It’s now time to stamp out Antisemitism

Published October 18, 2021 in RINewsToday

The American Jewish Committee (AJC), one of the oldest nation’s Jewish advocacy groups fighting racism and antisemitism, calls on the Marriott Hotel company to apologize directly to Gil Ofarim, a popular German-Israeli singer who lives in Germany, for an anti-Semitic remark made by an employee.  He was told by the check-in manager to remove his Star of David necklace while waiting to check in at the Westin Hotel in Leipzig. Marriott is the parent company of Westin.  He was a guest at the hotel for a recording of a new MDR TV show in Leipzig.

According to Ofarim’s Instagram video released after the incident and news reports, the 39-year-old musician was left standing for 50 minutes while other guests were brought forward to be checked in.  When he questioned the lengthy check-in wait, an employee referred to the Star of David on his necklace, which he always wears, saying that  only when he took it off would he be allowed to check in.     

Ofarim left the Westin lobby after the incident and posted a two-minute video on Instagram Tuesday evening, Oct. 5, titled “Antisemitism in Germany 2021” in all capital letters, that has gone viral and shared widely on the internet. A very emotional Ofarim stated, “I am speechless. I don’t know how to say this,” in describing his encounter with antisemitism.

After the video’s release, Marriott International issued a statement saying the hotel chain would take this matter very seriously and supports the police measures and condemns antisemitism and all forms of discrimination. According to police, the hotel employed has filed a complaint of defamation, portraying the alleged antisemitic incident differently than Ofarim.

In a Facebook posting, Ofarim states that he has filed a criminal complaint against the employee at the Westin Hotel.  “… there should be no place for hate, racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia or discrimination of any kind in this world,” he says. He says that after reporting the incident he is getting open threats and hate messages via social media.

‘This blatantly antisemitic incident is sickening and unacceptable everywhere, but especially in Germany. It reminds us that antisemitism is a problem in all parts of society, not only in the extreme fringes,” said Remko Leemhuis, Director of AJC Berlin. “Marriott should take all necessary steps to ensure that something like this will never happen again. AJC stands ready to help with our expertise and knowledge.”

While hotel staff involved in the incident with Ofarim reportedly have been placed on leave, AJC has launched an online petition calling on Marriott to not only apologize to Ofarim, but to commit to training its employees in Germany and around the world about antisemitism.  

Leemhuis says that AJC has the staff expertise and resources, especially its Translate Hate publication, to engage staff at all Marriott brands in understanding what is antisemitism, what should obviously be offensive words and actions.

Antisemitism alive and well in the United States   

Like Germany, antisemitism is alive and well in the United States. Just months ago, the ADL (the Anti-Defamation League) expressed deep alarm in response to the FBI’s annual Hate Crimes Statistics Act (HCSA) report, that revealed that 2020 saw a six percent increase in reported hate crimes from the previous year and represented the highest total in 12 years. 

The latest FBI’s report, released Aug. 30th, is based on voluntary local law enforcement reporting to the Bureau.

In 2020, the FBI reported 7,759 hate crime incidents, a six percent increase from 7,314 in 2019 and the most since 2008, when 7,783 hate crime incidents were reported. Reported hate crimes targeting Black people rose to 2,755 from 1,930 the prior year – representing a 43 percent increase, and the number of anti-Asian hate crimes rose from 158 to 274.

According to the FBI’s HCSA report, hate crimes targeting the Jewish community made up nearly 60 percent of all religion-based hate crimes. Overall, religion-based hate crime incidents decreased from 1,521 in 2019 to 1,174 in 2020; this includes incidents targeting the Jewish community, which decreased from 953 to 676.

The increase in reported hate crimes comes, despite the fact that, for the third straight year, the number of law enforcement agencies providing data to the FBI has declined.

According to the FBI, only 15,136 agencies participated, which is 452 less than in 2019. The majority of agencies who did participate reported zero hate crimes.

