On August 4, New York’s Attorney General Letitia James briefed the Westchester Jewish Council’s leadership via Zoom.
WJC’s President Lisa Roberts welcomed James: “We are grateful for our ongoing relationship with the attorney general’s office. The WJC is proud to serve as the central organization for Westchester Jewry. Our mission is simple: The WJC connects Jews to Jews, to Israel, to elected officials and the broader community.
“Shalom!” began James. “I wish we could all be together in person, but I am grateful for the technology which made this meeting possible and keeps us connected to colleagues, family and friends during this difficult time. I am honored to stand with all of you to face the monumental challenges we face as a nation. My solidarity with New York’s Jewish community is deep and unshakable. It dates back to my city council days where I represented parts of Crown Heights, home to the Lubavitch community, who consider me an honorary Lubavitch. For many years, there was a lot of tension between the Jewish and black communities in Crown Heights.”
“When I was elected to the New York City Council in 2003, I made it one of my top priorities to get to know the Lubavitch community, to educate myself about their needs, but also to demonstrate that I was a friend and not a foe,” James continued. “Despite the history, I was there to make peace. I organized meetings and events, to learn about one another. There is more that unites us than divides us. Black and Jewish communities have embraced that truth throughout history.”
James described the civil rights movement, when young Jewish and Black students joined freedom buses, marched in Alabama and worked voter registration drives in the Jim Crow South. “I see pictures of the late Congressmember John Lewis marching arm in arm with Jewish leaders calling for an end to racism and anti-Semitism,” James continued. “In the face of this pandemic we have another opportunity to charter a future of mutual respect, love and harmony; summon good will from the civil rights movement; and remind everyone about our shared history. I know how hard the heavy hand of COVID-19 has landed here in Westchester County.”
Targeting those who seek to illegally profit off this crisis, James stated, “I call them bottom feeders. My office is protecting targets of price gouging, fake cures and other despicable scams.” With many unemployed New Yorkers struggling to make ends meet, she suspended the state’s student loan and medical debt collection. A 30-day suspension has been renewed four times with another extension likely. James’ office has been working with the governor’s wide range of executive orders. “I have sent letters to New York’s major mortgage servicers, calling on them to apply relief to homeowners struggling to pay.”
The AG’s office is also monitoring rising hate crimes and bias-based incidents. “We will stand up against hate of any community. It is critically important that we all stand together. It is my responsibility to enforce the law and protect individuals’ right to engage in peaceful protest. I was tasked by the governor to release a report reviewing the interactions between protestors and police. While the investigation is ongoing, the preliminary report includes recommendations for systematic police reform in light of the clear breakdown in trust. It is important that we work to rebuild that trust. To build public trust, we must have public accountability.”
Her preliminary proposals include creating public participation in, and oversight of, departmental policies; redesigning public safety and the role of police in society; decriminalizing minor offenses; and ensuring real and independent oversight, accountability and transparency of officer and systemic misconduct, and a codified use-of-force standard with real legal consequences for violations.
James concluded, “I want to leave you with one simple message. There may not be a vaccine for COVID-19 or systematic inequality, but there is one against racism, anti-Semitism and crime. It is a commitment to our highest values, unified public action and the rule of law, which is applied to everyone in our society.”
James recounted Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s return from the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March with Dr. King. When asked if he found time to pray, he answered, “I prayed with my feet.”
James added, “It is also important that everyone understands that the Montgomery boycott lasted for over 300 days, until there was reform and change. So in this movement of challenge and change, we are called to come together as one, to remove the artificial barriers that separate us, to pray with our feet, and to address the fault lines which unfortunately have revealed themselves.”
By Judy Berger