I have hesitated for months to write this.
I know the hate and threats that will come my way. Even worse, I doubt anyone in our city leadership will do anything to stop it.
But with anti-Semitism becoming mainstream in this country with a former president dining with a rapper who praises Hitler and professional sports leagues harboring bigots, I cannot stay silent any longer, particularly this week as the world commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
It started two years ago when I asked the South Portland City Council to not hold voting meetings on the Jewish High Holidays – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In response, a former mayor called in on Zoom to say, “you people have too many holidays to keep track of.” Not a single Councilor responded or even acknowledged the offensive statement.
Just imagine if “you people” were directed at any other minority group. The Council and the Human Rights Commission would trip over themselves to label the speaker with every “ism” under the sun. But when it is about Jews? Silence.
South Portland’s anti-Semitism problem reared its ugly head again during this past campaign season as I ran for an at-large Council seat. During a Council meeting on Kol Nidre (the eve of Yom Kippur) – literally the holiest day of the year in Judaism – an individual spoke at that night’s Council meeting to criticize me for raising too much money for my campaign. It was a disgusting and vile speech littered with thinly veiled anti-Semitic tropes about Jews controlling politics and money. At one point, the speaker even accused me of robbing my kids’ college funds to pay for my campaign. Seriously.
Did any Councilor speak up to denounce such hateful rhetoric? Of course not. Just silence.
But the speaker did not stop there. He did it again at the next Council meeting and the meeting after that. For three meetings in a row, Council permitted this individual to spew his hateful rhetoric about me – the only Jewish candidate for City Council.
I’m not surprised. I knew it was coming. My grandparents faced anti-immigrant hate when they fled their homeland in Poland to escape the Holocaust. I faced it when middle school football teammates cornered me in a locker room and told me they were going to finish what Hitler started. I faced it when my family had to be evacuated from a synagogue in Pittsburgh just steps from where a mass shooting was unfolding at the Tree of Life synagogue several years ago. And I faced it again when last year a public menorah display right here in South Portland was vandalized near the Maine Mall. A similar act of vandalism on a menorah just occurred in Rockland this past holiday season.
What is surprising is that our allegedly progressive Council tolerates this behavior. Maybe they didn’t know better. Maybe they didn’t recognize the centuries old anti-Semitic tropes. But ignorance is no excuse anymore.
I raised my concerns to every member of the City Council and Human Rights Commission in December and asked for some simple fixes including an agreement not to hold voting meetings on any religious holidays and for a resolution condemning the rise in anti-Semitism in this country. I did not think this was a huge ask. South Portland’s allegedly progressive City Council passed a proclamation condemning racism in 2020 followed by resolutions in 2021 condemning acts of hate toward the LGBTQ community and violence toward Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Last year, the City declared racism a public health crisis.
The City Council and Human Rights Commission certainly know how to write such resolutions, but when it comes to Jews and anti-Semitism, South Portland has elected to do nothing.
City Council has met five times since I voiced my concerns last month but have still not managed to reach even the lowest hanging fruit of simply condemning anti-Semitism. With International Holocaust Remembrance Day tomorrow, it is particularly prescient to remind the city’s leaders that to remain silent is to be complicit.
Our Jewish neighbors are scared and reeling right now. Anti-Semitism is exploding. The Anti-Defamation League has documented a 34% increase in anti-Semitism incidents in the U.S. from 2020 to 2021, including a 43% increase in harassment and a 167% increase in anti-Semitic assaults, reaching the highest recording number of attacks since the ADL first back tracking incidents in 1979. No doubt these numbers will be even higher once the 2022 data comes out.
Anti-Semitism has become normalized, and we must do better to root it out. It starts with our City’s leadership, but it is the responsibility of all of us to speak out when we see hate of any kind. We cannot be silent even if our elected officials are.
By Steve Silver of South Portland