BOSTON – With incidences of antisemitism and other hate on the rise, a long-sought bill calling for genocide and human rights education in Bay State middle and high schools passed the state Senate on Oct. 21 by a vote of 39-0.
The measure still has to pass the House and be signed into law by Governor Charlie Baker before it can be implemented.
While Jewish leaders and some lawmakers applauded the bill’s passage in the Senate, similar bills have been filed during past legislative sessions in recent years that did not make it into law. A version that passed the Senate unanimously last session languished in the House as the pandemic focused lawmakers’ attention on COVID-19 relief measures.
In March, the push for genocide education gained momentum after an incident in Duxbury, where an investigation found members of the varsity football team used Jewish-related and antisemitic words such as “Auschwitz” during audible play calls during a game on March 12. The fall football season had been pushed into the spring because of the pandemic.
“I think Duxbury definitely put a spotlight on the importance of teaching students about the Holocaust and about genocide,” said Robert Trestan, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League New England, “and the dangers of not doing it.”
The Senate bill also comes a year after a survey by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found 63 percent of Americans under age 40 did not know 6 million Jews had been murdered in the Holocaust. In addition, more than 1 in 10 survey respondents did not recall ever having heard the word “Holocaust” before.
Massachusetts and Vermont are the two New England holdouts that do not require genocide education in public schools, Trestan said. The ADL has made genocide education a legislative priority nationally.
“It is dangerous to have knowledge of the Holocaust and other instances of genocide fading at the exact same time instances of hate and antisemitism are on the rise,” said Senate President Karen E. Spilka, a Democrat from Ashland, in a statement. “As a Jewish woman and the daughter of a World War II veteran who saw the horrors of a concentration camp firsthand, I believe it is our responsibility to ensure we educate our children on the many instances of genocide throughout history so that they can learn why it is so important that this history is not repeated.”
The Senate bill would provide middle and high school students with education on the history of genocide while promoting the teaching of human rights.
Focus now shifts to the House to see if it will take up the Senate bill.
The Senate’s bill both funds and mandates genocide education, while the House so far has stopped short of a curriculum mandate.
“The evidence is there that education about the Holocaust, specifically, and genocide more broadly, is an important factor in the education and moral values formation of youth,” said Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. While not a “magic bullet” to head off antisemitism, he said “the Senate bill is a strong bill that achieves key objectives in achieving the implementation of a genocide education program.”
“We need to make sure that every tool is available and be expanded for addressing rising antisemitism and hate in our society,” Burton said, “including explicitly education about the consequences of unchecked hate. As we have seen in Duxbury [where the high school offers electives covering the Holocaust and other genocides], it’s not enough to offer an option or a side program. It is necessary to make sure this is something that is available and provided to every youth in our Commonwealth.”
It’s not clear when the House might take up the bill. The House bill was sponsored by state Rep. Jeffrey N. Roy, a Democrat from Franklin, and it has 75 cosponsors and bipartisan support.
“The House isn’t quite there yet, on the mandate side, so we are hoping the House adopts the Senate version of the bill,” Trestan said.
Among other things, the bill sets up a Genocide Education Trust Fund to pay for such things as curricular materials and professional development.
The bill also requires school districts file a description of their lesson plans and programs on genocide education with the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. It also sets up a competitive grant program to support districts looking to implement genocide education.
“It’s disheartening our youth don’t known what a genocide is,” said state Sen. Joan Lovely, a Democrat from Salem. Lovely favors genocide education as a mandate, not an elective.
“This is something that should be taught within the existing curriculum,” she said.
After the Duxbury incident came to light in March, state Sen. Barry Finegold, a Democrat from Andover, reached out and met with some of the players and staff and spoke to them about the Holocaust and the dangers of casual ignorance.
“When I was speaking with many of these students and they really had no clue what Auschwitz meant, I realized that we in society have not done a very good job in educating people,” said Finegold, a Jewish member of the Legislature. That includes the need to educate students about the Holocaust, and genocides in Armenia, Rwanda, and Cambodia.
“And I’m very proud that I do think with this legislation, more people will be aware of what has happened in the past,” Finegold said.
There is a strong likelihood, Finegold said, the Senate bill gets passed in the House in light of what happened in Duxbury, recent calls for social justice, and the need for people to better understand history. Finegold is hopeful the House will take up the bill before the November break, and if not, sometime at the beginning of the year.
The Salem-based Lappin Foundation stepped in with programming for Duxbury High, launching its Holocaust Symposium for Teens over the summer that included bringing students to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
“I believe the genocide education bill is important so students learn how easy it is, under the right conditions, for humanity to be pushed beyond the brink of inhumanity,” said Deborah Coltin, the Lappin Foundation’s executive director.
Lori Ehrlich, Marblehead’s state representative and a Jewish lawmaker, said in an email the House will likely follow the Senate soon. Ehrlich said the bill “has quite a bit of support.”
“Incidents of antisemitism and other hateful acts are happening with alarming regularity here on the North Shore and throughout the Commonwealth,” said Ehrlich. “I have cosponsored this bill and consistently, strenuously advocated for a resulting law to be strong and inclusive. While some differences in approach have been discussed, what matters most is that the change in curriculum we all hope to see is implemented as soon as possible.”