April 23, 2024
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April 23, 2024
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West Orange Human Relations Commission Facebook Post Ignites Anger in Jewish Community

Jewish residents of West Orange voiced their anger, disappointment and sadness during an Oct. 23 meeting of the township’s Human Relations Commission after a post on the group’s Facebook page seemed to equate actions by Israel and Hamas.

The post, which has since been removed, said in part, “mourning for the people of Palestine and the Jewish community, both communities who have shown up for the liberation of Black people for decades … If you don’t know what to say, know this. Your Palestinian friends are looking to you to know you see their humanity and right to a life without disenfranchisement. Your Jewish friends are looking to you to know you do not support the loss of innocent Jewish lives and that their Jewish identity does not mean they support the actions of the Israeli government …”

The statement led to a lot of pushback from residents as the commission is not only an official township entity, its mandate is to develop “formal and informal educational programs to eradicate all types of discrimination based on race, color, creed, religion …”

Speaking during the meeting, West Orange resident Rosanne Skopp called the Facebook post “a disgrace. That’s all I can say. If it isn’t retracted, it should have been. It’s ignorant. Totally, totally, viciously, anti-Israel, which equals antisemitic and makes statements that can’t be born out of facts.”

“How do we teach each other respect when you overtly criticize a government in the middle of a war when they are trying to establish peace?” she asked. “There is no parity between the Jewish people, Israel and Hamas any more than there is parity between the United States and Hitler.”

Skopp was among some 25 local residents who attended the meeting in person, while another 100 people, the maximum allowed by the township’s Zoom account, participated online.

The commission’s chair, Elizabeth Milhim, opened the meeting with a moment of silence “for all the innocent lives being impacted and the loss and tragedy that is occurring.” She then went on to take “full accountability” for the post.

Milhim said that she did not actually write the post. Rather, she reposted something she found elsewhere, though she could not recall where the original post came from. She said her intent was to show “empathy for both sides, Israel and Palestinian residents.”

Many in the Jewish community saw it differently with some calling for her to step down from her role as chair of the Human Relations Commission.

“There are not two sides. There’s humanity or not human,” said West Orange resident Mindy Saibel, referring to Hamas terrorists as “absolute monsters … They want all Jews to be dead.”

Saibel went on to say that she is terrified by what she sees happening around the United States, especially on college campuses, as people try to justify and even support what Hamas did.

West Orange resident Marilyn Mohr said what happened in Israel on Oct. 7 was “a pogrom.”

“And for the Jewish community to witness a pogrom, a vicious pogrom in the place we thought we were safe is totally demoralizing,” Mohr said, noting that she swings on a “pendulum of grief and rage, and in the middle is abandonment. I feel abandoned, and to feel abandoned by my hometown is a sad situation.”

Noting that she was a Freedom Rider during the Civil Rights movement, Mohr said it was time for those in other communities to stand up for Israel and the Jewish people. “I want some support, too. It’s my turn.”

A woman who identified herself on Zoom as Ashara told the commissioners she feels “threatened and unappreciated and certainly hated.” She added, “Where is the condemnation for chopping up babies To say ‘both sides’ at this point is such a slap in the face … We need a statement [from the commission] without a ‘but’ at the end.”

Rabbi Robert Tobin of Congregation B’nai Shalom in West Orange and a former Human Relations Commission member, who attended the meeting in person, said he always worked well with Milhim on other issues and that “you have always been there and been a partner in those things.”

Still, when he saw the Facebook post, “I went ‘Oh!’ because I know how we would read that.

“We have a humanity disaster that is breaking everyone’s hearts,” the rabbi said. “What we need to do is sit at the table and be able to look into each other’s eyes … We need to get into that path of understanding through that path of listening.”

It was a sentiment echoed by others.

“I want us in this town, as varied as we are, to at least try to imagine the other person’s point of view, recognizing that they may not know as much as we do” about a particular topic,” said resident Janice Johnson. “I just read the statement as I came into the room, and I think we can all agree that it was a complete error.

“Does a retraction solve the error? Because we have harmed each other already,” she said. “The question now is how are we going to move forward and what does healing look like?”

The ripples from Milhim’s action also showed a divide and a lack of communication between members of the Human Relations Commission, leading commissioner Kandace Sparks to announce she was stepping down from her post in protest.

West Orange Deputy mayor and Jewish community activist Larry Rein said he was pleased by the outcome of the meeting.

“I greatly appreciate the strong support from the Jewish community to have a very constructive, informative discussion with the West Orange Human Relations Commission. I am pleased that the Commission removed the post and will be rewriting a message denouncing the terror attacks in Gaza,” he said, noting that the new post “will be reviewed by myself and other members of the Jewish community.”

Faygie Holt is the author of the bestselling Jewish children’s book series, “The Achdus Club,” for girls ages 8-11. The books, “The New Girl” and “Trouble Ahead,” are available at Jewish bookstores across the country and online at menuchapublishers.com. An award-winning journalist and editor, Faygie’s work appears regularly on Chabad.org and in The Jewish Link, among other outlets. Learn more about the author, her books and her writing at faygielevy.com.

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