“As ADL has said time and time again, when just one individual is targeted by a hate crime, it negatively impacts the entire community, resulting in marginalized groups rightfully feeling vulnerable and under siege,” said ADL CEO Jonathan A. Greenblatt. 

“While these numbers are disturbing on their own, the fact that so many law enforcement agencies did not participate is inexcusable, and the fact that over 60 jurisdictions with populations over 100,000 affirmatively reported zero hate crimes is simply not credible. Data drives policy and without having a complete picture of the problem, we cannot even begin to resolve the issues driving this surge in hate and violence,” says Greenblatt.

Meanwhile in Texas…

A top school administrator with the Carroll Independent School District in Southlake advised teachers that if they have a book about the Holocaust in their classroom, they should also provide students with a book from an “opposing” viewpoint, according to an audio recording obtained by NBC News.

Gina Peddy, the Carroll school district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, made the controversial comment, captured by a leaked audio recording, during a training session on which books teachers can have in classroom libraries.

“Just try to remember the concepts of [House Bill] 3979,” Peddy said in the leaked recording released by NBC News, referring to a newly enacted Texas law that requires teachers to present multiple views when discussing “widely debated and currently controversial” issues. “And make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust,” she says, suggesting “that you have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives.”

“How do you oppose the Holocaust?” quipped one teacher said in response. 

After the online article and news story was released detailing the leaked audio recording,  Lane Ledbetter, Superintendent of Schools, quickly released an apology on Face Book. “During the conversations with teachers during last week’s meeting, the comments made were in no way to convey that the Holocaust was anything less than a terrible event in history. Additionally, we recognize there are not two sides of the Holocaust. As we continue to work through implementation of HB3979, we also understand this bill does not require an opposing viewpoint on historical facts.” 

The survivors who witnessed the horrors of Genocide and the Holocaust during World War II continue to dwindle in numbers and will soon no longer be here to share their stories. Rhode Island’s Genocide and Holocaust Education Commission is now gearing up to keep this knowledge alive to millennials, Gen Z and other generations. 

During last year’s General Assembly session, legislation was enacted to create this Commission to raise the awareness of the horrific Holocaust and other genocides that have taken place and continue even today through public education and community events to provide appropriate memorialization of the genocides throughout the state.

“The Rhode Island community has a responsibility to address all forms of hate and bullying. Educating our students about The Holocaust and other genocides is a step in the right direction,” says Marty Cooper, chair of the former Rhode Island Holocaust and Genocide Coalition. “The issue in Texas, unfortunately, is the tip of the iceberg. While the vast majority of Rhode Islanders support education as a means to recognize a history of hate and bigotry in our world, there is a minority that do not want to address this issue,” he says.

Antisemitism is alive and well in the United States, Germany, and throughout the world. We must be vigilant to continue to condemn all acts of hate within Rhode Island’s borders.

Editor’s Note: In 2021, the Associated Press changed their style guide to no longer have the word “antisemitism” hyphenated or capitalized.

RI Law ensures teaching of Holocaust, Genocides in public schools

Published in RINewsToday on July 12, 2021

The Rhode Island Holocaust and Genocide Education Coalition (RIHGEC) has successfully pushed state lawmakers to pass legislation that formalizes a commission to implement a 2016 law to require public schools to teach students about genocide and the Holocaust.  The 2016 law was introduced by Sen. Gayle L. Goldin (D-Dist. 3, Providence) and House Majority Whip Katherine S. Kazarian.

Under the legislation, RIHGEC will gather and disseminate Holocaust and genocide information, work with the Department of Education to update and promote statewide Holocaust and genocide education programs, and promote public awareness of issues relating to Holocaust and genocide education.  It would also oversee a Holocaust and Genocide Awareness month to continue to raise public awareness of horrific atrocities. 

