April 8, 2024
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‘Words Matter’ at West Orange Council Meeting

Vote on IHRA working definition of antisemitism postponed after divisive meeting.

The West Orange Township Council postponed a vote on a resolution to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism after dozens of people spoke out both for and against the measure, highlighting a deep divide among residents of both West Orange and neighboring communities.

This resolution has stirred up a lot of “intense reaction in West Orange,” newly sworn-in Township Council President Bill Rutherford said at one point during the meeting. “We have heard and we understand where West Orange is as a community and there is not agreement” on this issue, which makes it “difficult to do our jobs.”

The decision to postpone the vote was made in the wee hours of Jan. 10, more than seven hours after the meeting—which was held virtually due to the weather—began. A vote on the measure is expected to take place at the Jan. 17 township council meeting. No additional comments will be heard at that time.

West Orange Deputy Mayor Larry Rein said of the meeting: “The Township Council meeting’s public comments focused on the antisemitism resolution championed by Councilwoman Susan Scarpa. Voices were heard from both the Jewish and the pro-Palestinian communities. The Jewish community was laser-focused on having the council approve the antisemitism resolution, in order to ensure the safety of the Jewish community. The Jewish community’s messages focused on ‘words matter,’ and ‘we have a moral compass.’ Many members of the pro-Palestinian community opposed the resolution, since they want it to address the entire community, not just the Jewish community. Their opinion is that they prefer to have an ‘all lives matter’ type of resolution.

“Due to the lateness of the hour, with public comments ending around 1 a.m., the meeting will continue with the council discussion of the resolution, as well as the vote,” he concluded.

Nearly 300 people attended this week’s meeting, and each person who spoke was given five minutes to state their message. Among the earliest speakers during the “public comment” segment were many who opposed the measure.

Several speakers, including some on the council, said they would like to see one resolution that addresses “hate for all.” They said they envision a measure that would include Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment, which they claimed is on the rise along with antisemitism.

Some claimed the resolution would limit their right to free speech and would make them feel “unsafe” in town.

Ibrahim, who declined to give his last name or address, claimed that Zionism has “nothing to do with Judaism” and that “Zionism is a racist, facist, colonial settler project” and was the cause of his grandparents becoming refugees. “I am a semite,” he declared.

A number of the speakers who opposed the measure were Jews. One resident, Julia Greenberg, said her opposition to the adoption of the IHRA definition was the “deepest expression” of her Judaism through the act of “tikkun olam,” repairing the world. She called the resolution “misguided” and said it “silences my voice and makes me feel less safe.”

Some speakers refused to give their full name or state where in the town they lived, while several other speakers made clear they do not live in West Orange, which prompted Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler of Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David to ask: “Why are people from other towns allowed to come in and stir up the pot? We all need to be protected and respected.”

“Tonight is about having a moral compass,” he told the township council, noting that so much of what had been said earlier in the evening was “historically wrong and disingenuous.” He took aim at the speakers who spoke about the 23,000 people killed in Gaza without acknowledging that many were Hamas or the atrocities of Oct. 7.

“There are 23 Arab states in the world and less than 100 Jews in most of them,” he said. “Jews are the indigenous people of Israel. Don’t tell us we are not.”

That sentiment was echoed by Rabbi Yoni Glatt. “Our religion is established by our texts and our services, 90% of our texts take place or are about the Land of Israel. Every prayer service mentions Israel. The idea of this being our eternal homeland is embedded” in our DNA.

Glatt also told the council that he had been heckled and mocked at a recent board of education meeting. “I’ve been called a kike before, but what I heard from the crowd at West Orange High School was worse than anything I’ve heard before.”

“Antisemitism 100% exists in West Orange,” he said, adding that the seeds of antisemitism “have been planted and [are] slowly growing.”

Several of the people who spoke out in support of the IHRA definition expressed concerns about the rising number of antisemitic incidents in West Orange in recent months. They spoke about their fears and those of their children when walking to shul on Shabbat mornings or the local park in the afternoon because people in passing cars will roll down their windows and yell at them.

Those who supported the measure noted that their opponents did not mention the more than 130 Israelis still being held hostage by Hamas, and they also failed to recognize that terms used during various protests and even on promotional materials for community events—including a planned Palestinian flag-raising event that was ultimately canceled—are rallying cries for violence against Jews.

“When we hear the term ‘Free Palestine,’ that means they would like to commit genocide,” said resident Monica. “That cuts us to the quick. That is antisemitism.”

Sheila Lefkowitz strongly stated, “I ask the town council to pass a resolution to confront, condemn and combat antisemitism. From its first paragraph, this resolution recognizes that hatred against any persecuted group is not to be tolerated. It does not shut down free speech.”

She continued, “Similar resolutions have been passed nearby, and no one’s right to free speech has been diminished there.

Dorene Richman said, “From the River to the Sea, which was chanted at the high school student walkout” on Nov. 22, “calls for the annihilation of the State of Israel and the destruction of every Jew on the planet.

“That is not peaceful, and it is not productive,” she added.

The IHRA definition of antisemitism is a universally recognized definition that has been accepted and adopted by 43 countries—including the United States, United Kingdom, France and Israel—as well as dozens of cities, municipalities and organizations worldwide. Among the New Jersey municipalities that have adopted the IHRA definition are Livingston, Middletown, Brigantine, Fanwood, Clinton, Woodcliff Lake and others.

Faygie Holt is an award-winning journalist, whose articles have been published worldwide and translated into several different languages. She is also the author of two middle-grade book series for Jewish children, The Achdus Club and Layla’s Diaries, both available from Menucha Publishers. A third series is set to be released in 2024. Learn more at Faygieholt.com.

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