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A high school football team’s use of anti-Semitic language on the field has renewed calls to mandate teaching about the Holocaust in Massachusetts public schools.
Currently, Massachusetts education officials urge public schools to teach students about the Holocaust — but don’t require it, unlike 16 other states that do.
Calls to change that have reignited after last week’s revelation that Duxbury High School football players shouted words such as “Auschwitz” on the field to direct game plays. Bills mandating Holocaust education have been pending in the State House for two years.
“I firmly believe if these kids understood the gravity of the words that they were using and the horrific events that are associated with those words, they wouldn’t have used them,” said Representative Jeffrey Roy, a Franklin Democrat who filed the House bill. “This is why we need the Genocide Education Act in place.”
The anti-Semitism by Duxbury’s highly ranked football team came to light after an opposing team, Plymouth North, reported hearing players yell words such as “dreidel,” “rabbi,” and “Auschwitz” to direct the team. The district launched an investigation and fired the coach, Dave Maimaron.
At least 16 states, including Florida, New Hampshire, and Connecticut, have passed laws mandating Holocaust education in public schools, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which advocates for the requirements. The group says the need for such laws was made clear by a 2018 national survey that showed 66 percent of people ages 18 to 34 didn’t know the meaning of the word “Auschwitz.” (Located in Poland, Auschwitz was the largest Nazi death camp, where at least 1 million Jewish people and 100,000 members of other targeted groups were murdered through gas chambers, starvation, and medical experiments.)
In Massachusetts, 35 percent of young adults surveyed didn’t know what Auschwitz was, and half didn’t know that 6 million Jewish people were killed in the Holocaust.
“The Jewish community feels that we have a sacred obligation to ensure those stories are told, so we never forget and it never happens again,” said Aaron Agulnek, director of governmental affairs at the Jewish Community Relations Council, a local group working with the Anti-Defamation League on the Holocaust education mandates.
The urgency to ensure Holocaust awareness remains in memory has grown in recent years with many Holocaust survivors dying and a rise in anti-Semitism, including swastikas spray-painted at a Jewish cemetery in Fall River and a Capitol rioter wearing a sweat shirt saying “Camp Auschwitz.” Seventy-six years after Nazi concentration camps were liberated, most remaining survivors are now in their 90s or older, and they still strive to share their stories with young people, hoping their firsthand accounts will prompt understanding of the dangers of intolerance.
“They should know what happened,” said Izzy Arbeiter, 95, a local resident who survived five years in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. “It happened in Germany, a highly educated, intelligent country in the heart of Europe, with doctors and lawyers [working to] build gas chambers in six death camps specifically to murder innocent people, men, women, and children. This should be taught.”
Massachusetts publishes curriculum frameworks for public schools, which describe the material state officials expect students to learn, but local school districts decide when and whether to teach the topics, and in how much depth. The state reviews districts’ curriculums as part of wide-ranging monitoring every few years.
The current history framework, released in 2018 after years of work by educators and historians, offers takeaways that fourth- through 12th-graders should learn about human rights abuses, slavery, genocide, and World War II. Its biggest focus on the Holocaust comes in 11th or 12th grade World History when students should: “Describe the Holocaust, including its roots in Christian anti-Semitism, 19th century ideas about race and nation, and the Nazi dehumanization and planned extermination of the Jews and persecution of LGBT and Gypsy/Roma people.”
But schools and districts vary widely on how in-depth they teach the Holocaust.
State law requires only physical education, American history, civics, and financial literacy as graduation requirements. Students must also meet math, science, and English proficiency on standardized MCAS tests to graduate.
“We certainly believe that Massachusetts students should be engaged in honest and informed discussions of bigotry, injustice, and genocide throughout their social studies/history education,” said Katherine Tarca, director of literacy and humanities at the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “We don’t know what was taught in Duxbury, or really anywhere.”
These lessons are crucial not just for historical perspective but to boost students’ empathy toward others and confidence to fight injustice, Tarca added.
In Duxbury, at least some Holocaust education has been available, though it’s unclear how many students receive it. A Holocaust survivor told his story before hundreds of students there in 2017. And high schoolers have had two Holocaust-focused classes offered as electives from 10th through 12th grade, a social studies summary shows. The Holocaust class has visited the national Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. But it’s unclear how much students outside that elective class learn about the Holocaust.
Duxbury Superintendent John Antonucci declined a request for comment on the district’s Holocaust education offerings.
Advocates for Holocaust education say the fact that the anti-Semitic football play calls in Duxbury allegedly continued for years shows that many students who heard them either didn’t understand the hurtfulness of the words or did not feel empowered to speak up.
That’s why the elective courses, no matter how in-depth, are not sufficient, said Robert Trestan, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League of New England.
“It’s our responsibility to make sure that everybody learns about it, not just the ones who self-select based on their own interest,” Trestan said. “We can prevent problems from becoming systemic if we equip everyone with the knowledge, the skills, and the confidence [to intervene] — and genocide education is one of the ingredients to do that.”
The state allows schools broad freedom to devise their lesson plans, but it points educators toward a Brookline-based group, Facing History and Ourselves, which offers teacher training, support, and educational guides around the world for teaching about genocides.
In Massachusetts, the group works with 16,800 teachers in 1,345 schools and provides resources for them to tailor their lesson plans to suit any duration from one day to a year. The organization uses firsthand accounts and conversations about current events to create deep personal connections to historical atrocities. Studies have shown a major impact on students’ academics and desires to be active citizens, said Roger Brooks, Facing History’s chief executive.
“Our students are more likely if they hear a racist joke to say, ‘Hey, that’s not so funny,’ ” Brooks said. “That is the key to making a better society.”
Max Tamer-Mahoney, who graduated from Boston Latin School in 2017, said his yearlong Facing History and Ourselves class — an elective which included a discussion with a Holocaust survivor and a trip to Auschwitz — affected him deeply, making him aware of hateful rhetoric and spurring him to want to work on human rights issues.
“It changed the way I look at a lot of things and the world around me — it definitely helped shape who I am today,” he said. But he worried other students who didn’t take that class missed out. His regular history classes only touched on the Holocaust briefly as part of World War II.
“It should play a larger part in the history curriculum,” Tamer-Mahoney said. “It was certainly not anywhere close to as powerful the education about it as I received at Facing History.”
A Boston Public Schools spokesman said every student studies several units on the Holocaust as part of the world history curriculum. Many students also read books about the Holocaust such as “Night” and “Maus” in English classes, he said.
Students in other districts shared similar concerns about the unevenness and lack of quality in Holocaust education.
In Marshfield, which neighbors Duxbury, Jacqueline Rodrick recalled barely learning about the Holocaust in her Advanced Placement history and English classes. As one of a handful of Jewish students in her grade of more than 300, she said she heard anti-Semitic jokes and that students sometimes threw pennies at her, saying “Jews are cheap.”
“I never received any Holocaust education,” said Rodrick, who graduated in 2019. “And this is in Marshfield, which has a pretty good school system.”
Marshfield Superintendent Jeffrey Granatino said the Holocaust is taught in US History II, and students read “The Diary of Anne Frank” in eighth grade and “Night” in 12th grade. The high school is also adding a new Facing History elective course.
To Christine Hill, a college admissions consultant from Duxbury, the football team’s anti-Semitism signals deeper problems than just educational quality. She said many Duxbury parents are deeply anti-Semitic and racist, teaching those attitudes to their children.
“Duxbury has excellent educational courses in the Holocaust and genocide, but very few Jewish families live here,” Hill said, “and they are often treated as part of an out-group instead of as full members of the community.”
Naomi Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.