Mike Offner
Writer and lifelong student.

Massachusetts City Approves Resolution Condemning Antisemitism

The Easthampton, MA City Council has approved, unanimously, a resolution condemning antisemitism, setting a precedent for other municipalities to potentially follow.

The language of the resolution includes:

The full version of the resolution is here.

Comments of Councilor Owen Zaret, the author of the resolution, were as follows:

Why do people hate Jews?

My name is Owen Zaret.  My grandfather was Irving Zaretsky from Petrikov, Russia, modern day Belarus.  His family was murdered by Cossacks in a pogrom while he was away on an errand. He was 14. His two youngest sisters were hidden in a laundry basket.  He made his way to Germany, escaped a day before a round up of Jews, and made his way to New York. He worked on the docks and then in a department store and did displays, and eventually opened a kosher butcher shop.  He changed his name to Zaret like thousands of other immigrants, trying to hide his identity and gain some acceptance as an American.

The Blocks, Faders, Zimmerman, and Gellers escaped in the 1880s when there was a brief pause of expulsion and pogroms.  The rest are statistics killed in pogroms, shot In firing squads, or gassed in concentration camps. Maybe if they were lucky they were held in Russia, unable to leave or hold any meaningful position.  In the early 1900s, 60 percent of the world’s Jewish population lived in Europe.  Two-thirds of those were murdered in the Holocaust.  The total world population today being still less than it was pre-Holocaust.

Why do people hate Jews?

This followed the historical exile of Jews from Israel in the first millennium.  A diaspora in Europe formed in the second millennium, mostly due to persecution and expulsion in the Middle East and Africa.  The second millennium of the common era saw expulsion of Jews from every European country over that thousand years.

Jews were told where to live, what professions to take, what spaces to occupy, what their names could be, who they could speak to.  They were beaten, jailed, and murdered.  They were blamed for plague and disease, war, and economic downturn.  Jews were notoriously pictured as devils and demons throughout their European existence.

Highlights of this misfortune included massacres in France, the Spanish Inquisition, the pale of settlement forcing Jews into a sliver of shtetls in the Russian empire, the ensuing pogroms, and the Holocaust or “final solution.”  We are now 2% of the US population and 0.2% of the world population. You tell me how we can be responsible for all the woes of the world.

It was not much better in the United States.  That is if you could get here.  Jewish immigration policy was restrictive and quota-ridden.  This included turning ships away from Europe during the holocaust to send Jews back to their deaths.

Antisemitism runs deep in America.  At one point Jews carried books with them around the country to know which businesses they could and could not go to.  Here Jews were kept out of colleges with notorious quotas and novel filtering application processes by Ivy Leagues.  Once in they were provided with oppressive and prejudicial policies.  Many left.  Some were just flunked out for being Jewish like in the notorious Emory Dental School.  They were kept out of businesses, companies, organizations, and government.  The city I grew up in would not sell houses to Jews in most of the city until the 70s, and the neighboring town would not sell to Jews at all until about the same time.  The restriction of Jews from the American stage led to the formation of multiple motion picture companies which were successfully grown,  and then Jews were accused of exerting control over that industry.

Why do people hate Jews?

So here I was, Owen Zaret. I grew up sheltered from most of this.  Private Jewish school.  Jewish summer camps.  A town that had overcome its antisemitic real estate practices to actually become quite Jewish.  But I saw it every major holiday when we needed law enforcement at the synagogue.  When my camp would visit other camps and they would call us antisemitic slurs.  When I rode the bus home from school with my friend who wore a yarmulke, the kids picked on him.

When emerged from the shelter of a Jewish community I was immediately exposed to a non-Jewish world.  Most basically, the utter lack of acknowledgment of Judaism, its culture, and its calendar.  No one knew I was Jewish.  Owen Zaret is a disguise for Owen Zaretsky.  I got inside information into the mind of the public.  I remember when a girl was going to date me then didn’t because I was Jewish.  Her parents wouldn’t let her. When my chemistry classmate called the professor a “dirty Jew” for a bad grade, and when my medical assistant talked about getting “Jewed down” in a car purchase casually I had to explain to them that I was Jewish.  “Oh you don’t look Jewish.” “I had no idea.”

Institutional antisemitism is not about someone calling you a dirty Jew.  It is about them thinking it and constantly flying under the radar and leveraging difficult to prove institutionally controlled power dynamics.  It is the college dean who is enforcing a subjective acceptance quota.  Or the other dean flunking Jewish students based on equally subjective or fixed tests.  The country club who just doesn’t meet the admission requirements.  The job that you either don’t get or can never promote in because of some vague subjective reason.  The government body where the representative is elected, but the other representatives prevent them from engaging and freeze them out.

When I decided to run for office, I was not naive to the fact that my Judaism would be on display and would be an issue at times, but I expected that there would be enough voices around me to speak up and speak out against any discrimination.

