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.

On Taking a Stand Against Racism and Antisemitism

Published in Woonsocket Call on August 27, 2017

Morris Nathanson, an 89-year-old who served in the United States Navy in World War II, was outraged for President Trump’s failure to strongly speak out against the hateful philosophy of neo-Nazis, white nationalists, Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and militia groups exhibited at a violent protest that escalated out of control in the streets around the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Va.

Growing up Jewish, Nathanson is horrified about the growing racism and antisemitism so visibly flaunted at the Charlottesville rally and seen throughout nation. Before the Second World War, his parents had escaped the violent pogroms in Russia, ultimately settling in a three decker house with relatives in Pawtucket. Family members who remained in Europe were killed, victims of the Holocaust, he said.

“It’s is indefensible,” says Nathanson, an Eastside resident who in an internationally acclaimed artist and semi-retired restaurant designer, for Trump to not outright denounce the neo-Nazi groups. He warns, “We must recognize the growth of the neo-Nazi movement for what it is, a terrible disease that must be eliminated.”

The jarring historical imagery of the torchlight procession of supporters of Adolf Hitler moving through the Wilhelmstrasse in Berlin on the evening of January 30, 1933, came to life for Nathanson and millions of Americans last weekend when hundreds of neo Nazis, white nationalists, KKK, militia members and other right-wing groups gathered for a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va. Carrying tiki torches, flags with swastikas and confederate flags, they came to the City’s Emancipation Park to ostensibly support a protest against the removal of a statue of Civil War confederate General Robert E. Lee. But it was really an opportunity to display their strength.

Battle Lines Drawn

On the evening of Friday August 11 at 10:00 p.m., the torch bearing 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, the site of the controversial monument, chanting “Jews will not replace us”, “Blood and Soil” (a Nazi rallying cry), “White Lives Matter,” along with homophobic, racists and misogynistic slurs. Heavily armed militia members, carrying semi-automatic weapons and dressed in camouflage military fatigues came to support and embolden their fellow extremist groups that identify as the “alt-right”.

At the site of the controversial monument in the City’s park and surrounding streets, throughout Friday evening and Saturday, August 12, members of alt-right groups opposed counter-protestors including Antifa, a far-left militant political movement that opposes fascist groups, members of Black Lives Matter, and church groups along with others who oppose racial bigotry and antisemitism. During the weekend rally, it was reported that 15 people were injured. On Saturday, James Alex Fields Jr., a 20- year-old, drove his gray Dodge Challenger into a group of counter-protesters, killing 32 year old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 other counter-protestors. Two Virginia State Police officers, monitoring the protests, died when their helicopter crashed.

Immediately following the rally on Saturday and the death of Heyer, Trump went to Twitter and posted an opened ended statement, calling the nation to “condemn all that hate stands for.” Following this tweet, on Sunday, August 13, he issued a statement at his golf club in Bedford New Jersey, stating, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.”

Trump Vacillates on Who’s to Blame

On Monday, August 14, intense political pressure would force Trump to make a statement at the White House to strongly condemn KKK and neo-Nazi groups after he blamed violence at the Charlottesville, Va., two days earlier in a tweet on “many sides”

By Tuesday August 15, Trump had backed off his public scolding of America’s hate groups At an impromptu press conference held at Trump Tower, he cast blame for Charlottesville’s violence equally on the “alt-right” and “alt-left” counter- protestors. “You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent,” Trump said, noting that “Nobody wants to say that, but l say it.”

“Not all of those people were neo-Nazis and white supremacists, believe me,” says the president, noting that some protestors wanted to stop the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue. Some were “nice people” he stated.

“So this week, it’s Robert E. Lee, I noticed that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after. You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?” said Trump.

Trump’s comments that not all rally marchers were neo-Nazis or white supremacists caused a political tsunami, with critics pointing out that these individuals marching with the neo-Nazis were not “nice people”. It was guilt by association.

The two former Bush Presidents joined world leaders, GOP and Democrat Senators, Governors, and rank-and-file Republicans, Democrats, and Fortune 500 Executives to chastise Trump for his failure to speak out against Nazi and white supremacist ideology and that his comments trivialized the antisemitism and racism of these extremist alt-right groups.

