Rhode Island Senate must take a stand against hatred

Published in RINewsToday on May 31, 2021

“In recent days, we have seen that no community is immune. We must all stand together to silence these terrible and terrifying echoes of the worst chapters in world history, and pledge to give hate no safe harbor.” — Statement of President Joe Biden on the rise of antisemitic attacks, May 28, 2021

Over two decades ago, “Never Again” was on the mind of the Rhode Island General Assembly. Lawmakers in both chambers geared up to fight antisemitism by passing the companion legislative proposals, “Genocide and Human Rights Education Act,” sending the bill Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Almond for his signature.  The enacted legislation required the Rhode Island Department of Education to “develop curricular material on genocide and human rights issues and guidelines for the teaching of that material. 

In 2011, Rhode Island lawmakers passed the “Genocide Education in Secondary Schools Act which called for genocide curriculum materials being available, that put a spotlight on the Holocaust, Armenian, Cambodia, and Darfur.  Six years later, enacted legislation would require that the Holocaust and genocide be taught in the state’s public middle and high schools. 

House bill raises awareness of the Holocaust and Genocide

Just weeks ago, 73 Rhode Island House lawmakers (2 choosing not to vote) passed H-5650, a legislative proposal sponsored by Rep. Rebecca Kislak (D-District 4, Providence) to create a Genocide and Holocaust Education Commission to raise awareness of the Holocaust and Genocide. The legislation formalizes a commission to implement a 2016 law introduced by now House Majority Whip Katherine S. Kazarian (D-District 63, East Providence) and Sen. Gayle L. Goldin (D-District 3, Providence) to require public middle and high schools to teach students about Genocide and the Holocaust.  

“So many Rhode Islanders’ families are from communities that have been impacted by Genocides. Listening to each other’s stories and learning about those diverse histories will help us see the humanity in one another and build stronger communities. This bill will establish a commission to provide support to our educators and raise awareness of genocides that have affected Rhode Islanders and have shaped our communities’ histories,” said Kislak.  

Under Kislak’s bill, the Holocaust and Genocide Education Commission will gather and disseminate Holocaust and genocide information, work with the Department of Education to update and promote statewide Holocaust and genocide education programs and promote public awareness of issues relating to Holocaust and genocide education.

As hate crimes have been rising in our own country over the last few years, it’s particularly important that students are taught about the catastrophic atrocities that have been committed when the seeds of hate are planted,” said Kazarian, who is cosponsoring this bill. All eight of the East Providence lawmaker’s great-grandparents are survivors of the Armenian genocide. “My family’s own history involving the Armenian genocide has shown me that these events in history should never be forgotten. 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,” she says.

Rep. Nathan W. Biah Sr. (D-Dist. 3, Providence), who fled Liberia in 1991 at age 20 to escape a war in which genocide occurred, is also a cosponsor.

“I have experienced the horrors of genocide firsthand. It’s a very tragic fact that genocide continues around the world today. Our students are citizens of the world and need to understand the impacts of genocide on their brothers and sisters wherever it occurs,” said Biah.

According to Marty Cooper, Chair of the Rhode Island Holocaust and Genocide Education Coalition, Rhode Island was one of the first states in the nation to require Holocaust and genocide education in its schools. “It is now in a position to be one of the first states to establish a formal commission to oversee Holocaust and genocide education as well as establish a Holocaust and genocide awareness month,” he says. 

“The establishment of a formal Rhode Island Commission on Holocaust and Genocide Education will ensure accountability and credibility. It will also establish a mechanism to disseminate information and material to schools and educators in regard to Holocaust and genocide issues. Equally important is the ability to monitor and assist in enforcing school compliance on the issue of Holocaust and genocide studies with students,” says Cooper.

“More importantly, a commission will stimulate much needed dialogue and discussion to address the issue of genocide. What atrocities, for instance, should be studied as a genocide?” adds Cooper. 

“After World War II, a strong mantra of “Never Again” came about in hopes of ending atrocities that left millions dead and misplaced because of the Holocaust. Unfortunately, atrocities still take place. We need more than the words “Never Again” to help end this madness. Education is significant element to hopefully bring an end to such hate, bullying and racism,” states Cooper. “Then “Never Again” can become a reality.”

