Easthampton councilor files ‘first-of-its-kind’ resolution calling on city, religious leaders, schools to take a stand against antisemitism

By EMILY THURLOW

Staff Writer

Published: 05-10-2023 5:42 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Whether it’s swastikas and “gas the Jews” messages appearing along the summit of Mount Tom, racist and antisemitic slurs spray-painted on trees at a conservation area, or racial comments on social media directed at a city councilor, Easthampton is no stranger to discrimination against Jewish people.

Nor is the city isolated, as reports of discrimination, vandalism, violence and harassment against Jewish people continue to climb to record highs throughout all of New England.

But the city may soon take an unprecedented stand against antisemitism if the City Council approves a first-of-its-kind resolution put forth by At-Large City Councilor Owen Zaret last week that denounces antisemitism in all forms and calls on elected officials, faith leaders and other community members to do the same.

The resolution also seeks to educate residents of all ages about antisemitism through public events, workshops and school curriculum. In researching other municipal resolutions, Zaret said he was unable to find any as extensive in terms of history and statistics or action plans.

“My hope is to develop better cultural understanding, acceptance, and sensitivity towards Jewish people,” Zaret said in an email.

The proposed resolution prompts elected officials and city leaders to sign on to the pledge to speak up against antisemitism at massachusettsagainstantisemitism.org and urges the city to make efforts to recognize Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The measure includes historical acknowledgment of centuries-old antisemitism and the murder of 6 million Jews by the German Nazi regime during the Holocaust, and the acutely increasing incidents of antisemitism, including white supremacists and neo-Nazi groups calling for a “Day of Hate” in February.

The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks antisemitic behavior throughout the country, reports that 152 antisemitic incidents were recorded in Massachusetts last year — a 41% increase from 2021 at 108 incidents. The Bay State had the sixth-highest number of incidents of any state recorded in the U.S., following Texas with 211, Florida with 269, New Jersey with 408, California with 518, and New York with 580.

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Incidents include multiple swastikas at a home in Stoneham and the etching of an antisemitic slur on a car at a home in Stow. More recently and closer to home, officials at Jabish Brook Middle School in Belchertown opened an investigation into alleged antisemitic incidents in the district, including the use of the Nazi salute.

Zaret said he and his family were targets of a variety of transphobic and antisemitic comments and posts via social media earlier this month. The comments, he says, are an unfortunate part of his job on the council.

“I share my own story of experiencing explicit, implicit, and unconscious antisemitism throughout my lifetime, but also unfortunately heightened by public office both from the public and colleagues,” he said in an email. “When a Jewish colleague raises the question of antisemitism, you must listen to them, not gaslight them and punish them for speaking out. If it can happen to me, it can absolutely happen to anyone. Again I am fortunate to have many resources at my disposal, and live a life steeped in privilege, and still fall prey to classic tactics and tropes of antisemitism.”

In crafting the proposed resolution, Zaret collaborated with the Jewish Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (J.E.D.I.) and Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts, as well as the New England chapter of the Anti-Defamation League.

Both organizations have offered their support in adopting the resolution.

“Easthampton has taken an important first step in naming and speaking out against antisemitism,” Peggy Shukur, interim regional director at ADL New England, said in a statement. “ADL New England looks forward to partnering with the town and the City Council to follow up this resolution with action to ensure all are welcome and at home in their communities.”

Nora Gorenstein, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts, has also publicly advocated that other municipalities follow Zaret’s example in taking a stand against hate and bigotry.

“Antisemitism is a threat not just to the Jewish community but to all Americans who value equality, diversity, and tolerance,” Gorenstein said in a statement.

If passed, the resolution will urge the city’s schools to include education about antisemitism in the diversity, equity and inclusion curriculum; to embrace the state mandated Holocaust and genocide education, and offer resources in addressing antisemitism.

“This will hopefully create an outline for city officials, the (city’s) Community Relations Committee, and the public to create programming and practice around this issue,” said Zaret.

The resolution also calls on social media platforms to institute stronger and more significant efforts to measure and address antisemitism online while protecting free speech, and to have the resolution forwarded to state and U.S. representatives and senators as well as local congregations Beit Ahavah and B’nai Israel.

The Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts also noted in a press release that the proposed resolution will “ensure the safety, security and dignity of American Jews in all aspects of their lives.”

The council unanimously voted May 3 to send the resolution to the Rules and Government Relations Committee for discussion, though a meeting date has not been set.

“This needs to be a non-denominational and multi-cultural effort that reaches across many faiths and traditions to recognize the need for mutual support on this issue of prejudice and all others. The complexity of the cross section of cultural and religious identity for Jewish people begs the need for support from the religious community,” Zaret said.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.]]>