Rhode Island lawmakers can say never again

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On Oct. 15, 2015, anti-Semitic and racist leaflets were distributed on Providence’s East Side.  Just months ago a Brown student discovered anti-Semitic messages on the walls directly across from his dorm room, where he had a mezuzah on his door.  And the Joint Distribution Committee’s International Centre for Community Development released a survey that reported that “two in five Jewish leaders across Europe believe the rise in anti-Semitism represents a ‘major threat’ to the future of their communities.” 

Rhode Island lawmakers are pushing legislation to use education as a way to stamp out future holocausts and genocide.  

On May 5, the House passed House Bill 7488A, which requires all middle and high school students to receive instruction in holocaust and genocide studies.  Following introductory remarks from Rep. Katherine S. Kazarian (D-Dist. 63), the East Providence lawmaker’s measure passed the House unanimously with every member present seconding the motion for passage.  Of note, the House approved the measure on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The passage of House Bill 7488A follows the Rhode Island General Assembly’s successful efforts in 2011 to enact a law titled “Genocide Education in Secondary Schools” that emphasized a need to make genocide curriculum materials available including, but not limited to, the Holocaust of WWII, and the genocides in Armenia, Cambodia, Iraq, Rwanda and Darfur.  If the measure is passed by the Senate and signed into law by Gov. Gina Raimondo, it would officially empower the Department of Education to require school districts of the state to teach about these important events in history.  The requirement would commence with the school year beginning in September 2017.

According to The Genocide Education Project, 11 states require the teaching of the Armenian genocide. Many of these states also require education on the Holocaust as well as other inhumane atrocities.

According to Marty Cooper, community relations director of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, when passed the legislation will make Rhode Island the first New England state to require holocaust and genocide education in its schools. 

“The study of this issue will provide much needed lessons on humanity and civilization. Hopefully, students will learn why it is important for them to not allow genocide [or another Holocaust] to take place and to call for an end of all intentional actions and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious or national group,” says Cooper.

“Although these are not pleasant topics to learn about in school, these events must be studied by our children in order to prevent further similar atrocities from happening in the future,” says Kazarian, a fourth-generation Armenian-American.  “We should never allow the atrocities of the Armenian genocide nor any form of ethnic cleansing to be repeated.”  

Kazarian noted that her great-grandparents had survived the Armenian genocide that took place between 1915 and 1923.  According to the Armenian National Institute in Washington, D.C., the genocide resulted in the death of 1.5 million Armenians. It is estimated that close to 2 million Armenians were living in the Ottoman Empire just prior to World War I when the Turkish government subjected its Armenian population to deportation, expropriation, abduction, torture, massacre and starvation.

“My family’s own history involving the Armenian genocide has shown me that these events in history should never be forgotten and it is important that our children recognize and understand how such terrible events can occur in society, and more importantly, how to stop them from happening,” added Kazarian.

Sen. Gayle Goldin (D-Dist. 03) of Providence has introduced a companion measure in the Rhode Island State Senate.  The Senate Committee on Education heard testimony on March 30 and has held the bill for further study. 

“As we look across the globe at atrocities committed in Syria and many other regions, and closer to home, where anti-Semitic graffiti appeared at Brown University as recently as March, it is clear how important it is to ensure students can place these actions into a historical context,” says Goldin.  “We want to ensure that themes about genocide and the Holocaust are taught in more than an ad hoc manner, but included as part of a comprehensive curriculum. These important historical lessons should be woven into studies in ways that ensure students are gaining the appropriate perspective so that we learn from the past and never again stand idle witness to genocide or the hate and fear that lead to it,” she says.

Goldin continued, “When I was approached by the coalition to introduce this bill, it resonated with me personally. I’m named after my paternal great aunt and uncle, who perished in the Holocaust, along with the majority of my ancestors who died as a result of the pogroms leading up to and during the Holocaust. Those atrocities shaped my family’s identity. As a child, I was taught never to forget. This legislation ensures that children will continue to learn about impact of the Holocaust and genocides in general on our society.” 

“The lessons of the Holocaust are more relevant than ever before. Today, we see a rise in anti-Semitism worldwide, including in the lands where the Holocaust happened. Genocide continues to occur even in the wake of the promise of ‘Never Again.’ Bringing this history’s lessons to students is critical as their generation will be tomorrow’s leaders in confronting these challenges,” says Andy Hollinger, director of communications at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Hollinger adds, “The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum offers many free, online resources to educators seeking to bring Holocaust education to their students. (ushmm.org/educators) We also offer on-site training programs for educators and encourage Rhode Island educators to utilize these resources.  

As June approaches, Goldin’s companion measure is held for further study, this sometimes being legislative code for “bill will not see the light of day for a vote.”  With the increasing incidents of anti-Semitism and hate crimes in Rhode Island, throughout the nation and the world, Senate Pres. M. Teresa Paiva Weed must send a strong signal to all – “Rhode Island says Never Again.” Hatred can proactively be stamped out by education.  That’s exactly the intent of Kazarian and Goldin’s legislation.

Prime organizations managing the research and drafting of the legislation include the Armenian community, Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, the Rhode Island Council of Churches, the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center. 

HERB WEISS is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com. This article previously appeared in the Pawtucket Times and the Woonsocket Call.