Efforts by Rhode Island and Massachusetts to make Holocaust education mandatory in their schools read like a tale of two states: The Ocean State has done so, while Massachusetts’ latest attempt is again making its way through the state Legislature.
The R.I. General Assembly passed a law in 2016 requiring Holocaust and genocide education in middle and high school??, and Gov. Daniel McKee in July signed additional legislation creating a permanent commission “to promote and continually improve genocide and Holocaust education in schools,” according to a news release from the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Rebecca Kislak and Sen. Gayle L. Goldin.
The commission’s goal is to implement the 2016 law.
In Massachusetts, House and Senate bills with similar goals of requiring Holocaust education received a hearing in May, and now await action to move to the next stage: votes in both chambers. Similar efforts have failed in past legislative sessions.
Here’s a closer look at the Holocaust-education initiatives in both states:
Before the new commission was created, the 2016 law lacked an enforcement mechanism, said Paula Olivieri, education coordinator at the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center, which is housed in the Alliance’s Dwares Jewish Community Center, in Providence.
“The commission will oversee the law requiring Holocaust and genocide education. The hope is that it will ensure” compliance with the 2016 law, Olivieri said.
According to the bill, “the Holocaust and Genocide Education Commission will gather and disseminate Holocaust and genocide information, work with the Department of Education to update and promote statewide Holocaust and genocide education programs and promote public awareness of issues relating to Holocaust and genocide education.”
The bill’s sponsors say they are encouraged by the creation of the commission.
“Given the hate and bigotry that is common in public discourse today, it is especially important to educate students about the incredible damage that prejudice and intolerance have caused throughout history,” said Goldin, whose grandparents fled the pogroms in Eastern Europe for Canada.
“The best way to ensure our future generations never repeat these actions is to teach them about the impact the Holocaust and other genocides have had in our world. Learning about our past provides perspective on current world events. It is also an opportunity for people to learn from one another about experiences of oppression,” said Goldin, District 3, Providence, who lost family members in the Holocaust.
Rep. Kislak, in backing the commission’s formation, cited the number of Ocean State residents affected by genocides.
“So many Rhode Islanders’ families are from communities that have been impacted by genocides. Listening to each other’s stories and learning about those diverse histories will help us see the humanity in one another and build stronger communities,” said Kislak, District 4, Providence.
Legislators in the Bay State are hopeful that there will be action on the House and Senate bills, which were the subject of a virtual hearing May 20 by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education. Both genocide-education bills were discussed during a more than five-hour hearing on 45 education-related bills.
Under the language in both bills, the education commissioner would set up and administer a separate fund, called the Genocide Education Trust Fund, to pay for Holocaust and genocide education in the state’s middle and secondary schools.
The Senate bill is sponsored by Sen. Michael J. Rodrigues, who represents parts of Bristol and Plymouth, and the House bill is sponsored by Rep. Jeffrey N. Roy, 10th Norfolk district.
Massachusetts Rep. Adam Scanlon, 14th Bristol district, said he supports the bill because “teaching the history of genocide is critical to creating well-informed and inclusive communities, which alone makes the bill worthy of support. It is a bipartisan bill, which also shows a commitment from many to this topic and for public education in general.”
Scanlon explained what will happen next: The committee must decide whether to issue a favorable report to move the bill to a full House vote; consider it as part of a larger education bill; or send it to a study committee – which usually means the legislation is unlikely to come up for a vote in the current session.
Another Southeastern Massachusetts legislator, state Rep. Jim Hawkins, has signed on as a co-sponsor.
“I am so very much in favor of this. We cannot sugarcoat our history and hope to advance as a society,” said Hawkins, who represents part of Bristol.
“I have read that many people don’t remember, or even deny, that the Holocaust happened. And if we don’t talk about the Holocaust, it will be all too easy to dismiss hatred as harmless,” he said.
Holocaust education is personal for state Sen. Becca Rausch, whose Norfolk, Bristol and Middlesex district encompasses much of the Attleboro area. Rausch said her grandfather, from Augsburg, Germany, survived the Nazis. She spoke passionately about the Holocaust and the genocide-education bill during a previous hearing, on Aug. 3, 2020.
“We only combat hate with education and meaningful dialogue, and that’s what this bill does; that’s why I’m proud to stand today and support it,” she said. “I am the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, and the vast majority of that branch of my family was completely wiped out in the Holocaust.”
Rausch, in a phone interview, said she’s a co-sponsor of the bill this year, and is hopeful it will pass the Senate, as it did last year. But she stressed that schools shouldn’t wait for the legislation to be approved to start teaching about the Holocaust and other genocides. She urged teachers to use available resources to work toward that goal.
“It’s becoming more important that we engage” people given the resurgence of anti-Semitic incidents, she said.
“I know the significance of using ‘Auschwitz’ as a football term,” which the Duxbury High team had been doing for years, until it was widely reported in the media and led to the firing of the football coach at the Massachusetts school.
“The truth is that if we don’t [educate people], history is doomed to repeat itself,” Rausch warned.
“The way to generate healing is through education,” she added.
LARRY KESSLER (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer based in North Attleboro.