Even the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the senior uniformed military leaders in the United States Department of Defense who advise the President, posted tweets denouncing the alt-right extremists and blaming them for Saturday’s bloody violence in Charlottesville.

However, white supremacists took Trump’s Charlottesville statements as an endorsement to their legitimacy and acceptance to allow their members to become more visible in society. David Duke, a white nationalist and former Imperial Wizard of the KKK, tweeted, “Thank You Mr. President Tamp; God Bless You for setting the record straight for All Americans.” The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, quickly called Trump’s statements on blaming both sides a sign that he implicitly supported their goals and objectives.

The Increasing Visibility of Racism and Antisemitism

Ray Rickman, 65, Executive Director of the nonprofit Stages of Freedom, says, “I am deeply worried about the piercing images of men marching with Nazi torch lights on the University of Virginia campus. These men were screaming “Jews won’t replace us.” It was Nazi Germany all over again. The idea of seeing a Nazi flag, the most vicious symbol of antisemitism on American soil, is almost unbelievable to me. All of this is followed by the deeply divisive comments from Mr. Trump”, says the long-time Rhode Island activist.

“This man in the White House has shown total disrespect for the millions of American soldiers both living and dead who died to save the world from the Nazis,” adds Rickman, noting that “It’s the first time since Woodrow Wilson that a president has refused to condemn racism after such an act of violence.”

Rickman says that the neo-Nazi groups used the Charlottesville gathering as a public show of force and to promote hatred. “Maintaining the Robert E. Lee Monument was just an excuse to attack Jews and Blacks,” he says, noting that the three-day protest was planned as a “hateful rally by people who hate people of color and Jews. It is as simple as that.”

One of the most interesting aspects of beliefs held by General Lee was that he was not in favor of raising Confederate monuments, says Rickman, noting that in 1869 he wrote that it would be wiser “not to keep open the sores of war but to follow those nations who endeavored to obliterate the mark of civil strife.”

Combating Intolerance and Hatred

While both GOP and Democrat lawmakers lambasted Trump’s choice of words for laying the blame of violence at the Charlottesville rally on both the far right demonstrators and counter protestors, there were some who remained silent or defended his comments, saying his words were adequate.

With the increased public visibility of the neo-Nazis, white supremacist and other hate groups, if Trump fails to use his national bully pulpit, and the moral authority of the Office of the Presidency to steadfastly condemn hate groups, national and state elected officials and Americans of all walks of life must take on this responsibility.

In response to the violent weekend in Charlottesville, Va., the Illinois Senate adopted a resolution, sponsored by Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, urging law officials to recognize white nationalists and neo-Nazi groups as terrorist organizations.

Nathanson, who in 1965 marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama to fight racism, calls for organizing rallies at the state and national level to “reduce the damage of Trump’s comments.”

It would be an appropriate time to remember the speech given by Martin Niemoller, a German Lutheran minister who opposed the Nazis and was sent to several concentration camps. He survived the war and explained:

First they came for the Jews. I was silent. I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists. I was silent. I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists. I was silent. I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me. There was no one left to speak for me.

 

Making Genocide and Holocaust Education Mandatory

Published in Woonsocket Call on April 26, 2015

By Herb Weiss

With newspapers reporting an increase of religious and cultural intolerance and hate crimes, it is refreshing to see the Rhode Island General Assembly pass resolutions condemning the systematic and barbarous murder of Armenians and Jews.

On Friday, April 24, Armenians across the nation stopped to remember the Ottoman authorities eight-year brutal campaign taking place 100 years ago to eliminate their ethnic group from its homeland in what is now Turkey. Both chambers of the Rhode Island General Assembly passed resolutions calling this day, “Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day” and urging President Obama and Congress to officially recognize the genocide which resulted in the estimated death of 1.5 million Armenians and to make restitution for the loss of lives, confiscated properties, those who endured slavery, starvation, torture, and unlawful deportations.