In the final weeks of this year’s legislative session, RIHGC’s broad-based coalition, comprised of Jewish organizations, and Commission on Prejudice and Bias along with members of the Armenian, Jewish, Cambodian, and indigenous communities, would see their lobbying efforts gain traction leading to passage of legislation to create a permanent state commission to  promote and continually improve genocide and Holocaust education in schools.  

H 5650 A, entitled the “Rhode Island Holocaust and Genocide Education Commission,” quickly passed through the House because several lawmakers pushed hard for it. The efforts of Rep. Rebecca Kislak (D-Dist. 7, Providence), the legislation’s primary sponsor, and cosponsors House Majority Whip Katherine S. Kazarian (D-Dist. 63, East Providence, and Rep. Nathan W. Biah Sr. (D-Dist. 3, Providence) led to passage of the legislative proposal on May 18 by a vote of 77 to 0, with two lawmakers not voting.

On April 23, S 0840 A (the House bills companion measure) was introduced in the upper chamber and referred to the Senate Education Committee for consideration.  However, Sen. Gayle L. Goldin (D-Dist. 3, Providence), the  primary sponsor, and cosponsors Sens. Joshua Miller (D-District 28, Providence/Cranston), Hanna Gallo (D-District 27, Cranston), Thomas Paolino (R-District 17, Lincoln, North Providence, and North Smithfield) and Meghan Kallman (D-District 15, Pawtucket),  watched this legislative proposal sit in the Senate Committee for weeks, having been referred for further study. Oftentimes, this was a polite way of leadership to kill a legislative proposal. 

But, in the waning days of the legislative session, an intensive lobbying effort from RIHGE Coalition members including sending emails, making phone calls and sending informational packets to the Senate Education Committee finally led to the Senate Education Committee  passing S 0840 A and sending it to the Senate floor for consideration.  On July 1st, the legislative proposal passed by a vote of 36 to 1 with one lawmaker not voting and the other abstaining.

The legislative proposal was transmitted to Gov. Dan McKee on July 7 for his signature. The bill was transmitted to the Governor on July 7. He has until the 14th to sign or veto the bill, at which point if he has not acted it will become law without his signature.

According to Robert Trestan, New England Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League, Rhode Island now joins 19 states that mandate Holocaust and genocide education, and 7 of those states include a commission or council to help implement the mandate.  Eleven states that do not have mandates have formed commissions or councils that develop educational programs about the Holocaust, he says.

“While we do not have data regarding the efficacy of these groups, it is key that experts, educators, and community members have a role in forming curricula and school programs on this important subject, says Trestan.

Rhode Island Law Puts Rhode Island in Forefront of Fighting Hate

“Rhode Island was in the forefront of passing legislation requiring the study of Holocaust and genocide education in its public schools,” says Marty Cooper, RIHGC’s Chair. “This was due to Rhode Islanders commitment to educate its students on this issue as it related to hate, bullying and overall racism nationally as well as globally,” he adds.

Cooper says that many states that passed similar legislation have a commission to oversee implementation and ongoing study of the Holocaust and genocides. What makes Rhode Island’s commission standout is it will also oversee a Holocaust and Genocide Awareness month. 

RIHGC will reach out to the state and the Commission, at the appropriate time, providing input of what has been done and what the coalition listed as goals, and action to be taken to help assure the newly established Commission moves forward with little, or no delay. “The coalition will also provide any material needed by the Commission and will be available to consult with the Commission when requested,” he says. 

“Genocide and Holocaust Education is more important than ever. With hatred toward minority communities on the rise we must continue to ensure our state teaches what happens when hatred is allowed to go unchecked,” says Adam Greenman, president and CEO of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.   “Never again must mean never again and I’m glad this commission will work to make that a reality,” he adds. 

Adds Gretchen Skidmore  Director, Education Initiatives, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: We cannot anticipate how an educational mandate will be implemented in local schools, but the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum supports quality Holocaust education by providing free resources and trainings for educators in every state. We believe when done with rigor, Holocaust education should inspire students to think critically about how and why the Holocaust happened and what lessons it holds for us today.”

