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.”

In re-establishing House Aging Committee, hopefully the third time is indeed the charm

Published in the Woonsocket Call on February 2, 2020

Twenty-six years after the House Democratic Leadership’s belt-tightening efforts to save $1.5 million resulted in the termination of the House Permanent Select Committee on Aging, U.S. Congressman David N. Cicilline reintroduces legislation to reestablish the House Aging panel, active from 1974 until 1993. Initially the House panel had 35 members but would later grow to 65 members.

According to Cicilline, the House can readily authorize the establishment of a temporary ad hoc select committee by just approving a simple resolution that contains language establishing the committee – describing the purpose, defining members and detailing other issues that need to be addressed. Salaries and expenses of standing committees, special and select, are authorized through the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill.

At press time, for the third time, Cicilline’s resolution (House Resolution 821; introduced Jan. 30, 2020) to re-establish the House Aging Committee has been introduced and referred to the House Committee on Rules for mark up and if passed will be considered by the full House.

The Nuts and Bolts

The House Resolution (just over 245 words) reestablishes a Permanent House Select Committee on Aging, noting that the panel shall not have legislative jurisdiction, but it’s authorized to conduct a continuing comprehensive study and review of the aging issues, such as income maintenance, poverty, housing, health (including medical research), welfare, employment, education, recreation, and long-term care.

Cicilline’s House Resolution would have authorized the House Aging Committee to study the use of all practicable means and methods of encouraging the development of public and private programs and policies which will assist seniors in taking a full part in national life and which will encourage the utilization of the knowledge, skills, special aptitudes, and abilities of seniors to contribute to a better quality of life for all Americans.

Finally, the House Resolution would also allow the House Aging Committee to develop policies that would encourage the coordination of both governmental and private programs designed to deal with problems of aging and to review any recommendations made by the President or by the White House Conference on aging in relation to programs or policies affecting seniors.’

Initial Resolution Blocked by the House GOP

On March 1, 2016, Cicilline had introduced House Resolution 758 during the 114th Congress (2015-2016) to reestablish the House Aging Committee. It attracted Rhode Island Congressman James R. Langevin (D-RI) and 27 other cosigners (no Republicans) out of 435 lawmakers. Seniors Task Force Co-Chairs, U.S. Congress Women Doris Matsui (D-CA) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) also signed onto supporting this resolution.

However, it was extremely obvious to Cicilline and the Democratic cosigners that it was important to reestablish the House Aging Committee. Correspondence penned by the Rhode Island Congressman urged House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and the House Republican leadership to support House Resolution 758. But, ultimately no action was taken because Ryan had blocked the proposal from being considered.

At that time, Cicilline remembers that many of his Democratic House colleagues didn’t think House Resolution 758 would gain much legislative traction with a Republican-controlled House. However, things are different today with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) controlling the legislative agenda in the chamber.

During the 115th Congress (2017-2018), Cicilline continued his efforts to bring the House Select Committee on Aging back to life. On March 01, 2017, he threw House Resolution 160 into the legislative hopper. Twenty-Four Democratic lawmakers became cosponsors and but no Republicans came on board. House Speaker Ryan again derailed the Rhode Island Congressman’s attempts to see his proposal passed.

Third Times the Charm

Since a Republican-controlled Congress successfully blocked Cicilline’s simple resolution from reaching the floor for a vote in 2017, the Democratic lawmaker has reintroduced his resolution in the current Congress with the Democrats controlling the chamber’s legislative agenda.

Cicilline is working to get support from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers and has approached the House leadership for support. He plans to again reach out to aging advocacy groups for support, including the Leadership Council on Aging Organizations, consisting of some 70 national organizations, whose leadership includes the AARP, the National Council on Aging, the Alliance for Retired Americans, and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

“Our nation’s seniors deserve dedicated attention by lawmakers to consider the legislative priorities that affect them, including Social Security and Medicare, the rising cost of prescription drugs, poverty, housing issues, long-term care, and other important issues,” said Cicilline in a statement announcing the reintroduction of his House resolution to bring back the House Aging Committee. “I’m proud to introduce this legislation today on behalf of seniors in Rhode Island and all across America,” says the Rhode Island Congressman who serves on the House Democratic leadership team as Chairman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.

According to Cicilline, for nearly two decades, the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Aging was tasked with “advising Congress and the American people on how to meet the challenge of growing old in America.” The Select Committee did not have legislative authority, but conducted investigations, held hearings, and issued reports to inform Congress on issues related to aging.

“The re-establishment of the Permanent Select Committee will emphasize Congress’s commitment to current and future seniors. It will also help ensure older Americans can live their lives with dignity and economic security,” says Cicilline.

