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RI Law ensures teaching of Holocaust, Genocides in public schools – Herb Weiss

by Herb Weiss, contributing writer

The Rhode Island Holocaust and Genocide Education Coalition (RIHGEC) has successfully pushed state lawmakers to pass legislation that formalizes a commission to implement a 2016 law to require public schools to teach students about genocide and the Holocaust.  The 2016 law was introduced by Sen. Gayle L. Goldin (D-Dist. 3, Providence) and House Majority Whip Katherine S. Kazarian.

Under the legislation, , 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.  It would also oversee a Holocaust and Genocide Awareness month to continue to raise public awareness of horrific atrocities. 

In the final weeks of this year’s legislative session, RIHGC’s broad-based coalition, comprised of Jewish organizations, and Commission on Prejudice and Bias along with members of the Armenian, Jewish, Cambodian, and indigenous communities, would see their lobbying efforts gain traction leading to passage of legislation to create a permanent state commission to  promote and continually improve genocide and Holocaust education in schools.  

H 5650 A, entitled the “Rhode Island Holocaust and Genocide Education Commission,” quickly passed through the House because several lawmakers pushed hard for it. The efforts of Rep. Rebecca Kislak (D-Dist. 7, Providence), the legislation’s primary sponsor, and cosponsors House Majority Whip Katherine S. Kazarian (D-Dist. 63, East Providence, and Rep. Nathan W. Biah Sr. (D-Dist. 3, Providence) led to passage of the legislative proposal on May 18 by a vote of 77 to 0, with two lawmakers not voting.

On April 23, S 0840 A (the House bills companion measure) was introduced in the upper chamber and referred to the Senate Education Committee for consideration.  However, Sen. Gayle L. Goldin (D-Dist. 3, Providence), the  primary sponsor, and cosponsors Sens. Joshua Miller (D-District 28, Providence/Cranston), Hanna Gallo (D-District 27, Cranston), Thomas Paolino (R-District 17, Lincoln, North Providence, and North Smithfield) and Meghan Kallman (D-District 15, Pawtucket),  watched this legislative proposal sit in the Senate Committee for weeks, having been referred for further study. Oftentimes, this was a polite way of leadership to kill a legislative proposal. 

But, in the waning days of the legislative session, an intensive lobbying effort from RIHGE Coalition members including sending emails, making phone calls and sending informational packets to the Senate Education Committee finally led to the Senate Education Committee  passing S 0840 A and sending it to the Senate floor for consideration.  On July 1st, the legislative proposal passed by a vote of 36 to 1 with one lawmaker not voting and the other abstaining.

The legislative proposal was transmitted to Gov. Dan McKee on July 7 for his signature. The bill was transmitted to the Governor on July 7. He has until the 14th to sign or veto the bill, at which point if he has not acted it will become law without his signature.

According to Robert Trestan, New England Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League, Rhode Island now joins 19 states that mandate Holocaust and genocide education, and 7 of those states include a commission or council to help implement the mandate.  Eleven states that do not have mandates have formed commissions or councils that develop educational programs about the Holocaust, he says.

“While we do not have data regarding the efficacy of these groups, it is key that experts, educators, and community members have a role in forming curricula and school programs on this important subject, says Trestan.

Rhode Island Law Puts Rhode Island in Forefront of Fighting Hate

“Rhode Island was in the forefront of passing legislation requiring the study of Holocaust and genocide education in its public schools,” says Marty Cooper, RIHGC’s Chair. “This was due to Rhode Islanders commitment to educate its students on this issue as it related to hate, bullying and overall racism nationally as well as globally,” he adds.

Cooper says that many states that passed similar legislation have a commission to oversee implementation and ongoing study of the Holocaust and genocides. What makes Rhode Island’s commission standout is it will also oversee a Holocaust and Genocide Awareness month. 

RIHGC will reach out to the state and the Commission, at the appropriate time, providing input of what has been done and what the coalition listed as goals, and action to be taken to help assure the newly established Commission moves forward with little, or no delay. “The coalition will also provide any material needed by the Commission and will be available to consult with the Commission when requested,” he says. 

“Genocide and Holocaust Education is more important than ever. With hatred toward minority communities on the rise we must continue to ensure our state teaches what happens when hatred is allowed to go unchecked,” says Adam Greenman, president and CEO of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.   “Never again must mean never again and I’m glad this commission will work to make that a reality,” he adds. 

Adds Gretchen Skidmore  Director, Education Initiatives, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: We cannot anticipate how an educational mandate will be implemented in local schools, but the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum supports quality Holocaust education by providing free resources and trainings for educators in every state. We believe when done with rigor, Holocaust education should inspire students to think critically about how and why the Holocaust happened and what lessons it holds for us today.”

