Just days after a prominent member of the New Jersey NAACP made anti-Semitic comments about local chasidic residents, further inflaming already simmering tensions between the Jewish and black communities, the ADL New York/New Jersey and the NAACP New Jersey State Conference announced a partnership to combat hatred and bigotry in the Garden State.
“We know that we are stronger together,” said ADL NY/NJ regional director Evan Bernstein at a Jan. 9 press conference held at the African American Chamber of Commerce in Trenton. The two communities, Bernstein said, have a “shared goal of building a more tolerant and just society.”
The comments came from James Harris, chair of Montclair’s NAACP and president of the New Jersey Association of Black Educators, at a Dec. 30 community forum in Montclair. Speaking about the recent spate of violence against Jews, Harris said that the ones living in Lakewood “control the Board of Education and the City Council” and suggested that the new chasidic community in Jersey City received preferential treatment in a neighborhood rife with violence, according to TAPinto Montclair.
“Is there a situation where some lives are worth more than others’ lives?” he asked. “Because I didn’t see the governor … hanging up there … when these other shootings go down, so I think that we have to have an honest conversation.”
A week later, Jan. 6, Harris posted a letter of apology on Montclairlocal.news, “for the remarks I made about the Hasidic community … My personal statement was meant to focus on the impact of gentrification on lower socioeconomic communities in Montclair, NJ…. Unfortunately I used terms and examples that have been interpreted as anti-Semitic.” The following day the NAACP announced that Harris would be removed from his leadership position for the next six months.
Harris’ comments come as the Jewish community is reeling from acts of violence in Jersey City; Monsey, N.Y.; and Brooklyn, mostly at the hands of African Americans and seemingly motivated by anti-Semitism. But Harris is only the latest local African-American leader to have made hateful remarks about Jews.
In August, Jeffrey Dye, former head of the Passaic NAACP and at the time employed by Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration, posted on Facebook “Jews At it again divide & conquering us,” as well as derogatory statements about Latinos (he was subsequently fired); Trenton City Council president Kathy McBride used the term “Jew her down” during a closed-door meeting in September 2019 to discuss negotiations to settle a lawsuit; and Jersey City School Board member Joan Terrell-Paige referred to some chasidic Jews as “brutes” on Facebook after the kosher supermarket shootings.
Before discussing the partnership and the long history of Jews and African Americans working side by side on civil rights issues, Richard T. Smith, NAACP New Jersey State Conference president, opened the press conference by apologizing for — and distancing the NAACP from — such rhetoric, specifically the words of Dye and Harris.
“The NAACP fights racism, wherever it rears its ugly head, even when it’s within our ranks,” said Smith. “We renounce the statements that they made and strongly urge them, in whatever their future endeavors may be, to use their words to build a world of kindness and tolerance instead of spewing hate.” Such comments, he said, “give fuel to the actions of hateful and deranged individuals.”
The divisions among the communities underscore the need to work together to fight a common enemy, Smith said. “Anti-Semitism reinforces racist tropes and divides us instead of uniting us to address the real challenges our communities face,” he said. “The NAACP stands with our Jewish brothers and sisters in a strong condemnation of the acts of hate perpetuated against the Jewish community in our state and in the tri-state area over the last month.”
Bernstein outlined three core initiatives for the partnership: providing anti-bias education to elected officials; building tolerance and understanding between the constituencies of the two organizations; and responding to all incidents of racism and anti-Semitism in the state with one voice. He said he hopes the show of unity would put to rest the murmurs “that the black and Jewish relationship is not nearly as strong as it once was.”
In conversation with NJJN, Bernstein and Smith acknowledged that the details are still being finalized, but they planned to work together to reach out to both politicians and local communities and would use ADL’s existing anti-bias education programs. Still, given the existing friction between the communities, they expect to confront plenty of hurdles.
“There is a disconnect and the disconnect comes because we don’t talk,” said Smith. “I think there’s a lot of misunderstandings and at the end of the day, instead of going out to spew hate, instead of going out and saying something derogatory or negative, the goal must be for us to pull our leadership to the table and sit down and have conversations.”
Dov Ben-Shimon, executive vice president and CEO of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, was heartened by the announcement.
“We welcome all organizations of good intent into our Greater MetroWest community,” he wrote in an email to NJJN. “While we wait to hear the details of this partnership, we hope that this will be coordinated with the community and partner organizations, and will be a sign of the ADL’s physical presence returning to New Jersey.”
Dr. Cheryl Greenberg, a distinguished professor of history at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and author of “Troubling the Waters: Black Jewish Relations in the American Century”
(Princeton University Press, 2010), told NJJN in a telephone interview that, from her perspective, one positive take-away from the partnership is that it signals that other groups are recognizing the need to fight anti-Semitism.
“There’s been a lot of talk and concern that in the spate of all the violence against all sorts of groups, that anti-Semitism has been sort of left to the side and people haven’t really [been] engaged in it,” she said. “And so now, it’s really nice to know that many groups are getting involved.”
Whether this alliance will be effective or meaningful remains to be seen. It will depend, Greenberg said, on how it translates into action: what goals they set and how they plan to reach their target audiences to “change the narrative.”
She called out President Donald Trump for the rise in hateful rhetoric in all corners, including the anti-Semitism coming from African-American leaders.
“The fact that African-American leaders have made problematic statements is horrifying,” she said. “But it’s no more horrifying than the fact that all sorts of people are making horrific statements that you would never have imagined people would have said in public before.”
Still, Greenberg offered a silver lining:
“If, out of this horrible, scary time, comes a renewed commitment to fight these kinds of stereotypes and attacks and discrimination and bias,” she said, “then I think it’s a great thing.”