SouthCoast lawmakers, Jewish educators support new mandatory genocide education law

The Massachusetts Statehouse. (Photo by Ana Goni-Lessan/BU News Service)

By Joyce Doherty
Boston University Statehouse Program

BOSTON — Genocide education will be compulsory in all public middle and high schools in the commonwealth under a bill Gov. Charlie Baker recently signed into law.

The bill, initially sponsored by Rep. Michael Day, D-Stoneham, and Sen. Michael Moore, D-Millbury, was filed in a climate where a national survey reported that 63% of millennials did not know that six million Jews died in the Holocaust and were unfamiliar with other basic facts regarding the World War II event, according to Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Sen. Michael Rodrigues, D-Westport.

“I thought, ‘how could that be?’” Rodrigues said in a phone interview. “Then I realized that I am of an older generation where Holocaust survivors would come into classrooms to tell their story. They’re all pretty much gone now. It’s been over 75 years since Auschwitz was liberated.”

Rodrigues originally filed the bill in the previous legislative session to require Holocaust education but soon expanded to include all genocides, realizing that people were unaware of the Armenian, Bosnian and Rwandan genocides.

After a spring 2021 incident involving a Duxbury High School football coach using anti-Semitic terms on the field, the bill garnered more support, according to Rodrigues.

The Senate passed the bill several times before it finally won House approval in late November. While there is general support of the bill, some say Massachusetts is a little late in passing it, citing 19 other states having passed similar legislation or mandates, according to the Statehouse News Service

Holocaust and Genocide Center and Bristol Community College

“I feel good that it has finally happened,” Ron Weisberger, Director of the Bristol Holocaust and Genocide Center about the bill’s passage. “I just don’t know why it took as long as it did.”

Weisberger, who testified twice in support, has been teaching a course on the Holocaust for the past 18 years at Bristol Community College. Many of his students enter not knowing much on the subject. The center is one of three in Massachusetts associated with a local college, such as Salem State University and UMass Amherst.

“It’s just one of the things I think students need to be aware of,” Weisberger said during a phone interview. “What would lead to genocide? How do we get to that place? So we teach a course like this to help students develop empathy, some appreciation for treating everybody as equal.”

Genocide Education Trust Fund to fund curriculum

The bill will create a Genocide Education Trust Fund that will give schools the funds to develop curriculum and prepare teachers to educate students on genocides in history. Part of the money in the trust will be financed by hate crime and civil rights violations.Your stories live here.Fuel your hometown passion and plug into the stories that define it.

“This bill will provide support for professional development,” Weisberger said. “We have great teachers in the area, but they’re busy, so we can provide professional development for them, so that they can learn how to most effectively take projects and teach students about genocide.”

While Rabbi Raphael Kanter of Tifereth Israel Congregation perceives the SouthCoast as a particularly tolerant community as opposed to other places he has lived, he has noted the rise of anti-Semitism nationwide, something he hopes can be remedied by teaching history with facts in a disciplined way, and not with anti-Semitic tropes.

“Charlottesville was a very important event for me, as a rabbi,” Kanter said during a phone interview of the violent and deadly Virginia “Unite the Right” protest. “This bill really seeks to address that kind of intolerance and hatred and it is an antidote to Charlottesville.”

This story originally appears in South Coast Today.

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