After months of internal discussion and rancorous public comments during borough meetings, on March 3 Highland Park council members unanimously approved a resolution condemning anti-Semitism.
The resolution, which the council started working on in July 2019, was passed during an uptick of anti-Semitic incidents in the region. Another catalyst was a children’s book reading at the borough’s library by an author affiliated with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, which sparked uproar in the Jewish community.
“This has been a difficult journey for many of us in Highland Park,” said Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler at the close of the packed meeting that lasted nearly two-and-a-half hours. “I hope that you feel safer with this resolution and you will help make your neighbors feel safer.”
The resolution defines anti-Semitism according to the widely accepted working definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Association. The long delay in getting the resolution approved was due to the addition of language that links anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. While not calling out the BDS movement by name, the approved resolution does call out as anti-Semitic “movements that coopt legitimate means of social action to unfairly promote economic warfare against the State of Israel in an attempt to deny its legitimacy.”
For Council Member Matthew Hale, who helped author the resolution and is a member of the Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth, the statement “recognizes that anti-Semitism occurs across the political spectrum,” he told NJJN in a telephone interview March 12. The BDS movement is associated with progressive groups, such as Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine.
“When someone in our community is hurting, we rally around that group,” Hale said about the importance of passing the resolution. He added that for the Jewish community, it was important to feel that “the town and the borough had their back.”
The resolution also calls for a series of educational and social events to bring people together on the subject of anti-Semitism and a “communications campaign” on how bias “against any marginalized group effects all marginalized groups.”
The resolution is not a law or ordinance, and it would not prevent programs like the “P is for Palestine” reading from happening but it does offer recommendations for public events, according to Mittler, also a member of Highland Park Conservative Temple. She described it as the “point of view of the governing body,” and said the resolution offers suggestions of items to “avoid, especially when it comes to things that could be perceived as hate language.”
Michael Cohen, Eastern Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, worked with Jewish leadership in Highland Park to help educate elected leaders on why it’s important to include anti-Zionism in a resolution combatting anti-Semitism. The Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) is a global Jewish human rights NGO devoted to teaching the legacy to the Holocaust, combating anti-Semitism, and defending Israel and human dignity. Cohen also helped organize an educational program in February on anti-semitism that was attended by more than 500 people.
“I don’t see a resolution as being the end game,” he told NJJN in a telephone interview. “I see it as one tactic and strategy to develop a heightened awareness of what’s going on.”
Highland Park is the first municipality in Middlesex County to approve a resolution combatting anti-Semitism. It joins 24 others from Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Ocean, and Passaic Counties that have already done so, according to SWC.