After she learned the Duxbury High football team had reportedly used offensive and anti-Semitic terms like “Auschwitz” in audible play calls in a game on March 12, state Senate President Karen Spilka took to Twitter calling for passage of a genocide education bill.
Spilka, who is Jewish, tweeted that her father served in the Army and helped liberate the Buchenwald concentration camp, and that she lost family at Auschwitz.
“We must all do the work to confront bigotry and stand up to hate,” the Ashland Democrat said.
The use of the terms led to the firing of Duxbury High’s head football coach, an ongoing independent investigation by the school district, and outrage in the South Shore community.
It also sparked renewed interest among lawmakers for a bill to expand genocide education in the Bay State, after one passed the state Senate last year, 40-0, but then languished in the House Committee on Ways and Means.
New House and Senate versions are on the docket for this session. The Senate version mandates genocide education for middle and high school students while setting up a Genocide Education Trust Fund and a competitive grant program to help pay for courses, training, and other resources.
The House bill does much the same but stops short of a mandate.
“The unfortunate situation that happened in Duxbury did create a lot of interest in the bill,” said state Senator Michael Rodrigues, a Westport Democrat who represents the 1st Bristol and Plymouth District on the South Shore, which does not include Duxbury.
“I think Duxbury shined a whole new light … on the need to provide education on the Holocaust and all other genocides,” Rodrigues said in an interview. His bill has almost 50 cosponsors, both Republican and Democratic.
Rodrigues said he does not think the Duxbury players were trying to be hateful in using the terms on the field, but he thinks they were just ignorant of how they could be construed.
“I don’t think they did it to be hurtful of anybody,” he said.
State Representative Josh Cutler, who represents the 6th Plymouth District that includes Hanson, Pembroke, and much of Duxbury, said he supports the House bill sponsored by Jeffrey Roy, a Franklin Democrat. Roy’s bill has 65 cosponsors and bipartisan support.
“As time passes and memories fade,” Cutler said in an email, “I think it becomes even more important that incidents of genocide such as the Holocaust be part of our school curriculum. Education and awareness are the key, and this bill gives our local districts both the tools and the direction to help accomplish this.”
“We believe genocide education is an important part of the development of youth,” said Jeremy Burton, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. It applies to students’ civic awareness, moral health, and consciousness of an historical event such as the Holocaust, he said.
Duxbury High’s program of studies for the 2020-2021 school year has two courses that would dovetail with the kind of genocide education the House and Senate bills are talking about – Holocaust and Human Behavior I and Genocide and Human Behavior II. Both courses are electives.
Burton said it’s unknown if any of the Duxbury High football players have taken these courses.
The Anti-Defamation League has made genocide education a legislative priority.
ADL New England has helped lead a coalition of more than 75 social justice organizations, faith congregations, and residents who favor genocide education legislation. Members include Facing History and Ourselves, a Brookline nonprofit that provides resources for educators to combat racism, anti-Semitism, and prejudice; the Armenian National Committee of Eastern Massachusetts; the JCRC of Greater Boston; and the Massachusetts Coalition to Save Darfur.
Robert Trestan, the ADL’s regional director, talked about the need for genocide education before the Joint Committee on Education in October 2019.
Trestan testified that a survey showed 22 percent of millennials had never heard of or were unsure if they had heard of the Holocaust. “Only 35 percent of all Americans know about the Armenian Genocide,” he said.
“It’s important that this generation and the next generation understand the significance” of the Holocaust, Trestan said in a recent interview. “That is what is so hurtful and hateful about Duxbury,” Trestan said. Auschwitz was a place where 1 million Jews died and yet, he said, the name was trivialized as a name for a football play.
A September 2020 survey conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which aims to provide a measure of justice for Jewish Holocaust survivors, found that in Massachusetts, 35 percent of millennials (ages 23 to 38) and Gen Z (ages 7 to 22) “did not know what Auschwitz was.”
Trestan said the ADL is optimistic a version of the latest bill will pass given the support it had in the Senate last session.
Trestan said the legislation sets up a Genocide Education Trust Fund, which would be both publicly and privately funded with incentives for districts that don’t already have genocide education. The ADL has noticed that for the most part, genocide education in the state is taught as an elective.
“We want to ensure that all students get access, not just schools and students who self-select,” Trestan said.
State Senator Barry Finegold, an Andover Democrat who is Jewish, spoke virtually with members of the Duxbury High football team after the play-calling was exposed and is one of the bill’s cofounders.
He said the bill “is something we really need to get passed this term.”
Another cosponsor of both the House and Senate versions is state Representative Lori Ehrlich, a Jewish member of the Legislature who represents Swampscott, Marblehead, and a portion of Lynn. She said in an email the bill “is urgently needed.”
“The Duxbury High incident is just the latest in a really disturbing rise in anti-Semitism over the last several years,” she said.
Ehrlich also noted that a difference between the two proposals is the degree to which each mandates genocide education.
“While there may be some differences between the filings, at the end of the day the strength in numbers of the cosponsors makes it clear that there is robust support among [lawmakers] in both the House and Senate to pass a version of the genocide education bill, including the Senate President.”
Another strong proponent is state Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Stone Creem of Newton, another Jewish member of the Legislature.
“I do think it should be mandatory,” she said. She said she’s confident a bill will pass this session, given its widespread support.
State Representative Paul Tucker, a Salem Democrat, agreed what happened in Duxbury created awareness around the need for genocide education in Massachusetts.
“Absolutely,” said Tucker, a former Salem police chief who sits on the ADL’s North Shore advisory board. “First of all, the incident in Duxbury was just beyond words.”
He said “in a very strange and unwelcome way,” what happened in Duxbury shined a spotlight on the need for genocide education in the state. Another impetus is the fact that “we are losing Holocaust survivors.” Tucker said he supports both the House and Senate versions of the bill.
Other lawmakers also back genocide education in the Bay State.
“I think we will take it up quickly and we will pass it into law,” said state Senator Brendan Crighton, a Lynn Democrat whose district includes Marblehead, Swampscott, Lynn, Saugus, and Lynnfield. Crighton said he has visited Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, and found the experience “very emotional and moving.”
Crighton said it was too early in the legislative process to see how the differences in the House and Senate bill might play out.
Crighton said the differences between the bills shouldn’t be too big of an obstacle to be able to get the legislation over the finish line.
“The importance of not forgetting is educating the next generation of these horrific events,” said state Representative Tom Walsh, a Democrat from Peabody, who is another cosponsor of the House bill.
“It does keep the events of the Holocaust so that we don’t forget,” said state Representative Sally Kerans, a Democrat from Danvers, about the importance of teaching students as early as middle school about the attempt to exterminate Jews. She said the late Sonia Weitz, a Holocaust survivor and Peabody resident who made educating others about the Holocaust her life’s mission, “would say, I think, this is the right thing to do to put it in the curriculum and make sure that it gets taught.”