Wednesday, November 28, 2018
We live in a fractured society, where deep divisions and distrust in our politics have dominated the news and social media.
In the Hudson Valley, that division and distrust often targets the Hasidic and Orthodox community, due to their population growth in Rockland County and the demographic change that follows. Politicians feed this division for their own political purposes. Three examples come to mind, on the village, town and state level.
Pomona's pork rinds
In the Village of Pomona, a former village employee alleges Mayor Brett Yagel "advised her to purchase pork rinds and display them on the counter as snacks for the public as deterrence against the growing Orthodox Jewish population." (For the record, pork rinds don't "scare" observant Jews, though they don't snack on them, in keeping with kosher dietary restrictions.)
The fired employee alleges "an ongoing hidden agenda" against Pomona's Orthodox Jewish residents, including selective enforcement of laws and disparate treatment. Rockland County's Human Rights Commission and the State Division of Human Rights have found probable cause to support the allegations. The mayor denies the allegations.
This is occurring in the context of last year's federal court ruling that Pomona officials enacted some zoning laws for "an improper, discriminatory purpose" to deter the Congregation Rabbinical College of Tartikov from developing a campus and family housing along the Routes 306-202 corridor.
'Normal Jews' in Clarkstown
In the Town of Clarkstown, Councilman Peter Bradley was elected on a platform that proudly announced he would keep Clarkstown from becoming Ramapo.
Councilman Bradley has devoted much of his attention to the Hasidic community. Clarkstown does not have a large Hasidic population, but does have a growing Orthodox population.
Bradley's most recent diatribe, just days after the Pittsburgh Synagogue massacre, was against the Hasidic population for not attending a Jewish Federation memorial program that he claimed was attended by "normal Jews." He has since apologized and retracted that characterization and employed the term "mainstream Jews," as if that is a more acceptable way for a politician to malign a segment of the Rockland Jewish community.
Young people hold eleven memorial candles in honor of those killed in the fatal shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue Saturday during a vigil at JCC Rockland in West Nyack Oct. 29, 2018. Seth Harrison/The Journal News
My wife and I attended the Federation event and were moved by the unity, expression of outrage, pledges of increased vigilance and a commitment to fight against hate, wherever it arises. Unfortunately, Councilman Bradley did not get the message.
'Kiryas Joel' as code
The third politician is newly elected State Sen. James Skoufis, who represents Stony Point and much of southern Orange County in Albany. Anyone with cable TV or a mailbox saw the theme of the Skoufis campaign accusing his opponent of being "a puppet for KJ." Apparently, the Skoufis campaign believed, as do many other politicians, that the surest way to get elected in some parts of the region is to campaign against the Hasidic population.
Sadly, much of the funding for this malicious ad campaign came from the NY State Democratic Committee, though in reality, the Republicans and Reform Party were guilty of this as well. Instead of supporting candidates that run on a platform of helping all constituents, now we are encouraged to only support candidates that single out a community for disfavor.
I am not naïve. I have a college degree in political science and have witnessed politics up close in Rockland and Orange counties for over 30 years. I recognize that political campaigns are a full-contact sport and that negative ads are generally effective in mobilizing the base and swaying independent voters.
What I don't accept is the premise that Hasidic and Orthodox residents of the region should not be represented by politicians, that their needs should not be addressed and they should, in effect, be redlined out of the election district.
Hateful rhetoric has a way of escalating into potential violence. The FBI reports that anti-Jewish hate crime is up 17 percent from the prior year with over 976 reported cases. This does not include the thousands of hate incidents that are not reported or not characterized as criminal in nature.
All politicians take an oath to uphold the Constitution, which includes the 1st Amendment guarantee of the free exercise of religion. Hasidic and Orthodox residents deserve no less representation and no less safety than other constituents, regardless of their faith or political viewpoint.
Our leaders, at all levels of government, must stand up to the hate and encourage respectful dialogue. We can debate public policy but bigotry is never up for debate.
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