Is there a greater moment than holding your newborn son for the first time?
Just days ago, I experienced that wondrous event. Yet Wednesday evening, instead of being home preparing for the brit (circumcision) of our baby boy, I found myself sitting at the Jackson Township Council meeting in southern New Jersey, more than an hour and a half away from my home.
I was sitting with a local African American community leader, Colin Lewis, and a member of the Toms River Jewish Community Council. We felt compelled to be there, together with a multitude of other community, religious, and political leaders, to support a resolution the governing body was considering for inclusion on the council agenda. The resolution condemned the use of offensively distorted Holocaust imagery and the unapproved photos of elementary school yeshiva children; they were used by a group that opposes the expansion of a Jewish presence in that part of New Jersey.
We were buoyed by the outspoken leadership by the Rev. John P. Bambrick of Jackson’s Saint Aloysius Church, representing 6,300 hundred local congregants, asking to “raise up” Ocean County and oppose a divisive video by an organization calling itself “Rise Up Ocean County.”
Municipal council meetings often can run late into the night. That gave me ample opportunity to do what any proud new father does — to show off photos of my newborn. More significantly, it provided time to realize that those of us, like me, who are fortunate enough to represent institutions such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center, are blessed with the distinct opportunity to do my share in trying ensure a better future for my newborn son and all his neighbors, young and old, in New Jersey and beyond. Standing up for the sanctity of the words of Pastor Martin Niemöller meant that we were protecting a core lesson from the Nazi Holocaust by not allowing anyone to pervert the pastor’s anti-Nazi message.
Certainly there were those at the council hearing who attempted to make the standard free speech argument, but it was clear to all that what would be protected would be hate speech. Posts on the Jackson Strong site put up shortly after the council meeting attempted to falsely reverse the evening’s proceedings by writing “unfortunately there was zero time for the residents of Jackson who wanted to rebut what was being said.” Parliamentary procedure embedded in the New Jersey Open Public Meetings Act requires equal time for all who want to address the relevant governing body on any issue, with the exception of matters dealing with current municipality litigation or that could incite violence or breaking the law. In fact, throughout the meeting, to the credit of the City Council President Robert Nixon, he not only made clear that anyone could address the governing body, but on many occasions he made a point to invite anyone attending to come to the podium to be recognized and heard. As one person after another voiced support for the resolution in question, full access certainly was provided for the expression of opposing points of view. Apparently, these bullies chose to hide in the anonymous shadows of social media instead of stepping up to the public microphone.
The resolution at hand is narrow and specific. The language says only that the actions of a particular group, in these particular instances, should be wholly condemned. Our reason for being present at the Jackson City Council meeting on this cold February evening was simply to ask the governing body to say publicly that Holocaust distortion is simply and unequivocally wrong, whatever the cause.
My hope, prayer, and commitment to my family and neighbors is that the Simon Wiesenthal Center will continue to work with people of good will, whatever their background, ethnicity, or religion, to marginalize bigotry in our midst.