Looking Back in Time

In 1973, the House Permanent Select Committee on Aging was authorized by a vote of 323 to 84. While lacking legislative authority to introduce legislation (although its members often did in their standing committees), the House Aging panel would begin to put the spotlight on specific-aging issues, by broadly examining federal policies and trends. Its review of legislative issues was not limited by narrow jurisdictional boundaries set for the House standing committees.

In 1993, Congressional belt-tightening to match President Clinton’s White House staff cuts and efforts to streamline its operations would seal the fate of the House Aging Committee. House Democratic leadership cut $1.5 million in funding to the House Aging Committee forcing it to close its doors (during the 103rd Congress) because they considered it to be wasteful spending because the chamber already had 12 standing committee with jurisdiction over aging issues.

Even the intense lobbying efforts of a coalition of Washington, DC-based aging advocacy groups including AARP, National Council on Aging, National Council of Senior Citizens, and Older Woman’s League could not save the House Aging Committee. These groups warned that staff of the 12 standing committees did not have time to broadly examine aging issues as the select committee did.

Aging groups rallying in the support of maintaining funding for the House Aging Committee clearly knew its value and impact. In a March 31, 1993 article published in the St. Petersburg Times, reporter Rebecca H. Patterson reported that Staff Director Brian Lutz, of the Committee’s Subcommittee on Retirement Income and Employment, stated that “during its 18 years of existence the House Aging Committee had been responsible for about 1,000 hearings and reports.”

As an advocate for the nation’s seniors, the House panel prodded Congress to act in abolishing forced retirement, investigating nursing home abuses, monitoring breast screening for older woman, improving elderly housing and bringing attention to elder abuse by publishing a number reports, including Elder Abuse: An Examination of a Hidden Problem and Elder Abuse: A National Disgrace, and Elder Abuse: A Decade of Shame and Inaction. The Committee’s work would also lead to increased home care benefits for the aging, and establishing research and care centers for Alzheimer’s Disease.

Aging Advocates Give Thumbs Up

“The Senate has had the wisdom to keep its Special Committee on Aging in business which has meant a laser-like attention on major issues affecting seniors including elder abuse, especially scams and other forms of financial exploitation,” says Bill Benson, former staff director of the Committee’s Subcommittee on Housing and Consumer Interests. The House has been without a similar body now for decades, he notes.

Benson adds, “With ten thousand Americans turning 65 each day we are witnessing the greatest demographic change in human history. It is unconscionable to not have a legislative body in the House of Representatives focused on the implications of the aging of America.”

Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, served as staff director for the Senate Special Committee on Aging from 1987 to 1989. He agrees that it’s time once again for the House to have its own committee dedicated to older Americans’ issues.

With the graying of America it is more important now than ever that seniors’ interests are represented as prominently as possible on Capitol Hill, says Richtman. “There is so much at stake for older Americans today, including the future of Social Security and Medicare, potential cuts to Medicaid, and the myriad federal programs that lower income seniors rely upon for everything from food to home heating assistance. We fully support Rep. Cicilline’s efforts to re-establish the House Permanent Select Committee on Aging,” he states.

“We enter 2020 in the midst of the predicted aging of America including the fact that all boomers are now over age 55, says Robert Blancato, president of Matz, Blancato and Associates, who was the longest serving staff person on the original House Aging Committee, from 1978 to 1993.

“We need the specific focus that only a select committee can offer to the myriad of issues related to aging in America,” adds Blancato, noting that it would be a coveted Committee to be named to from both a policy and political perspective.

Four years after the death of Congressman Claude Pepper, (D-Florida) in 1989, the former Chairman of the House Select Committee on Aging, serving as its chair for six years, would have turned in his grave with the House eliminating his beloved select committee. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi might honor the late Congressman who was the nation’s most visible spokesperson for seniors, by bringing the House Select Committee on Aging back this Congressional session.

Trump Spending Priorities Would Fray Social Safety Net Programs

Published in the Woonsocket Call on March 16, 2019

Last Monday, President Donald Trump released his proposed FY 2020 budget request to Congress. Lawmakers, who rejected many of these budgetary spending requests in the president’s previous two submitted budgets proposals, consider his latest to be “dead-on-arrival.”

But, Trump’s $4.7 trillion fiscal blueprint, outlined in the 150-page “Budget for a Better America,” gives us a clear picture of his spending priorities and policies he seeks to implement through executive orders and regulator changes.

Trump’s FY 2020 spending plan proposes funding increases for combating the opioid epidemic, improving veteran’s health care, fixing the nation’s crumbling infrastructure ($200 billion increase), even giving the Pentagon a 5 percent increase in spending exceeding what the military asked for. White House senior advisor Ivanka Trump successfully pushed for the FY 2020 budget to include $750 million to establish a paid parental leave program and a $1 billion one-time fund to provide childcare to under served populations.

Trump’s budget proposal makes a commitment of $291 million to eliminate the spread of HIV within a decade, it slashes the National Institutes of Health’s funding by 12 percent, and the budget for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention by about 10 percent.