S-840 Sub A held for further study 

As the 2021 General Assembly’s legislation session conclusion comes closer, lawmakers are considering a flurry of bills. While the House chamber has passed its measure, the Senate Education Committee recently recommended that S-840 Sub A, Godin’s companion measure, co-sponsored by Senators Joshua Miller (D-District 28, Providence/Cranston), Hanna Gallo (D-District 27, Cranston), Thomas Paolino (R- District 17, Lincoln, North Providence, and North Smithfield) and Meghan Kallman (D-District 15, Pawtucket) be held for further study.  Often times, this may be the polite way to kill this measure.  Closed door “horse-trading” between House and Senate leadership may resurrect the legislative proposal.  

“I look forward to the bill coming out of the senate education committee and coming up for a favorable vote,” said Cooper

According to a recently released Pew Center survey, nine out of ten American Jews say there is at least “some antisemitism in the U.S.,” and that 75 percent believe there is more antisemitism in the U.S. than there was five years ago. The survey also found that more than half of Jews surveyed say they personally feel less safe as a Jewish person in the U.S. than they did just five years ago.

The Pew survey findings are in line with a recent survey of Jewish American experiences with antisemitism fielded by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) earlier this year, says Jonathan A. Greenblatt, ADL CEO and National Director. “The ADL survey found that well over half of Jewish Americans have either experienced or directly witnessed some form of antisemitic incident in the last five years, with 63 percent of respondents having either experienced or heard antisemitic comments, slurs or threats targeting others, an increase from 54 percent a year earlier,” he says.

“ADL is working closely with members of Congress to ensure that there is more funding for bolstering community security, training law enforcement in identifying and responding to hate crimes, and has partnered with community organizations, such as SCN, working to protect Jewish institutions.”

“We hope that this [Pew] report serves as a wake-up call to leaders across the country and on both sides of the aisle that antisemitism is still a harsh reality today and so we must continue to fight this ancient hatred through education, advocacy, enhanced security and greater awareness of the problem. ADL remains firmly and fully committed to rooting out antisemitism and hatred in all forms.”

Senate leaders must follow ADL to “root out antisemitism and hatred in all forms” in the Ocean State. One way is to pass S-840 Sub A.

Never forgetting will help us keep the promise of “never again.”

Published in RINewsToday.com on February 1, 2021

During a Pro-Trump rally, as thousands of rioters swarmed the US Capitol on Jan. 6, Robert Keith Packer, sporting an unkempt beard, came wearing a black hoodie sweatshirt emblazoned with the phrase “Camp Auschwitz,” in white letters, the name of the most infamous of the many Nazi concentration camps where 1.1 million people were murdered during World War II.  Under a skull and bones at the bottom of his shirt was the phrase, “Work brings Freedom,” a loose translation of the phrase “Arbeit macht frei” that was inscribed above the main entrance gate at Auschwitz and other concentration camps’ gates. 

Packer’s image, 56, a former welder and pipefitter, was circulated widely on social media and by newspapers, evoking shock and disbelief.

Packer, a resident of Newport News, Virginia, was not the only anti-Semitic rioter that day, according to a report released by the Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and the Network Contagion Research Institute. The report identified at least half a dozen neo-Nazi or white supremacist groups involved in the failed Capitol Insurrection who had also attended President Trump’s “Save America” rally speech. 

In recent years, anti-Semitic incidents have become more common in the Ocean State.

In 2017, the Providence Journal reported that the New England chapter of the Anti-Defamation League recorded 13 incidents of anti-Semitism in Rhode Island. Nazi swastikas were painted on a Providence building, at Broad Rock Middle School in North Kingstown, and even at a Pawtucket synagogue.

Anti-Semitism is Nothing New

But, anti-Semitism, exhibited at the “Save America” rally, has been in our country since its founding, and in fact, has been around western societies for centuries.  Over three years ago, torch marchers, some wearing Nazi-style helmets, carrying clubs, sticks and round makeshift shields emblazoned with swastikas and other Fascist symbols, and others entered the one-block square in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, to protect a controversial Confederate monument, chanting “Jews will not replace us” and “Blood and Soil” (a Nazi rallying cry).  

The Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) 2014 Global Index of Anti-Semitism documented world-wide anti-Semitism. The survey found that more than 1 billion people – nearly one in eight – around the world harbor anti-Semitic attitudes. Carried out by First International Resources and commissioned by the ADL, this landmark survey included 53,100 adults in 102 countries representing 88 percent of the world’s adult population.

Over 30 percent of those surveyed said it was ‘probably true’ that Jews have too much control over financial markets, that Jews think they are better than other people, that Jews are disloyal to their country, and that people hate Jews because of the way that Jews behave. 

