Last week, I represented the Simon Wiesenthal Center as the keynote speaker at a forum on anti-Semitism at Camden County College. At that forum, I was asked, “What is the difference between the anti-Semitism of today and what we faced a few years ago?”
My response is it has become acceptable.
I pointed to anti-Semitic comments made by Paterson Council member Michael Jackson and Trenton Council President Kathy McBride over the last two weeks. Neither of them saw anything wrong in using an anti-Semitic trope. These public officials failed to see what was wrong using “Jew us down” or “Jew her down” while negotiating taxpayer business in their official capacities.
When Mr. Jackson made his comment, the Paterson city administrator immediately walked out of the meeting in disgust, returning only to denounce the council member’s words as reprehensible. Mr. Jackson, who also serves as the body’s vice president, responded by saying that these words were only “indicative of his upbringing.” He continued, explaining matter-of-factly that a common English-language synonym for “to haggle” is “to Jew down.”
In the case of Council President McBride — who leads the governing body of the state’s capital — two of her colleagues rushed to her defense, one of whom, Robin Vaughn, publicly declared that “to ‘Jew someone down’ is a verb and is not anti-anything.”
In southern New Jersey, we recently witnessed groups such as Rise Up Ocean County consistently claim to be baffled when it faced charges of anti-Semitism, after they produced videos distorting the famous Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemoller’s world-renowned Holocaust quote to motivate local residents to rally to their cause. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised anymore to see people shamelessly seeking to create parallels between actions of Ocean County’s Jews and the genocidal Nazis.
Just over a month ago, the leader of the Passaic County NAACP, Jeffery Dye, who also was serving as a member of Governor Murphy’s administration then, believed that there was nothing wrong with posting anti-Semitic and anti-Israel statements on his social media pages. To their credit, both the governor and the NAACP immediately removed him from his official positions.
At Camden County College, I explained that another element emerging from the newly burgeoning anti-Semitism is that such people no longer hesitate to deploy anti-Semitic bigoted remarks that had not been tolerated just a short time ago. Moving forward, we unfortunately should expect more such incidents infecting the mainstream, blatant anti-Semitism without any thought of apologizing. Not so long ago, such bigots might have been proud of their hateful world view privately, but usually they would not dare to express those sentiments publicly. Not anymore. Today, actions taken and words spoken clearly allow such individuals to identify themselves as anti-Semites and increasing they do so without the earlier hesitation about crossing the line of what were just recently societal taboos. Do these people, elected, appointed, or otherwise, truly believe their own explanations justifying such hate speech? If they do, it is necessary that these officials, who contemptibly disregarded the community’s trust, to be held immediately accountable for such hate.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center has reached out to the elective bodies involved in these controversies, demanding action and offering education for the adults in the room. On the eve of the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, we obviously no longer can assume that today’s elected officials have internalized the bitter lessons of the Shoah. They and all our children must be educated about the legacy of the Nazi Holocaust.
In Ocean County this past week, I was moved by the words of Elan Carr, the United States Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat anti-Semitism. I told him that his presence signaled to the citizens of New Jersey that the federal government is taking note of the increased anti-Semitism in our state, and that there is a powerful need to bring awareness and education to young and old alike.
As we mark the High Holy Days, we at the Wiesenthal Center are grateful to have made a difference in combating anti-Semitism from Mahwah to Ocean County, from Rutgers University to the 25 local New Jersey municipalities that have passed anti-BDS resolutions. The unapologetic bias exemplified in some public officials, however, only demonstrates how much more work there is to be done.