Trump does not back away from his controversial stance of building a wall, putting in an additional $8.6 trillion for the construction of a U.S. Mexico border barrier. Congress had earlier opposed his demand for $5.7 billion for the construction project.

Trump Budget Proposal Puts Senior’s Earned Benefits at Risk

In 2016, Presidential candidate Trump had pledged not to cut Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security, but he does in his submitted FY 2020 budget proposal.

Trump calls for a 5 percent cut in non-defense federal agencies, including a whopping $ 1.5 trillion in Medicaid over 10 years. The budget plan instead allocates $1.2 trillion to create “market-based health care grants,” (a.k.a block grants) for states that would start in 2021. This gives states the power to set their own rules for this program.

Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) would be eliminated by Trump’s FY 2020 budget proposal by ending ACA’s protections for people with pre-existing conditions and causing millions of people to join the ranks of the uninsured. About 15 million more Americans have joined Medicaid since the ACA expansion was enacted.

Trump’s budget proposal also cuts Medicare by $845 billion over the next decade by cutting payments to hospitals and physicians, rooting out fraud and abuse, and by lowering prescription drug costs.

Meanwhile, the Social Security Disability Insurance program takes a huge budgetary cut of $25 billion and the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) operating budget is slashed by 1 percent, at a time when the agency is working hard to ratchet up its customer service provide to SSA beneficiaries.

Trump’s budget proposal would cut $220 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), popularly referred to as the food stamp program. The program currently serves 39 million people. Under this budget, beneficiaries would be required to be employed for 20 hours a week to be eligible for assistance and replacing the EBT-debit card used to purchase groceries with the delivery of a “Harvest Box” filled with non-perishable foods like cereal and pasta, canned goods and surplus dairy products.

Housing and Urban Development’s 202 housing program for seniors and people with disabilities takes a $36 million hit, says long-time aging advocate Bill Benson, principal of Washington, D.C.-based Health Benefits ABC, in the March 15th issue of Aging Policy and Public Health News.

According to Benson, several Older Americans Act programs including the Family Caregiver Support program would be cut in Trump’s budget proposal. The Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program would be cut by $1 million. Elder Justice Programs would also be cut under the President’s budget including a $2 million cut to the Elder Justice Initiative at Administration for Community Living.

” Cruelest of all [budgetary cuts] is the proposed out-right elimination of the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) which is the only source of sustained federal funding to states for Adult Protective Services (APS),” says Benson. Some 37 states use SSBGs to support their APS programs. SSBG is also used by states for a number of other services benefiting older adults including home-delivered meals and case management.

Shortchanging Seniors

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) warns that Trump’s budget proposal shortchanges seniors. “In combination with 2017’s tax cuts for the wealthy and the administration’s failure to allow Medicare to negotiate with Big Pharma, the Trump budget shows that his administration is not plugged into the realities of being elderly in America,” he says.

Richtman says that Trump’s budget plan also proposes to eliminate federal grants that help pay for programs under the Older Americans Act, such as Meals on Wheels and home heating assistance for the elderly poor.”

According to Richtman, the 116th Congress gives seniors hope with introduced legislation that would boost Social Security benefits and expand Medicare coverage to include dental, hearing and vision services, changes that an overwhelming majority of Americans support. He calls on Congress to “quickly reject this callous budget proposal — and take decisive action to enhance the well-being of older Americans.

Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, sees Trump’s newly released budget proposal as very troubling, too. “It sharply cuts funding in the part of the budget that invests in future economic growth through education and training, scientific research, infrastructure, and the like,” he says.

“It reverses progress in making affordable health care available to people who don’t have employer coverage or can’t afford private coverage. It cuts basic assistance substantially for families, children, and elderly and disabled people who are in need and struggle to get by. And, it doubles down on policies that take away health care, food, and housing when adults aren’t able to meet a work requirement,” says Greenstein.
“Despite bemoaning deficits, it calls for making the costly 2017 tax cuts — which largely benefit those who already have high incomes and wealth — permanent,” he adds.

Richtman believes that Trump’s 2020 spending proposal serves as a warning of what the administration would do if it were not for the firewall known as the Democratic-led House of Representatives. “These draconian ideas – though rejected by voters in the 2018 mid-terms – remain in the conservative political bloodstream, requiring continued advocacy on the part of seniors and their champions in Congress,” he says.

The release of Trump’s FY 2020 budget program begins the Democratic party’s efforts to retake the White House and Senate in the 2020 presidential election, just over 598 days away. By making major cuts in Social Security and Medicare and turning Medicaid into a state block grant program, Trump is giving Democratic challengers in the 2020 presidential election fodder to create politically-charged themes for ads to turn senior voters against him for seeking cuts in these popular domestic programs.

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