The comments were typical.   Ranging from the micro/passive  aggressive “you don’t look Jewish” to “I had no idea” “you don’t have a Jewish name” “that’s ok” .  To the more obvious “Jews don’t count” or referring to me as having New York friends as an obvious coded message for Jew.  Suggesting that I both had money and was cheap.  That I was either in control or seeking control. That I was an outsider, an invader, an interloper.

Not once, or twice, but three times a councilor rejected my request for legal accommodations to move a meeting from coinciding with Yom Kippur, a day that Sandy Koufax wouldn’t pitch the World Series.   We could move meetings for other reasons, but not for the high holiday of atonement for Jews around the world.  We have a yearly Hanukah event in  town.  This has been attended by a minimal number of councilors over the years, many having never attended.  One city official even participating and stating that the story of the holiday is likely not true.  Others wouldn’t attend because I hosted and organized.

This followed year after year announcing the Jewish holidays to provide education and the city failing to acknowledge them for the Jews in town, or scheduling other city events on those high holidays. Holocaust memorial day is ignored. Jewish American history month as well.  Just a few weeks ago I urged our council  to understand the gravity  of the sharp rise in antisemitism, which was responded to with silence. I asked our mayor to denounce antisemitism.  Silence.

I experienced hypercriticism for opinions and statements that were not unlike those of my peers. I felt my participation was not judged by professionalism or policy, but rather a personal commentary on me as an individual. I expressed concern that I was treated  differently than my peers. I sensed anger from peers strictly for my commitment and participation  in city events.  I felt my participation in the local Jewish community was questioned and I experienced language from another councilor that was concerningly disrespectful of Jewish people and the Jewish community. It was confusing, discouraging, but also concerning. However, most concerning to me was the refusal of dialogue around and what I experienced as anger and punishment in return for bringing these concerns forward.

I’m not saying this to shame anyone.  These are all experiences I have had in the last 6 years, and I have questioned them all.  It is to point out how endemic these things are in society institutions and organizations.  Antisemitism is a disease like the flu that pervades our society for ages.

Why do people hate Jews?

I have had conversations with our Jewish community locally and beyond.

Experiences range from feeling like the recipient of irrational and blind hatred. Demonization. Double standards. Ostracization. Erasure. Hypercriticism.  Rumor mongering.  Second class citizenship.  Being dehumanized.  Throughout the ages there are literal propaganda campaigns blaming Jews for social downturns.  I talk to Jewish people regularly who feel that they are blamed for issues far out of their control.  We are depicted throughout the ages as devils in disguise.  I talk to people who feel the  same.

And I feel the same.  My personal and professional experience has included most of these feelings.  The sheer coincidence of all this is overwhelming, but also concerning. For me in my public service I have experienced what feels like a distinct effort to undermine or  discredit  service to  the community.  Public  smear  campaigns.  Public messaging making concerning accusations. I often wonder why it feels so easy to hate me. Is this part of public service or is this part of being a Jew.  Is it both?  These are historical antisemitic patterns and tropes. In full transparency members of the community have asked me if my relationship with the city council  is a product of antisemitism.

I have witnessed all of  this and pondered it. I have ask, begged, pleaded to discuss this. I have told people honestly and vulnerably that this is evocative  of historical  and cultural trauma.  They told me I was absurd.  I have been told I deserve this. To me the perceived reticence to discuss it or mediate and the defensiveness surrounding these behaviors speaks loudly.  I feel you don’t want to hear it because if you hear it you must answer for it or be expected to take action against it.  You don’t seem to want to.  When you say that your Jewish colleague needs to disappear or needs to go away or be gotten rid of, you need to think about the images you are conjuring.

This is what it looks like to be a Jewish person, professional, public servant .  If  you are lucky you can be granted the job, gain admission, offered membership,  or elected but you won’t necessarily be accepted .  This is not to center me.  My experience is one of  many in the backdrop of the 15 million  others. My story is the story  of the Jewish people.  I am a data point.  A sentence, a word, a piece of punctuation on a page of the history of Jews everywhere.

To think that 100 years after my grandfather’s family was the target of discrimination by his government, I struggle to feel I experience the same here.  I do not feel safe or welcome in these chambers I have told many of you that and I ask you all to ask yourselves why.

Antisemitism is centuries old.  You think the city of Easthampton could magically escape it?  No we can’t and we haven’t.  And that is why we need this resolution, because even in 2023 we still think and behave differently about the Jews among us. When  I initially wrote this and submitted it, I had no idea that we would be in the midst of the worst state of antisemitism here and internationally since Nazi Europe.  It sounds extreme but it is true.  Enough is enough, and never again.  We all need to change our perspectives and start to stand against Jewish hate and all other forms of hate.

The resolution received unanimous support from the city councilors and the Easthampton mayor, Nicole M. LaChapelle:

About the Author
Mike Offner was born and raised in Newton, MA, and is a graduate of the Newton Public Schools, Yale University, and Harvard Law School.
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