Thoughts from the Legislative Arena

“Teaching young people about the devastating  impact that the Holocaust and other genocides have had throughout the course of history is crucial to building a safe and just future for all,” said Gov. Dan McKee. “We must educate the next generations about the atrocities of the past to ensure it never happens again. I look forward to signing this legislation to provide all students in Rhode Island public schools with that education. This is an important step forward in putting an end to acts of hatred, anti-Semitism, and prejudice wherever they exist,” adds McKee.

President of the Senate Dominick J. Ruggerio said, “We need to ensure that students are educated about the atrocities of the past not just so that they have a full understanding of world history, but also so that they can recognize the conditions that lead to intolerance and oppression.”

“My hope is that, with the creation of a Genocide and Holocaust Education Commission, we raise awareness and understanding so that students realize how insidious the impact of hate can be,” said Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Dist. 23, Warwick). “We just saw a horrific example of antisemitism not far away in Boston, where a rabbi was brutally attacked while standing in front of a menorah on the steps of a Jewish school. Incidents like this show that we need to continue to educate our children, so they understand that hateful ideology can cultivate real, physical and/or emotional repercussions. It’s incumbent upon all of us to combat hate in all forms.”

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Sandra Cano said, “As a refugee who fled from violence in my native Colombia, I know firsthand the horrors of not knowing if you are safe in your own home. Senator Goldin’s legislation helps ensure that all Rhode Island students are educated about the Holocaust and genocides of the past, which is a critical first step to ensuring such terrible events are not repeated. The importance of this legislation is only magnified when we consider the hate and demonization of certain groups taking place right here in the United States today.”

“Given the hate and bigotry that is common in public discourse today, it is especially important to educate students about the incredible damage that prejudice and intolerance have caused throughout history,” says Goldin, whose grandparents fled eastern Europe to Canada during pogroms. Those of her family members who were unable to escape died in either the pogroms or the Holocaust.

The best way to ensure our future generations never repeat these actions is to teach them about the impact the Holocaust and other genocides have had in our world,” adds Goldin.

“Learning about our past provides perspective on current world events. It is also an opportunity for people to learn from one another about experiences of oppression,”  Goldin adds.

Paolino, a cosponsor of the Senate legislation, also lost family in the Armenian genocide.  “My relatives have a keen understanding of how hate and bigotry can escalate to reverberate through generations,” he said, stressing the importance of educating society on the warning signs of genocide. “Learning the history about these atrocities and how to prevent them will best protect our future,” adds Paolino.

Kislak noted that so many Rhode Islanders’ families are from countries that have been impacted by genocides. “Listening to each other’s stories and learning about those diverse histories will help us see the humanity in one another and build stronger communities, she says.    

First-Person Survivor Witnesses Dwindling  

Bill Benson, who interviews survivors of the Holocaust before live audiences at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., sees first hand the importance of educating the world about the horrors of the Holocaust.  “Because of the coronavirus pandemic we are now providing the museum’s First-Person program virtually, he says.

Benson recently interviewed 90-year-old Irene Fogel Weiss, who survived incarceration at Auschwitz, a forced death march, and then at the end of the war absorbing the reality of the murder of most of her extended family in the Holocaust, the result of Nazi Germany’s fanatical genocidal drive to wipe out the Jewish population of Europe.

“She knows all too well that she is one of the remaining but quickly dwindling survivors of the Holocaust still able to share the pain and horror she witnessed and experienced first-hand,” says Benson.

“Sadly, there are people in the United States and elsewhere in the world who not only minimize the horror and scope of the Holocaust, but others who deny its reality entirely. If they are willing to do that just imagine their unwillingness to acknowledge much less condemn genocide in what seem like obscure places on the globe, like Myanmar, Syria, Rwanda, the Balkans, and elsewhere,” says Benson.

