Photo Credit: Marc Gronich
Gwen Dominguez, a Port Chester High School student with family roots in the Cuban Jewish community, looks on as Yorktown High School student Talia Pierson suggests having adults come to her school to talk about their personal stories combatting hate and antisemitism.

Westchester County schools are under attack by antisemites and extremists, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Underlying the cause of this rampant upsurge are social media outlets and gaming resulting in hate crimes at record levels.

“We don’t always hear from young people about their actual experiences. While there are a lot of older adults on this panel, the real stars of this panel are the high school students who are here to tell their stories and then to use this panel and the expertise here to try to think of creative solutions. This is not a school-focused solution,” said Senator Shelley Mayer, the sponsor of the event and chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.


“There are many ways to deal with these issues and this program today is to try to find solutions in addition to what we do in schools both to ensure there is less of this occurring among and between our young people, that there are consequences for those who engage in hateful speech, hateful conduct and then we create a climate where it is truly discouraged and it is not permissible anymore.”

This past summer Mayer, a Jewish Yonkers Democrat, put together a panel discussion with Jewish students from Port Chester, White Plains and Yorktown high schools who have all experienced antisemitism in some fashion and feel frustrated that school administrators ignored their complaints. Joining the students were four professionals and one elected official from the village of Port Chester.

“Port Chester experiences discrimination from outsiders. Prejudice is very much an issue within our own communities,” said Gwen Dominguez, a Port Chester High School student. “As a high schooler, there was a controversy where our school board president at that time was exposed for interacting with racists on Facebook. Knowing that was disheartening and appalling. Not only that someone who had power over making decisions that affected my classmates and everyone I grew up with but seeing that a large number of people supported him. That was definitely an eye-opening experience. I did see all the hate that was a big part of the situation but I also saw how people were standing up and having their voices heard. I am a white person who is the granddaughter of Cuban immigrants.”

Another student described a disturbing symbol etched into her school desk. “On November 15, 2022, someone carved a swastika on my desk. I was shocked, upset and taken aback. As a Jewish individual I was personally affected,” said Lexi Labis, a student at White Plains High School.

That incident brought a positive response from one of the most prominent professionals on the panel.

“Lexi, you spoke about how upset you were about the swastika but you also noted that the swastika is a symbol that the Nazis used to attack other groups. That’s a lesson that I talk about all the time and I rarely hear universalizing the image of the swastika. [This concept] is so important as a way to counter that issue. We in the Jewish community tend to internalize that and make it our own issue but it’s not just an issue for the Jewish community, it’s an issue for everybody,” said Scott Richman, the ADL regional director for New York and New Jersey.

“There’s an important group you left out. It’s not just the Jews the Nazis put in the concentration camps, it’s also our soldiers. Our American soldiers, more than 400,000 Americans lost their lives in World War II fighting against that symbol. It is completely un-American and we need to stand up to the swastika, which unfortunately has become ubiquitous in our schools. I always talk about the fact that everybody in that school needs to be up in arms about that, not just the Jewish community, so kudos to you [Lexi] for universalizing it. It’s a very important lesson.”

Another student claimed that communication and education are two solutions to combatting hate.

More than 70 people attended the event focused on how a small amount of hate and antisemitism could balloon into something more serious.

“In my school there is a lack of focus on personal stories and learning about how individual people have been, their lives have been turned upside down as a result of hate,” recalled Talia Pierson, a student at Yorktown High School. “We learn about events such as the Holocaust and slavery. We learn about how this has changed history. We learn from personal stories and we listen to speakers or remembrances. As more students have that opportunity from more organizations it will really help to eliminate hate as a whole. Any individual’s life, no matter how ordinary, can be turned upside down as a result of hate.”

Turning to the professionals, they saw bravery in what the students expressed in their remarks before an audience of approximately 70 people.

Andrea Myer Winograd, executive director of the Holocaust Museum & Center of Tolerance and Education based at Rockland Community College in Suffern, praised students for their courage in calling out school officials for not taking action when hate and antisemitism are reported.

“To the youth here, not only do you have courage, you have what we call moral courage. Moral courage is when you take a risk that you don’t need to take,” said Andrea Myer Winograd, executive director of the Holocaust Museum & Center of Tolerance and Education based at Rockland Community College in Suffern.

“It’s the courage you all had to stand up. You don’t need to stand up. It’s your desire to stand up. Not just for yourself but to pave the way for the next and the next and the next [generation]. We really commend you.”

Winograd found an ally in Virginia Norfleet, CEO and founder of the Rockland County-based Haverstraw African American Connection.

Together we have formed “Better Together,” Winograd said. “How we formed it is we realized that the African-American community and the Jewish community in the 60s, walked together, stuck together in solidarity and today we are farther apart than ever. There was a bond, there was a break and now we want to build a bridge. We try to build relationships through storytelling. Professional development can run around three hours sometimes and the teachers ask that it [would] never end.”

Norfleet, of African American Connection, had her own take on building bridges in a community where her family roots extend back 120 years.

“I left New York and then came back. I started to hear about ‘those people,’ referring to chassidic Jewish people buying up property. That became a problem for me because in the 60s I was ‘those people’; ‘you people’; and people were running from our neighborhoods. It’s not just between Blacks and Jews but with everybody,” Norfleet, who is Black, told the audience. “New York was the second-largest slave-holding state in the country, only behind South Carolina. We don’t even teach our history. That’s an issue. What it does is make other people feel inferior while other people feel superior. New York was as brutal as the South. In Haverstraw the first Africans arrived in 1616. We don’t even deal with our own history.”

