draw violence just because of what it represents.
Josh Holtcamp: I think you have to have a realistic amount of fear. I think that to go out without taking precautions or knowing what you have to do, anyone in law enforcement would tell you that this is a time of heightened security. It’s not about standing with Israel. It’s about protecting your students, your community. And that’s what we have to do because there are those within our borders that would do us harm because we believe differently, which is how it’s been for Jews since it all began.
Michael Arnold: So we’ve tried to paint this picture of just how big this is, good versus evil, hatred, and danger, and there are legitimate fears that go along with this. Let’s change directions a little bit and think about how we as educators begin to help our students.
Josh, you work with middle schoolers. Anna, you work with a lot of different groups. How do we help young people who don’t have the historical context and maybe not even a full understanding of geopolitical struggle, good versus evil? How do we help them begin to process this? How are you addressing this with your students, especially those students who are looking forward to being a tour guide at your memorial, and now they don’t get that opportunity. And what other conversations is this leading to?
How to Address the Israel Situation with Students
Josh Holtcamp: We just visited Philadelphia, and all of our tour guides and future tour guides, we hope, were on that trip. We took about 50 folks with us. And we got lost. We spent about 30 hours on a charter bus in all. There was lots of time to talk, and I was really able to talk about the situation. And you could tell the fears on their faces. Lots of parents questioned whether or not their kids should be going because we were going to the synagogue. Once I got to talking, they got to asking questions. There’s no doubt that those 48 students on that bus know where we are today. Now, I can’t go in front of the entire school and go over the geopolitical climate, but my goal is for those students who heard that, for them to go out now and talk to folks about it.
Michael Arnold: Yeah. And Anna, what are some of the messages that you’re sharing or the truths that you would like for people to hold on to as they interact with other people and have conversations about what’s going on in Israel even today?
Anna Salton Eisen: I think we want to reinforce that what happened in the Holocaust was real. It was government sponsored. It was based on the fact that these people were Jewish. It didn’t matter what country they lived in. There were more than 20 countries occupied. It didn’t even matter if they weren’t practicing Jews. You could have just one Jewish grandparent and it was an extermination project. And so we have to understand the history.
And even now, today and yesterday, even though the Palestinians were saying that they have no fuel and they have no food, they still have plenty of rockets. They have not stopped firing rockets, so they are not even showing their own intention. Yesterday, there was apparently a group that came by sea. By land, by sea, by air, by paraglide, they’re going to kill, and so I think it’s important to be informed, to pray for us, and to engage with us.
If we don’t take a stand, then we empower the people that want to continue the aggression. So as I said, I feel for the Palestinians. I think that they need to have a safe place and a safe life and food and care for their children and be free of Hamas. I’m not anti-Palestinian, I’m just anti-Hamas, but I think those lines are blurred. And that’s got to be our job as educators to say, like we see at Harvard where some of the big donors are saying, these are supposed to be our world leaders and they don’t even understand simple current events.
Michael Arnold: The mantra after the Holocaust was Never again. And yet we’re hearing some people say today, and I hesitate to even go here, but some people say today that this is a second holocaust for Israel just on the scale of what’s going on and the aggressiveness and the depth of depravity that we’re seeing in these attacks. What’s your take on that? Do you feel like that’s a fair comparison? Is history repeating itself?
Is History Repeating Itself?
Anna Salton Eisen: I wouldn’t call it a second Holocaust because it seems like that’s a sacred term, just like saying, this is a second Exodus or a second garden of Eden. That sounds like a good name for a spa, but not for really renaming history. Yes, it is the largest number of Jews killed in a single massacre since the Holocaust. I think the level of depravity and the programming that has gone on to raise up a generation of young terrorists that would go in and do this with such force and violence may have even outdone some of the things that happened in the holocaust.
So, I don’t know that I would call it a second holocaust. I don’t mind if other people do. I think the point is that, you would think that in 2023 with all the advancements we have in this world with technology, with globalization, that we have access to information and education, that there would be people looking for a better solution than massacre.
I think our job is to inform, to educate, to bring back the Ten Commandments. “Thou shalt not kill.” What’s going on here? We can’t equalize this by saying it’s justified. This should never, ever be a solution to anyone’s anger, no more than a mass shooting in an American public school.
Michael Arnold: I think people today, myself included, are struggling to even know how to classify this, how to process it. We’re looking for words.
Josh, you’re dealing with junior high students who have more access to this kind of stuff than ever before. I was listening to another podcast the other day. Dr. Drew was on the podcast and he said, “We don’t know what impact this kind of exposure will have on children’s brains.”