Thoughts from the Legislative Arena

“Teaching young people about the devastating  impact that the Holocaust and other genocides have had throughout the course of history is crucial to building a safe and just future for all,” said Gov. Dan McKee. “We must educate the next generations about the atrocities of the past to ensure it never happens again. I look forward to signing this legislation to provide all students in Rhode Island public schools with that education. This is an important step forward in putting an end to acts of hatred, anti-Semitism, and prejudice wherever they exist,” adds McKee.

President of the Senate Dominick J. Ruggerio said, “We need to ensure that students are educated about the atrocities of the past not just so that they have a full understanding of world history, but also so that they can recognize the conditions that lead to intolerance and oppression.”

“My hope is that, with the creation of a Genocide and Holocaust Education Commission, we raise awareness and understanding so that students realize how insidious the impact of hate can be,” said Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Dist. 23, Warwick). “We just saw a horrific example of antisemitism not far away in Boston, where a rabbi was brutally attacked while standing in front of a menorah on the steps of a Jewish school. Incidents like this show that we need to continue to educate our children, so they understand that hateful ideology can cultivate real, physical and/or emotional repercussions. It’s incumbent upon all of us to combat hate in all forms.”

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Sandra Cano said, “As a refugee who fled from violence in my native Colombia, I know firsthand the horrors of not knowing if you are safe in your own home. Senator Goldin’s legislation helps ensure that all Rhode Island students are educated about the Holocaust and genocides of the past, which is a critical first step to ensuring such terrible events are not repeated. The importance of this legislation is only magnified when we consider the hate and demonization of certain groups taking place right here in the United States today.”

“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,” says Goldin, whose grandparents fled eastern Europe to Canada during pogroms. Those of her family members who were unable to escape died in either the pogroms or the Holocaust.

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,” adds Goldin.

“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,”  Goldin adds.

Paolino, a cosponsor of the Senate legislation, also lost family in the Armenian genocide.  “My relatives have a keen understanding of how hate and bigotry can escalate to reverberate through generations,” he said, stressing the importance of educating society on the warning signs of genocide. “Learning the history about these atrocities and how to prevent them will best protect our future,” adds Paolino.

Kislak noted that so many Rhode Islanders’ families are from countries 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, she says.    

First-Person Survivor Witnesses Dwindling  

Bill Benson, who interviews survivors of the Holocaust before live audiences at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., sees first hand the importance of educating the world about the horrors of the Holocaust.  “Because of the coronavirus pandemic we are now providing the museum’s First-Person program virtually, he says.

Benson recently interviewed 90-year-old Irene Fogel Weiss, who survived incarceration at Auschwitz, a forced death march, and then at the end of the war absorbing the reality of the murder of most of her extended family in the Holocaust, the result of Nazi Germany’s fanatical genocidal drive to wipe out the Jewish population of Europe.

“She knows all too well that she is one of the remaining but quickly dwindling survivors of the Holocaust still able to share the pain and horror she witnessed and experienced first-hand,” says Benson.

“Sadly, there are people in the United States and elsewhere in the world who not only minimize the horror and scope of the Holocaust, but others who deny its reality entirely. If they are willing to do that just imagine their unwillingness to acknowledge much less condemn genocide in what seem like obscure places on the globe, like Myanmar, Syria, Rwanda, the Balkans, and elsewhere,” says Benson.

“Rhode Island’s legislature can help to transcend widespread ignorance and even denial of the Holocaust and genocide by establishing this Commission. Weiss will not be able to provide her first-person testimony indefinitely,” acknowledges Benson. “New well-informed voices must step forward. A Genocide and Holocaust Commission can help to educate and inform about the realities of genocide and help ensure new generations learn what they do not know so they can lend their voices to efforts to confront hate and end genocide,” he says.

Rhode Island’s newly established Commission will ensure that the Holocaust and Genocides that occurred throughout the world will never be forgotten by Rhode Islanders.  Our state built firmly on the principles of religious freedom now sends this message out to the world: “Never Again.”

The RIHGEC includes representatives from the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Center, The Genocide Education Project, , as well as the general community, including members of the Armenian, Jewish, Cambodian, and indigenous community.

Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com

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Herb Weiss has enjoyed a distinguished 41 year career in journalism, earning a national reputation as an expert on aging, health care and medical issues. Over 780 articles that he has authored or coauthored have appeared in national, state and local publications. Governor Gina Raimondo appointed Him to the Rhode Island Advisory Commission on aging. Today, Herb’s weekly newspaper column appears in the Pawtucket Times and Woonsocket call, two North Rhode Island daily newspapers, and will now run in RINewsToday.com. Herb and his wife, Patty Zacks, reside in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.