Another professional said education is lacking in the schools to combat hate and antisemitism.

Lisa Zeiderman, president of the Justice Brandeis Law Society of the Ninth Judicial District, said education is the key to combatting hate and antisemitism.

“It is our belief, as an organization, that education is one of the responses that we need to actually uniformly put forward in order to respond to hate,” said Lisa Zeiderman, president of the White Plains-based Justice Brandeis Law Society, Ninth Judicial District, an organization that raises awareness about racism of all kinds and organizes cultural events for attorneys and judges. “It’s about education and educating people as to why hate is so wrong and why we can’t be desensitized to hate.”

ADL’s Richman, who has been in his position for less than three years, spoke about a six-point awareness plan that includes polarization, hate crimes, social media, gaming, extremism and antisemitism. As we have seen in Congress recently, polarization of ideas can bring the government to a screeching halt.

“We live in a particularly divided moment where society is getting increasingly more divided,” Richman said. “That’s a big problem. When people take sides like that, what they do is say everything on my side is right whether it is right or wrong and everything on the other side is wrong whether it’s right or wrong. People on the left need to control hate on the left. People on the right need to control hate on the right. There is a rise of hate speech on social media due to polarization and that is emboldening extremists.”

Combatting hate crimes is a particularly devious problem because it balances free speech against hurtful speech.

With Senator Shelley Mayer looking on, Scott Richman spoke about ADL’s “peer-to-peer training in high school. “It’s a very important part of what we do. I agree that this is critical,” Richman said. Richman is ADL’s regional director for New York and New Jersey.

“The latest FBI data is that hate crimes are at their highest levels in 20 years. More than 11,000 hate crimes. It’s not easy for something to be declared a hate crime,” Richman said. The bar is very high. You need to show that the person had some sort of animus, some sort of motivation that they were attacking someone because of their identity. It’s a very high bar because of our laws. By the way, it has to be a crime. The incidents that the people spoke about here are terrible and they’re painful but they’re not crimes.”

The spectrum of hate is not as clear-cut as it was a decade ago before social media took hold and gained an audience.

“Hate is typically controlled by civil society. Social media throws it out of whack because we don’t have to ask permission. If you want to get your ideas out, you simply have to put it out there,” Richman claimed. “Even more than that you can find others who share your hateful views. That was very hard in the past. You can also radicalize others who may not share your hateful views but are susceptible to it.”

Social media also advances hate and harassment by their writers due to a lack of self-control.

“Social media is completely self-regulated. There is no regulation by the government,” Richman said as part of his stump speech. “The gaming industry has not put in place content moderation policies, as has been done by Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and TikTok. In gaming, we have now seen that harassment has become normalized. In the gaming industry more than 83 percent of adults and 50 percent of youth report being harassed on social media. Ten percent of that involves white supremacy.”

Richman said all this leads to public displays of hate and antisemitism.

“We had the example in Port Chester of the Goyim Defense League. A vehemently antisemitic, white supremacist group that left flyers on people’s lawns. By the way, this is completely allowed because of free speech,” said Richman. “They left flyers on people’s lawns with horrific statements about people in the Jewish community. Stickers that were left in New Rochelle about a year and a half ago with a message about white power. Starting in 2017, ADL began keeping track of it. We counted 20 incidents of such white supremacist propaganda in 2017. In the latest count that has gone up more than ten times, well over 200 incidents in New York. It is mirrored across the country.”

Finally, Richman put the spotlight on antisemitism.

“We are a Jewish organization but we are also allies when it comes to fighting all forms of hate. I do want to single out antisemitism because we are in a moment where antisemitism has gone up tremendously. Antisemitic incidents have gone up tremendously. ADL tracks these. ADL responds to antisemitic incidents,” Richman stated. “Literally, every day of the week we respond to antisemitic incidents. Having multiple incidents every day to which they need to respond is tremendously difficult. Perhaps the most heinous examples of this are assaults. We counted the largest number of assaults, 111 incidents of people who were physically attacked where you could prove that this was because they were Jewish, not just because a Jewish person was harmed but where you could prove the person was doing it because that person was Jewish, in 2022. We’ve been keeping track of this since 1979. It’s very serious.”

Richman said he is hopeful that students helping students deal with hate will be effective.

“ADL has peer-to-peer training in high school. It’s a very important part of what we do. I agree that this is critical,” Richman said. “Teaching students to be able to talk to fellow students about this, has such an impact. We work in about 80 schools in Westchester not to mention approximately 400 schools in New York and New Jersey. It’s a very important part of our work. Peer-to-peer training is critical.”

Aside from all the chatter coming from this panel, it is possible that new laws could result from these experiences. The state Bar Association has empaneled a task force of highly respected attorneys from across the state to discuss anti-Asian hate and antisemitism in an effort to develop recommendations for the legislators to refine into proposed laws. Mayer is a member of the task force. John Harris is the task force member representing the ADL on the panel of experts.


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Marc Gronich is the owner and news director of Statewide News Service. He has been covering government and politics for 44 years, since the administration of Hugh Carey. He is an award-winning journalist. His Albany Beat column appears monthly in The Jewish Press and his coverage about how Jewish life intersects with the happenings at the state Capitol appear weekly in the newspaper. You can reach Mr. Gronich at [email protected].