BOSTON – Boston Jewish organizational leaders and elected officials from across the state gathered to light the menorah at the New England Holocaust Memorial Monday evening. On a cold second night of Hanukkah, many of those who attended were instrumental in advocating for a new genocide education bill that was passed last month by state legislators.
For years, the bill’s passage has been a priority for the Anti-Defamation League New England and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. It calls for the teaching about the Holocaust and other mass atrocities in school. As of Monday night, the bill was sitting on Governor Charlie Baker’s desk awaiting his signature, something that was highlighted during the community-wide menorah lighting that drew several hundred people.
The bill calls for every school district to provide “instruction on the history of genocide” at the middle and high school levels. It was championed on Beacon Hill by state Rep. Jeffrey Roy, D-Franklin, and state Sen. Michael Rodrigues, D-Westport.
If Baker signs it, it would take effect for during the school year starting July 1. Baker’s office responded to an inquiry but did not say when the governor might act on the bill. The governor has 10 days to do so, with the deadline being Saturday, Dec. 4.
Jeremy Burton, the executive director of the JCRC, told the gathering that Rodrigues and Roy have worked for years to enact a mandate in support of Holocaust and genocide education. “I can’t tell you how many conversations we have had with them over the years and they worked tirelessly to build a coalition amongst their colleagues to shine a light on incidents across the Commonwealth that called for the urgency of education about genocide,” he said.
“And last Wednesday, they were successful in sending to the governor for his signature a bill that will mandate genocide education in every school in Massachusetts,” Burton said to applause from those gathered at the event. The celebration also featured speeches from Boston’s new mayor, Michelle Wu, Consul General of Israel to New England Ambassador Meron Reuben, Combined Jewish Philanthropies President and CEO Rabbi Marc Baker, Consul General of Germany to New England Nicole Menzenbach, and Jewish and Christian faith leaders.
According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 20 states currently “require Holocaust education as part of their secondary school curricula,” including New Hampshire, Maine and Connecticut.
“Our society continues to grapple with the root causes of hatred and discrimination. While we know past crimes against humanity cannot be undone, we must learn from them,” said Senator Rodrigues, who mentioned that it has been more than 75 since the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.
Representative Roy cited a lesson from the Hanukkah story – how the Maccabees found that “a small measure of oil could provide light and outlast every expectation” – as a metaphor for getting the bill passed.
In 2013, Roy said he was approached by a constituent “who wanted to shine a light on the monstrous acts of genocide that have occurred throughout history.” A year later, Roy toured Israel as part of the JCRC’s Study Tour for Community Leaders and visited Yad Vashem – Israel’s Holocaust memorial.
“There we saw reminders on the wall telling us that in a place where books are burned, don’t be surprised that people will be burned,” said Roy, who after the visit broadened his genocide education bill. Since the filing of the latest version, he said there has been a rise in hate and antisemitic incidents and statistics that show the memory of the Shoah is fading.
“This new law will show that genocide is not just somebody else’s story. Genocide education will give students the opportunity to explore how stereotypes, prejudice and religious and ethnic hatred can escalate to atrocity,” Roy said.
To pay for the programs, the bill sets up a Genocide Education Trust Fund, to be overseen by the state’s elementary and secondary education commissioner. The bill does not single out the Holocaust in particular, but carries a broad definition of “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”
The bill sets up a competitive grant program schools can draw from, and requires a report back to the House on the fund’s activities and the progress of genocide education programs in schools.
“Voting for the Genocide Education Act along with 156 of my House colleagues was a proud moment,” said state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, in an email. “Hostile prejudice against Jews and other minorities is not a threat of the past. If we are going to stop the rising tide of antisemitism, racism, and hate, our education system has to provide an honest accounting of history.”
“We are at the finish line,” said ADL New England Regional Director Robert Trestan in a recent interview.
When asked why the bill took so long to pass, Trestan said the legislative process is “lengthy and detailed” with the genocide education facing competition from some 6,000 bills filed every legislative session.
“In the past year we have seen – particularly in schools – a dramatic increase in incidents around hate,” Trestan said. “You think about Duxbury, you think about Danvers,” said Trestan, referring to a high-profile incident in which Duxbury High football team members where heard using Jewish terms and “Auschwitz” to call plays in a game in March 12. Trestan also referred to reports of racist and homophobic hazing in the Danvers High hockey team’s locker room during the 2019-2020 season, and an offensive chat among team members that included a joke about the Holocaust.
“I think there is a real recognition in this moment about the importance of teaching history about genocide and using lessons about what happened in the past to make our future stronger,” Trestan said.
One of those who voted against the bill was state Rep. Peter Durant, R-Spencer, who said his objection stems from the fact that the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education already has in its history and social science curriculum framework genocide education.
“It’s in the curriculum,” Durant said in an interview. He also objected to the creation of a separate trust fund which would allow outside groups to contribute, which he said might “allow undue influence of the curriculum.”
The bill does have language that requires the state education commissioner to review funding from private sources to make sure there are no conditions “that may be detrimental to the neutral and rigorous teaching of the history of genocide or unduly influence the direction of genocide education policy.”