Why I Attend the New Jersey League of Municipalities Conference

In my year plus as the eastern director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, I have come to two realizations.

Firstly, that there is far more anti-Semitism in our own local backyard than we would care to know about, and secondly, that building alliances and relationships beyond our own community is undoubtedly a critical method necessary to counter such prejudicial sentiments.

Two weeks ago I attended the New Jersey League of Municipalities Conference in Atlantic City. Each year since my election to the Englewood City Council in 2010 I have made sure to attend, and each year many around me have inquired about my commitment to do so.

The conference represents the annual gathering of local elected officials, senior municipal officials, and key stakeholders from around our great state. It is the one opportunity each year that the leadership from your home municipalities has to interact with others who have similar elected or appointed positions, but divergent ideas and foundational experiences that drive their thought process. While there are many formal sessions on achieving a full spectrum of best practices at the conference, the more critical time is after the convention center doors close each evening.

From the midafternoon forward, a full spectrum of groups and organizations host receptions. Each of these gatherings is a pathway to the establishment of new relationships in the informal way necessary to build something enduring between people and the entities they represent. Many of them are relationships that are unlikely to have formed organically.

As I walked through receptions at the Tropicana’s Cuba Libre and the Borgata’s Izakaya, I talked incessantly about the rationale of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s BDS initiative in passing resolutions condemning the movement in municipalities throughout the state. I had conversations about the importance of learning about the Holocaust and using it as the Simon Wiesenthal Center does, as a transformative teaching tool. I discussed the emotional reaction our communities have toward the increasing use of the swastika by young people who have not been exposed to that education, and what we fear that such behavior, caused continued ignorance, so often leads to.

But I also listened.

I heard about the plights of those representing people facing the digital divide that remains an obstacle to the success of their next generation in job markets. I heard about people facing discriminatory immigrant-related issues, who worry about the treatment of their children and the related psychological effect of such interactions. I heard from those battling with poorly achieving inner city academics in their public schools, who are disturbed by the lack of attention their school districts are receiving compared to those in other neighborhoods. I heard their problems, and as we all continue in this life to learn, I better understood the problems those around us face on a daily basis.

I also learned that many people across the state had never even heard of the BDS movement, and that they were eager both to learn more and to discuss inter-communal partnerships in fighting all forms of discrimination. What I learned was that far too many people who did not represent jurisdictions that bordered on Jewish neighborhoods had preconceived notions about the issues that concern our community, such as Israel and anti-Semitism, based on standard news outlets and their respective biases. They never hear other perspectives. While most rational people can recognize the moral and ethical repugnance of any form of bias, stereotyping, and discrimination, a person’s deeper comprehension of the trigger points of communities other than their own is grown only through meaningful personal exposure.

When I had the opportunity to tell the people I met that I had encountered anti- Semitic epithets shouted at me and others representing the Jewish community a few months ago as we tried to testify at a New York City Council public hearing on a resolution condemning the BDS movement, it didn’t take long for jaws to drop. Interacting with someone like me as an equal as I provided a first-hand account was monumentally important to the readjustment of their perspective. Suddenly it was real. It was alive. I understand very well the difference made by such exposure to firsthand accounts as I heard their own personal accounts of discrimination against people who looked like them, talked like them, came from the same country as they did. Sure, I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about a wide variety of biases in our region, but there is something that touches you differently when a respected leader, standing next to you at a reception, tells you about his child being called the “N” word in school or being bullied for coming from a distinct ethnic or religious group.

I am committed to go to the New Jersey League of Municipalities Conference each year because if we are to fight successfully against anti-Semitism it is critical to ensure that there are people from our community who can talk about our issues, who can provide that exposure, and who can give us a personalized identity to those who potentially might be our allies in our common struggle against discrimination.

At the same time, if we are to build such necessary inter-communal alliances, it is incumbent upon us not only to say that we know that others are discriminated against as well, but to feel the innate power of other people’s emotional struggles within this context. That way, our empathy is genuine, our bond is strong, and our zero tolerance for swastikas, BDS, or any form of anti-Semitism will be fundamentally understood and universally abhorred.

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.