“Rhode Island’s legislature can help to transcend widespread ignorance and even denial of the Holocaust and genocide by establishing this Commission. Weiss will not be able to provide her first-person testimony indefinitely,” acknowledges Benson. “New well-informed voices must step forward. A Genocide and Holocaust Commission can help to educate and inform about the realities of genocide and help ensure new generations learn what they do not know so they can lend their voices to efforts to confront hate and end genocide,” he says.

Rhode Island’s newly established Commission will ensure that the Holocaust and Genocides that occurred throughout the world will never be forgotten by Rhode Islanders.  Our state built firmly on the principles of religious freedom now sends this message out to the world: “Never Again.”

The RIHGEC includes representatives from the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Center, The Genocide Education Project, , as well as the general community, including members of the Armenian, Jewish, Cambodian, and indigenous community.

Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com

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Never forgetting will help us keep the promise of “never again.”

Published in RINewsToday.com on February 1, 2021

During a Pro-Trump rally, as thousands of rioters swarmed the US Capitol on Jan. 6, Robert Keith Packer, sporting an unkempt beard, came wearing a black hoodie sweatshirt emblazoned with the phrase “Camp Auschwitz,” in white letters, the name of the most infamous of the many Nazi concentration camps where 1.1 million people were murdered during World War II.  Under a skull and bones at the bottom of his shirt was the phrase, “Work brings Freedom,” a loose translation of the phrase “Arbeit macht frei” that was inscribed above the main entrance gate at Auschwitz and other concentration camps’ gates. 

Packer’s image, 56, a former welder and pipefitter, was circulated widely on social media and by newspapers, evoking shock and disbelief.

Packer, a resident of Newport News, Virginia, was not the only anti-Semitic rioter that day, according to a report released by the Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and the Network Contagion Research Institute. The report identified at least half a dozen neo-Nazi or white supremacist groups involved in the failed Capitol Insurrection who had also attended President Trump’s “Save America” rally speech. 

In recent years, anti-Semitic incidents have become more common in the Ocean State.

In 2017, the Providence Journal reported that the New England chapter of the Anti-Defamation League recorded 13 incidents of anti-Semitism in Rhode Island. Nazi swastikas were painted on a Providence building, at Broad Rock Middle School in North Kingstown, and even at a Pawtucket synagogue.

Anti-Semitism is Nothing New

But, anti-Semitism, exhibited at the “Save America” rally, has been in our country since its founding, and in fact, has been around western societies for centuries.  Over three years ago, torch marchers, some wearing Nazi-style helmets, carrying clubs, sticks and round makeshift shields emblazoned with swastikas and other Fascist symbols, and others entered the one-block square in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, to protect a controversial Confederate monument, chanting “Jews will not replace us” and “Blood and Soil” (a Nazi rallying cry).  

The Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) 2014 Global Index of Anti-Semitism documented world-wide anti-Semitism. The survey found that more than 1 billion people – nearly one in eight – around the world harbor anti-Semitic attitudes. Carried out by First International Resources and commissioned by the ADL, this landmark survey included 53,100 adults in 102 countries representing 88 percent of the world’s adult population.

Over 30 percent of those surveyed said it was ‘probably true’ that Jews have too much control over financial markets, that Jews think they are better than other people, that Jews are disloyal to their country, and that people hate Jews because of the way that Jews behave. 

Most troubling, the ADL study found a large gap between seniors who know and lived through the horrendous events of World War II, and younger adults who, some 75 years after the Holocaust, are more likely to have heard of or learned that six million Jews were exterminated by the Nazis’ “Final Solution.” Nearly half of those surveyed claim to have never heard of the Holocaust and only a third believe historical accounts are accurate.

Gearing Up to Fight Antisemitism

On Jan. 14, the American Jewish Congress (AJC), a global Jewish advocacy organization, briefed the FBI on the continuing threats of anti-Semitism to the nation. 

