The American Jewish Committee (AJC) was the guest last week of an annual discussion hosted by the National Association of Jewish Legislators/New York Chapter. The event was attended by two dozen state lawmakers from both houses and both sides of the aisle.
Founded in 1906 after the pogrom in Kishinev, Moldova, AJC touts itself as the oldest Jewish American civil rights organization in the United States.
When Assemblyman Phil Ramos (D – Brentwood, Suffolk County) questioned whether someone who criticizes Israel, as he has done, can be antisemitic, fireworks lit up the room.
“Every country, every democracy, has flaws,” said Myra Clark-Siegel, the regional director of the AJC Westchester / Fairfield. “To paraphrase Churchill, it’s messy but it’s better than the alternative. I think that everyone champions the ability for free speech. In fact, if you ask any Israeli if they agree with all of the policies of the Israeli government, they will say no. Every Israeli thinks they would be a better prime minister than the prime minister. No matter which party is in power, no matter who the prime minister is.”
At least a couple of lawmakers at the meeting disagreed.
The people who criticize the state of Israel hide behind the fact that ‘nah, we’re just criticizing the state of Israel and not a Jew’,” said Assemblyman Ari Brown (R – Cedarhurst, Nassau County). “It is antisemitism because you’ll never see them criticize the surrounding countries around Israel who enslaved the people of color to this day. In Israel everybody is free to be part of the government, to be part of society but to criticize Israel, the freest country in the Middle East and not the countries surrounding Israel, absolutely not. When you criticize the state of Israel, for the most part, it is an antisemitic act, 100 percent. Let’s not mince words about that and hide behind it.”
Shaking her head in disagreement during Brown’s reply but not verbalizing her thoughts was Senator Shelley Mayer (D – Yonkers, Westchester County).
A speaker from the other side of the aisle presented the example a proponent of the BDS movement, a global campaign promoting boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel.
“The BDS movement is antisemitic in that they’re only criticizing or boycotting only one country when they’re not boycotting North Korea, they’re not boycotting Cuba, they’re not boycotting all these countries where human rights violations occur on a daily basis,” said Assemblyman David Weprin (D – Hollis, Queens). “That’s the difference and the point. Anybody can criticize any country’s governmental policy but when you criticize for a boycott of one country, the only Jewish democracy in the world, that’s where it becomes antisemitic.
“People say, ‘Oh the BDS movement is not antisemitic, it’s just criticizing policy’ – then why are you singling out a country that happens to be a democracy where LGBT rights are respected and parades are held and people aren’t penalized for speaking out. That’s why it becomes antisemitic.”
These comments offered up a new, stronger response from the AJC.
“If you are only singling out one state out of the 193 member nations of the United Nations, then there is a problem,” said Clark-Siegel, who describes herself as a Latina Jew. “If you are only singling out the Jewish state and no other state, then there is a problem and that is where we see it goes into antisemitism. There is the opportunity for questions and robust discussions and discourse. If you are only going after the single Jewish state in the globe that is when it goes into antisemitism.”
The half-hour discussion also focused on a non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism adopted in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. The working definition has been adopted by 37 countries and 25 states in this country, but not in New York. “It is time and it is appropriate for New York state to do the same,” Clark-Siegel told state lawmakers.
The global working definition of antisemitism reads:
“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
“At AJC we have to be swivel-headed because antisemitism is on the left, it is on the right and it is from religious extremists,” said Clark-Siegel. “Antisemitism is increasing but Jews feel they are not being heard. We can do better in New York. [In a survey conducted by the AJC], one in four American Jews have been a target of antisemitism in the past year. Nine in 10 members of the American Jewish community feel antisemitism is a significant problem. Six in 10 feel it is a problem. That 30 percent difference should make us all pay attention. It means we all have work to do. [That] fully a quarter of the American public feel antisemitism is not a problem in the country is the most troubling. Fifty percent of the American public said they are unfamiliar with the term antisemitism. We have work to do.”
She also quoted FBI statistics:
“Last year, 55 percent of the hate crimes reported to the FBI were towards the Jewish community,” Clark-Siegel said. “Two percent of the American population is Jewish and yet we’re the number one target of all religiously-based hate crimes. There is such a significant imbalance there. No community should face these kinds of hate crimes. The American Jewish community does not feel heard.”
One other Jewish lawmaker spoke of hatred that reached his district office and his home.
“I never felt that I was experiencing antisemitism until recently,” said Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz (D – Riverdale, The Bronx). “I’ve had legislation that many people vehemently opposed that concerns saving lives, vaccines. We’ve had demonstrations in front of my office, in front of my house, and some of the people carrying signs had swastikas on it. A person in front of my office was wearing a giant yellow Star of David. I’ve had the most horrendous messages from idiots leaving messages on my voicemail at the office. Things I couldn’t believe people were saying and of course on Twitter and Facebook. In fact, at one of the events there was a candidate for governor standing next to the person holding the sign with the swastika. These are the types of things that have been unleashed in the past several years and it comes from the political right and it comes from the political left. We’ve seen organizations demand that candidates for office don’t visit Israel for example. That’s disgusting.”
Brown, who was sworn into office a couple of weeks ago, said Assembly leadership is not taking antisemitism seriously.
“It’s in our own house in New York,” Brown said. “We have more Jews than anywhere else in the world except for maybe Israel. We talk and we talk and we talk and we try to pass bills. We can’t even get a Holocaust study [bill] done in New York. I’m sitting around my fellow legislators and what happens? I don’t understand how in New York we can’t get proper Holocaust studies? Let’s do our jobs, all of us, and let’s fight the fight we’re supposed to fight and not just talk. I take a totally different approach than anybody else. Let’s do something for a change. Here we drag things on forever. Let’s do the right thing. Let’s pass the proper bills for antisemitism. Let’s call out the people that need to be called out.”
Another Jewish lawmaker highlighted that one of the greatest dangers Jews face today is demagoguery, a political activity or practices that seek support by appealing to the desires and prejudices of ordinary people rather than by using rational argument.
“We can see it from either side of the political extreme,” said Assemblyman Charles Lavine (D – Glen Cove, Nassau County), president of the New York Chapter of the National Association of Jewish Legislators. “I hope each and every one of us here today will dedicate herself and himself to fighting against demagoguery. We know it when we see it and it is very easy to define.”
(On a side note, while a large majority of the attendees were Jewish, the bagels and muffins at the breakfast meeting were not kosher. AJC brought their own food for their staff.)