Anyone doubting the necessity of the New Jersey attorney general’s powerful intervention against Mahwah Township’s governing body should have been sitting next to me last week, when Inna Shusteris rose to speak at the city council meeting there.
During the public session, Ms. Shusteris looked the council members in the eyes and declared that as an 11-year Jewish Mahwah resident she could no longer keep silent. As someone whose family escaped from anti-Semitism in Russia, she could no longer allow such behavior to go unchallenged in her own hometown.
Ms. Shusteris charged that the town was acting in a manner that would exclude her own relatives in Rockland from being able to use the parks with their children when they come to visit her. Ms. Shusteris, emotionally distraught, added that she feels as though she is living under the Third Reich.
Painfully, I watched many people at the meeting heckle her and her husband as they went out the door. Some said that she too is a fraud, that she couldn’t possibly actually live in Mahwah, that she too must be just another paid Jewish actor targeting their town. She rebutted those claims by challenging anyone to look at the address listed on her driver’s license.
The despicable reaction to Ms. Shusteris’s comments was reflected in the celebratory atmosphere that pervaded the council chambers. Its council president arrived after the proceedings had begun.
I and many other leaders in the region had hoped that the New Jersey attorney general’s legal actions would have cooled passions and helped set a more serious tone and direction for the council.
Instead, I found myself to be one of the few people at the meeting who did not jump to my feet to join in the standing ovation that the council president received upon his arrival. I sat in disbelief as the round of speeches began that continued to champion the township’s position to rounds of sustained applause. It was into this toxic environment that Ms. Shusteris bravely stepped when she attempted to respectfully address the council. We should all salute her dignity and courage.
In my comments at that session I addressed the governing body’s continued denial that a perception of anti-Semitism exists by pointing to the New Jersey attorney general’s filing a nine count discrimination lawsuit claiming the town is acting like “1950s era white flight suburbanites who sought to keep African Americans from moving into their neighborhoods.” In addition, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, the state Senate majority leader, the county NAACP president, many other state and municipal elected officials around the county, and organizations including the Simon Wiesenthal Center all recognized that people’s fear of the
unknown has driven rhetoric and policies that crossed the boundary into anti-Semitism.
We can only hope that the township of Mahwah alters its reckless course and works with all parties, including the Jewish community, to forge a path of dialogue, understanding, and mutual respect, rather than repeating public bullying and bias.