“Antisemitism fundamentally is not only a Jewish problem; it is a societal one. It is a reflection on the declining health of our society,” Holly Huffnagle, AJC’s U.S. Director for Combating Antisemitism, told the FBI officials on a video conference briefing. “Education is essential, to clarify what constitutes antisemitism, the various sources of this hatred, and what effective tools are available for law enforcement to fight antisemitism,” she said.

The presentation of AJC’s second annual report on antisemitism in the U.S. took place in the wake of the January 6 assault on Capitol Hill, where anti-Semitic images and threats were openly conveyed by some of the rioters.

AJC’s 2020 report, based on parallel surveys of the American Jewish and general populations, revealed that 88 percent of Jews considered antisemitism a problem today in the U.S., 37 percent had personally been victims of antisemitism over the past five years and 31 percent had taken measures to conceal their Jewishness in public.

In the first-ever survey of the general U.S. population on antisemitism, AJC found a stunning lack of awareness of antisemitism. Nearly half of all Americans said they had either never heard the term “antisemitism” (21 percent) or are familiar with the word but not sure what it means (25 percent).

The AJC experts praised the FBI for its annual Hate Crimes Statistics report, which provides vital data on antisemitism. The latest report found 60.2 percent of religious bias hate crimes targeted Jews in 2019. But the report historically has not provided a full picture of the extent of hate crimes, since reporting by local law enforcement agencies is not mandatory.

To improve the monitoring and reporting of hate crimes, AJC continues to advocate for passage of the Jabara-Heyer National Opposition to Hate, Assaults, and Threats to Equality (NO HATE) Act. This measure will incentivize state and local law enforcement authorities to improve hate crime reporting by making grants available and managed through the Department of Justice.

In addition, AJC is asking the FBI to use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism as an educational tool. The definition offers a clear and comprehensive description of antisemitism in its various forms, including hatred and discrimination against Jews, and Holocaust denial. 

FBI officials in the Bureau’s Civil Rights Unit, Intelligence Division, and Community Outreach Program, among others, participated in the AJC briefing.

Keeping the memory alive about the Holocaust is key to fighting antisemitism, says Andy Hollinger, Director of Communications, for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). “”We are seeing a disturbing trend in the rise of antisemitism and the open display of neo-Nazi symbols, most recently at the attack on the U.S. Capitol. This is a long-time problem requiring a long-time solution. We must remember. Education is key. We must learn from this history-learn about the dangers of unchecked hatred and antisemitism. And we must not be silent,” he says.

Adds Bill Benson, who has interviewed Holocaust Survivors before live audiences at the USHMM’s First Person program for more than 2 decades, observes that the majority of those visiting the museum are not Jewish and many of have little familiarity with the Holocaust, and as a result of their visit are profoundly affected by their experience. “The USHMM provides an extraordinary avenue for educating the general public about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism for those millions who visit it, but it is essential that many millions more learn the truth about anti-Semitism and that must done through our educational systems,” he notes.

“The USHMM does an incredible job of educating and assisting teachers who want to teach about the Holocaust, but far too many school systems do not teach about the Holocaust, without which the gulf in knowledge and awareness may only grow as we lose those first-hand knowledge of the Holocaust,” says Benson.

A 2009 report, “Jewish Survivors of the Holocaust Residing in the United States Estimates & Projections: 2010 – 2030,” prepared by the Berman Institute-North American Jewish Data Bank, for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, estimated that 36,800 Holocaust survivors would still be living by 2025. As the number of survivors who witnessed the horrors of Genocide and the Holocaust during World War II continues to dwindle, a growing number of states, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey, Ohio, and Texas, and have established Commissions to keep this knowledge alive to millennials, GenZ and  younger generations through educational programming and raise awareness through public education and community events to provide appropriate memorialization of the Holocaust on a regular basis throughout the state.

If the Rhode Island General Assembly legislates the establishment of a Rhode Island Genocide and Holocaust Education Commission, its motto might just be, “Never forgetting” will help us keep the promise of “Never Again.”