Taking Responsibility for Your Actions

On April 6, it was a personal and professional triumph for Rep. Katherine S. Kazarian (D-Dist. 63, East Providence), a fourth-generation Armenian-American, to take the lead in sponsoring Rhode Island’s House resolution to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. In the afternoon before the vote, the East Providence lawmaker unveiled her resolution at a ceremony in the State House State Room attended by elected state officials and fellow lawmakers.

“The only thing worse than trying to eliminate an entire generation and culture is to deny that such a genocide ever took place,” said Kazarian. “For the past 100 years, the government of Turkey has continually refused to acknowledge their part in the ethnic cleansing of the Armenian people, “she said. Until the Armenian genocide that happened 100 years ago on her ethnic group is recognized by the government of Turkey, Kazarian promised to return to the State House every year to keep the issue alive.

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin says, “On this 100th anniversary, it is more important than ever to remember the horror and tragedy that the Armenian people went through, and it is long overdue that as a nation, we recognize the Armenian Genocide. Hopefully, through recognition, vigilance and education, this type of history will cease to repeat itself.”

“From my first days as a legislator to today as Attorney General, I have always advocated for recognition of the Armenian Genocide, and more recently filed an amicus brief in support of the Armenian fight to seek the return of stolen Armenian Genocide era assets through the United States Courts,” says Kilmartin.

“There are many parallels between the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust carried out by Adolf Hitler, which ultimately killed six million Jews,” says the Attorney General, stressing that the Armenian Genocide served as an example for Hitler, who used the lack of consequences for the perpetrators of the Genocide as encouragement for the Nazis in planning the Holocaust.

“When giving a speech to Nazi leaders one week before the invasion of Poland, which effectively began World War II, Hitler reportedly noted, ‘who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?,’ notes Kilmartin, saying that “some historians have even suggested that if more had been done to thwart the Ottomans’ massacre of Armenians, perhaps the Holocaust could have been prevented.”

Eradicating Religious and Cultural Bigotry

Marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps, Rep. Mia Ackerman (D-Dist. 45, Cumberland, Lincoln) submitted a resolution commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Ha’Shoah). The resolution was passed by the House of Representatives.

“The citizens of Rhode Island have a rich tradition of fighting those who would trample individual liberty and human dignity,” said Representative Ackerman. “We must never allow anyone to forget the time when a handful of evil people tried to turn the earth into a graveyard by systematically exterminating an entire race of people.”

The resolution, which was passed by both the House and Senate, also applauded the courageous efforts of those who took part in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, stating “the brave actions in April and May of 1943 stand as testimony to a rare and indomitable human spirit and extraordinary courage exhibited in the darkest hours of man’s inhumanity.”

According to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, by 2020 there will be only 67,000 Holocaust survivors left, 57 percent who will be at least 85 years old. How can the story of the horrific holocaust be told to the younger generation when the eye witnesses are dying off?

Andy Hollinger, Director of Communications for the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, makes an obvious comment. “No one who did not live through the Holocaust can experience its horrors, he says, noting that “Holocaust survivors are our best teachers.”

Today, about 80 Holocaust survivors are still telling their stories and working to educate new generations about this history at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

“When they are no longer here we will rely on the collections — artifacts, documents, photographs, films, and other materials to tell this story,” says Hollinger, noting that the Museum is “racing to collect the evidence of the Holocaust.”

“We’re working in 50 countries on six continents to ensure this proof [witness testimonies, artifacts, and documents] is secured, preserved and made available through exhibitions and, increasingly, digitally, adds Hollinger.

Marty Cooper, Community Relations Director, Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode, believes it is “vitally important that the next generations learn about the holocaust and other genocides and atrocities that have taken place and continue to take place.” He calls for genocide education to be mandatory and part of the middle and high school curriculum.

One of the great lessons we can learn from the Holocaust and Armenian genocide is that hatred cannot go unchallenged. It must be immediately confronted wherever it emerges, by governments, religious leaders, nonprofit and business organizations, more important by each and every one of us. We must avow that these horrendous atrocities will never happen again to future generations.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.