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.

Religious Groups Urge House to Combat Antisemitism and Racism

Published in the Woonsocket Call on June 10, 2019

For the second year in a row, the Rhode Island General Assembly’s Senate Judiciary Committee heard a resolution, introduced by State Senator Donna Nesselbush (Democrat, District 15, Pawtucket), calling on lawmakers to denounce and oppose white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups. The resolution was co-sponsored by Senators Samuel Bell (Democrat, District 5, Providence), Joshua Miller (Democrat, District 28, Cranston), Gayle Goldin (Democrat, District 3, Providence) and Ana Quezada (Democrat, District 2, Providence),

The initial resolution, introduced in 2017, urged state police to consider White Nationalists and Neo Nazi groups as terrorists. Because of First Amendment concerns expressed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island that resolution was held for further study, and the language was reworked this run so as not to run afoul of free speech concerns.

Senate Moves to Fight Antisemitism and Racial Intolerance Head On

At the May 30 hearing, Nesselbush (Democrat, District 15, Pawtucket) pushed for passage of S0829, a resolution calling on Rhode Island to “denounce and oppose and the totalitarian impulses, violent terrorism, xenophobic’ biases, and bigoted ideologies that are promoted by white nationalists and neo-Nazis.” She reminded the Senate panel that Rhode Island was founded on Roger William’s principles of religious tolerance, and the state should denounce any type of white supremacy or neo-Nazism and take a stand for religious freedom and tolerance.

Nesslebush’s Senate resolution unanimously passed in Senate Judiciary Committee and ultimately on the Senate Floor. With its passage, no further action is required and the resolution will be transmitted to the Secretary of State, who is charged in the resolution with transmitting certified copies of the resolution to President Donald J. Trump, the members of the Rhode Island Congressional delegation, and Governor Gina Raimondo.

When asked about a House companion resolution that denounces and opposes White Nationalists and Neo Nazi groups, Larry Berman, the House’s Director of Communication, says that Rep. Jean Philippe Barros (Democrat, District 59, Pawtucket) had planned to introduce one but “because it was getting late in the session” he was unable to get his bill introduced. It should be noted that Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio allowed Nesselbush to introduce her Senate resolution recognizing its merit and importance to the Jewish community.

Calls for the House to Confront the Boldness of Hate Groups

As the House is poised to release its anticipated state budget, religious groups and supporters of Nesselbush’s resolution, call for the lower chamber to take a strong stand to denounce and oppose White Nationalists and Neo Nazi groups.

As President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island, being active and serving as Rabbi at Temple Beth-El, Rabbi Sarah Mack, says it’s not too late for the to take a stand against antisemitism. “As Jews, we fight against bigotry and extremism because as a people we have experienced the danger of hate firsthand. While it is important to focus on extremism in all of its forms, we appreciate this resolution that calls attention to white supremacists, neo-Nazis and their hateful agenda. Because of this, I am so thankful to the Senate for passing this resolution, and I beseech our House leadership to do the same.”

Adds Adam Greenman, President and CEO of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, “we are committed to combating hatred in all forms. This resolution would give our state the opportunity to stand up against groups that promote anti-Semitism, white supremacy and other forms of toxic and dangerous rhetoric. We ask those in the House of Representatives to join us in supporting this resolution.”

Rev. Dr. Donnie Anderson, Executive Minister, of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, notes the importance for the House to support Nesslebush’s Senate resolution to fight hate. “In recent years hate speech has found a new platform in social media and is flourishing in the current political climate. This explosion of hate DEMANDS a response from our political leaders. Rhode Island is blessed with wonderful interfaith leaders who interact on a regular basis and have built an atmosphere of caring, respect and trust. This group consistently and often speaks against hate, but we need to hear from ALL of our political leaders. We urge passage of this timely and thoughtful resolution.”

Steve Ahlquist, a reporter at UpriseRI, a Rhode Island news web site covering progressive issues, testified in support of Nesselbush’s Senate resolution, gives his two cents about the importance of politicians combating hate groups. Ahlquist stressed, “Though this resolution is largely symbolic and does not have the force of law, it is important nonetheless that our elected officials ally themselves with Rhode Islanders most at risk of white supremacist violence. It has been documented by myself and others that these groups have twice come to our state to engage in violence, and have promised to return. Residents of Rhode Island need to know that our elected officials will have our backs when they are confronting these hate groups.”

“Our elected officials should be eager to repudiate white supremacy and neo-Nazism. There has been violence done and violence planned in Rhode Island by hate groups visiting our state. There has been and hate crimes at synagogues and mosques. The Senate passed a resolution with ease. It is truly the least we can expect from the House to follow suit,” says Ahlquist.

Rhode Island Religious Community Takes a Stand

For years, it has been reported that antisemitism is becoming firmly entrenched in the Ocean State. In 2017, the Providence Journal reported that the New England chapter of the Anti-Defamation League recorded 13 incidents of antisemitism 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 in Oakhill, just a five-minute walk from my house, reported Rhode Island’s largest daily.

When I testified for passage of Senate Resolution 0829, I told the Senators that I often wondered what I would have done if I stood on a street in Germany in 1938 seeing all those windows broken (during a two-day pogrom, referred to as Kristallnacht. Would I have the courage or the gumption to go up to somebody dressed in a brown shirt with a swastika armband and stop him from hitting an elderly Jew?
Hopefully yes, but who knows.

But, on May 30, 2019, at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, I sat beside Sen. Nesselbush and Steve Ahlquist as we “took a stand,” calling on the Committee to pass S 082. Knowing the wisdom in denouncing and opposing the hateful philosophy of white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups that is becoming all too common in Rhode Island, the Senate took its stand.

After all, Rhode Island was founded by Roger Williams on the principle of religious tolerance, and we’re the home of America’s oldest synagogue, the Touro Synagogue, in Newport. What does it say to the nation, and especially to the state’s Jewish, racial, ethnic, LGTBQ communities if the House does not take an opportunity to oppose and denounce hate in their own backyard?

Hopefully, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello will reconsider allowing a resolution, with no fiscal cost, to be introduced to give House lawmakers, like their Senate colleagues, an opportunity to oppose white nationalists and neo-Nazi groups. It is important for both chambers to take a legislative stand to combat the rising incidence of antisemitism and racist incidents. The resolution serves the purpose of sending the message, hate groups who are planning to come to Rhode Island to cause violence are not welcome here.