Let Your Voices Be Heard

Last week, the Simon Wiesenthal Center released its annual list of the 10 most anti-Semitic events in 2021. They ranged from incidents involving the BBC, Twitter, TikTok, Telegram, and Unilever to Iran’s nuclear capacity and the threats it has made against the Jewish state to blaming the COVID pandemic on a Jewish conspiracy.

Those of us who live and work in the tri-state area have witnessed violence against our community, our neighbors, our friends, and family. Last summer, on streets throughout our region, we saw that when there were violent clashes between Israel and Hamas in the Middle East, it had an immediate effect on anti-Semitic sympathizers locally, inciting violent attacks against those identifiably Jewish, or supporters of Israel right here at home.

And yes, this toxic anti-Semitic environment continued to have a real impact even more locally, in our own proverbial backyard as well.

This summer, during a regular public discussion of a land use issue at a meeting of Englewood’s City Council, a woman told the body that it could not decide the particular issue properly because it did not represent the city’s demographics accurately. Why? The planning board, she said, had “too many Jews.”

A few weeks later, the same woman came back to the city council to give her input on another issue. Once again, she testified on the record, the council could not properly debate the issue at hand as the duly elected body includes too many Orthodox Jews. And, she added, the city’s mayor also is Jewish.

She’s not alone. Over the past half dozen years or so, there’s been another man who regularly shows up at the city council’s public meetings to rail against Jews and Israel. He began his tirades in 2017, as the regional Jewish community was shocked at Mahwah’s audacity in attempting to pass ordinances that in de facto fashion attempted to block neighboring Jewish communities from using their public parks and to prevent their Shabbat accommodations by placing an eruv over just a few bordering block of their municipality. This man went so far as to recruit people from Mahwah to show up at an Englewood City Council meeting to demonstrate their support for the passage and expansion of those same anti-Semitic legislative initiatives. His basic message — the Jews will infiltrate your town like they are doing in ours if we don’t band together to stop their spread. The result was that New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal sued the township of Mahwah to overturn its discriminatory ordinances.

Unfortunately, in these and other incidents, much of the municipalities’ elected leadership left it to their Jewish colleagues to protest alone.

We cannot defeat anti-Semitism without neighbors who will speak out with and for us when we are targeted with bigotry.

When Joseph Borgen was severely beaten by Hamas-supporting thugs on the streets of New York City as he was heading to a pro-Israel rally last spring, the Simon Wiesenthal Center organized a protest rally on Long Island. Thousands of Jews were there, and elected officials from all backgrounds and constituency groups who joined in solidarity and did in fact lend their voices along with local clergy, Jews and non-Jews alike. We need for this to be the norm.

I have the great privilege to be a part of a global premier Jewish human rights organization, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and to see the kind of leadership and interfaith and intercommunal partnerships that should make all of us proud. I have seen leaders, true leaders, of all backgrounds show real-time leadership and speak out on behalf of what is right.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center will continue to be there for our community and for other communities, including our African American, Hispanic, and Asian neighbors, and for anyone else who faces attacks by the bigots.

We have to continue acting in solidarity with our fellow Jews, and equally important, in solidarity with all of our neighbors, from all backgrounds, when they are attacked. We need to all be true partners in the fight against hate.

That is the only way forward.

About the Author
Michael Cohen currently serves as Eastern Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Mr. Cohen additionally serves on the Englewood, NJ City Council where he was recently elected to his third term. Mr. Cohen has previously held senior staff positions on Capitol Hill and in NYC and NYS governments for over 15 years. Mr. Cohen has also served as Director of Political and Strategic Affairs for a top NY lobbying firm.
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