Most troubling, the ADL study found a large gap between seniors who know and lived through the horrendous events of World War II, and younger adults who, some 75 years after the Holocaust, are more likely to have heard of or learned that six million Jews were exterminated by the Nazis’ “Final Solution.” Nearly half of those surveyed claim to have never heard of the Holocaust and only a third believe historical accounts are accurate.

Gearing Up to Fight Antisemitism

On Jan. 14, the American Jewish Congress (AJC), a global Jewish advocacy organization, briefed the FBI on the continuing threats of anti-Semitism to the nation. 

“Antisemitism fundamentally is not only a Jewish problem; it is a societal one. It is a reflection on the declining health of our society,” Holly Huffnagle, AJC’s U.S. Director for Combating Antisemitism, told the FBI officials on a video conference briefing. “Education is essential, to clarify what constitutes antisemitism, the various sources of this hatred, and what effective tools are available for law enforcement to fight antisemitism,” she said.

The presentation of AJC’s second annual report on antisemitism in the U.S. took place in the wake of the January 6 assault on Capitol Hill, where anti-Semitic images and threats were openly conveyed by some of the rioters.

AJC’s 2020 report, based on parallel surveys of the American Jewish and general populations, revealed that 88 percent of Jews considered antisemitism a problem today in the U.S., 37 percent had personally been victims of antisemitism over the past five years and 31 percent had taken measures to conceal their Jewishness in public.

In the first-ever survey of the general U.S. population on antisemitism, AJC found a stunning lack of awareness of antisemitism. Nearly half of all Americans said they had either never heard the term “antisemitism” (21 percent) or are familiar with the word but not sure what it means (25 percent).

The AJC experts praised the FBI for its annual Hate Crimes Statistics report, which provides vital data on antisemitism. The latest report found 60.2 percent of religious bias hate crimes targeted Jews in 2019. But the report historically has not provided a full picture of the extent of hate crimes, since reporting by local law enforcement agencies is not mandatory.

To improve the monitoring and reporting of hate crimes, AJC continues to advocate for passage of the Jabara-Heyer National Opposition to Hate, Assaults, and Threats to Equality (NO HATE) Act. This measure will incentivize state and local law enforcement authorities to improve hate crime reporting by making grants available and managed through the Department of Justice.

In addition, AJC is asking the FBI to use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism as an educational tool. The definition offers a clear and comprehensive description of antisemitism in its various forms, including hatred and discrimination against Jews, and Holocaust denial. 

FBI officials in the Bureau’s Civil Rights Unit, Intelligence Division, and Community Outreach Program, among others, participated in the AJC briefing.

Keeping the memory alive about the Holocaust is key to fighting antisemitism, says Andy Hollinger, Director of Communications, for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). “”We are seeing a disturbing trend in the rise of antisemitism and the open display of neo-Nazi symbols, most recently at the attack on the U.S. Capitol. This is a long-time problem requiring a long-time solution. We must remember. Education is key. We must learn from this history-learn about the dangers of unchecked hatred and antisemitism. And we must not be silent,” he says.

Adds Bill Benson, who has interviewed Holocaust Survivors before live audiences at the USHMM’s First Person program for more than 2 decades, observes that the majority of those visiting the museum are not Jewish and many of have little familiarity with the Holocaust, and as a result of their visit are profoundly affected by their experience. “The USHMM provides an extraordinary avenue for educating the general public about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism for those millions who visit it, but it is essential that many millions more learn the truth about anti-Semitism and that must done through our educational systems,” he notes.

“The USHMM does an incredible job of educating and assisting teachers who want to teach about the Holocaust, but far too many school systems do not teach about the Holocaust, without which the gulf in knowledge and awareness may only grow as we lose those first-hand knowledge of the Holocaust,” says Benson.

A 2009 report, “Jewish Survivors of the Holocaust Residing in the United States Estimates & Projections: 2010 – 2030,” prepared by the Berman Institute-North American Jewish Data Bank, for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, estimated that 36,800 Holocaust survivors would still be living by 2025. As the number of survivors who witnessed the horrors of Genocide and the Holocaust during World War II continues to dwindle, a growing number of states, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey, Ohio, and Texas, and have established Commissions to keep this knowledge alive to millennials, GenZ and  younger generations through educational programming and raise awareness through public education and community events to provide appropriate memorialization of the Holocaust on a regular basis throughout the state.

If the Rhode Island General Assembly legislates the establishment of a Rhode Island Genocide and Holocaust Education Commission, its motto might just be, “Never forgetting” will help us keep the promise of “Never Again.”