And that kind of hit me to realize, we don’t know the outcome of this from a traumatic perspective. What are you seeing, Josh, in the junior high hallways? How are you addressing that with your kids and their families?
Josh Holtcamp: There’s not a lot of interest here in our small town about this war. There’s just not. It’s another world. When we went to Beth Israel, Beth Ammon, Pennsylvania, and Penn Valley, I had to tell them how these Jews are connected to Israel because that’s an unknown.
So there’s lots of learning here, but it’s more like in my small town that we don’t need to be worried about this other world. I did join a Zoom with one of my friends, Norman Einor, who lives in Penn Valley, and they were talking about college campuses and how the Internet and social media is killing these children, these students, especially the Jews that are listening to it.
But we just haven’t felt that here. It’s just not a part of our culture in terms of just our small town. However, folks like me who are interested in the world and are interested in the museum, I follow all of that.
Anna Salton Eisen: But you know what, I think it is coming to a theater near you. Because, number one, what you see on the campus is you have to close the museum. You might have to get security for any kind of pro Israel or worship services. In Texas, we have concerns about Lebanese terrorists crossing over the open southern border. And I think that as we’re going to start sending American troops there to protect our relationship with Israel, that is an important source,the American military, because you may see an uptick in Americans that want to enlist.
Michael Arnold: Do you think there’s any going back from this? Has this been an earthquake on the geopolitical landscape? Is this going to change the future forever or are we going to return to status quo after a few days?
Anna Salton Eisen: I think the goal is to take up the Hamas regime and put in a Palestinian government that will secure the rights and better life for their people and allow better relationships. I think there’s thousands of people from Gaza who have passes to go into Israel every day for work.
So I don’t know how long it’ll take and what that government will be like. And then of course you have the problem that it’s funded and directed by Iran. It is a big, long term thing, but it’s been a long time coming.
Michael Arnold: Josh, maybe in terms of a last word, you’ve mentioned that your students seem to be a little bit isolated, insulated from the broader events of the world. And maybe that’s true for a lot of students across the United States who tend to focus more on their little hub on social media and not the bigger world.
And maybe there’s some good things from that. But I think my question is, so how do we help students who are in that mindset? And this is a big question, so I’ll just prepare you for it. How do we help students who are isolated and insulated realize good versus evil, avoiding the broad brush strokes that we often apply to the other, the outsiders, the people who aren’t like us or don’t live near us? What are some of the tips or tricks or conversations you’ve had with your students to just help them be more human and not tribal?
Human Not Tribal
Josh Holtcamp: That is a good question and it is quite loaded. So, one of our school acronyms is ROAR, being responsible, organized, ambitious. and also respectful. So what I will do is bring that into when I’m able to talk about the award. Hey, are these folks being respectful? What about responsible? That leads to lots of questions, but I can’t do this in terms of a theater. I’ve got to do it when people ask. Often, I’ll drop into classrooms as I’ve done this morning and say, Hey, how’s it going? What’s going on? Do you know anything going on here?
And we will talk, but I would love to just have an assembly and do all kinds of stuff. Can’t do that. But we are getting that into our school. We are standing with Israel. It’s just a little bit different than it would be if we were at a private school.
Anna Salton Eisen: But that may change because I’ll tell you, in Texas, the governor just came out and issued from the Texas education standards guidelines for how to talk about this in the classroom, per grade, with materials and resources.
Michael Arnold: And I think educators in general can just tighten their belts a little bit and be a little bit more bold because I think good versus evil and historical truths are on our side. And yet, Josh, what you expressed, I think is spot on, that relational approach, the interpersonal connections. If we want our students to be more human, we need to model that, right? We need to be human and we need to help them process maybe more on a one-on-one basis.
And I know both of you would be happy to be a resource and to connect with other educators. Anna, share with us about your website and how people can get a hold of you.
Anna Salton Eisen: Sure. So my website is my name, AnnaSaltonEisen.com and on it, you can contact me. I’m happy to do presentations or Zooms. I have two books out that are about my father’s holocaust journey and also mine as a childhood survivor. Also, I’m happy to report we have a film coming out that will be geared towards schools. We’re about four months away from distribution.
Michael Arnold: And you can learn more about Josh’s school, Whitwell Junior High, and the Children’s Holocaust memorial there in Whitwell as well, and you can search that on Google. It’s also on the Tennessee tourism site.
Thank you both for being with us today for this complicated, complex, difficult conversation. I really appreciate the work that you’re doing to make a difference in your circle, in your sphere of influence, and I think your messages will be helpful to others as well. Thank you both.