Monday, December 09, 2019

The State of New Jersey filed a complaint in Bergen County Superior Court on October 24, 2017, against the township of Mahwah, New Jersey, for enacting two “unlawfully discriminatory ordinances” that target Orthodox Jews. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino, a Chris Christie appointee; the Division on Civil Rights Commissioner Bob Martin and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. The complaint charges that the township council’s actions were aimed at keeping Orthodox Jews, primarily from neighboring Rockland County, out of Mahwah. One ordinance amendment banned the construction of an eruv, which permits Orthodox Jews to carry items or push strollers and wheelchairs on Shabbos. The other ordinance prevents non-New Jersey residents from using Mahwah’s state parks.

The complaint asks the court to grant preliminary and permanent injunctions blocking the two ordinances and seeks statutory penalties and attorneys’ fees and costs. The complaint also seeks the return of all Green Acres funds awarded Mahwah—more than $3.4 million—stating that the ban on non-New Jersey residents from using the parks is a direct breach of its Green Acres funding contracts. The Green Acres Program was established in 1961 to maintain open space in New Jersey for all people, according to DEP Commissioner Bob Martin.

Within a week and a half after the Eruv public outcry and ordinance-writing process began, Teaneck resident and planning board member Keith Kaplan told The Jewish Link that he had written on his blog that it was unlawful for communities to enact such ordinances if they took Green Acres funding. His letters to the town were also certainly included in the dossier that the Attorney General received when it subpoenaed documents from the mayor and township council, in its investigation of the issue.

“In Mahwah, the Township Council attempted to use inapplicable ordinances, in a discriminatory manner, to advance an agenda fueled by hatred and bigotry,” Kaplan told The Jewish Link. “Eruvin are not signs, despite the attempts of Mahwah's council to declare them as such. Parks paid for with public funds cannot restrict public access. The rights to liberty and freedom, enshrined in our founding documents, are always under attack. I am very pleased that the Attorney General and others are standing up for those rights. The message needs to be heard loud and clear,” Kaplan added.

Jason Shames, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, said he is very happy that law enforcement is taking the lead in the Mahwah dispute, something he has been advocating for.  He noted he has been closely monitoring the events in Mahwah and knew the attorney general’s office was investigating. “This is the right place for it and a positive step forward,” Shames said. “We have great relationships with law enforcement. We’re able to make calls and stay on top of the situation and our partners are hearing us. They asked us, too, for information that would be helpful to them in terms of providing social media posts or other hateful language or incidents. We have tremendous respect and gratitude for law enforcement continuing their great work.”

What grieved him the most, he said, are the comments made about the (un)civil discourse. “There have been no acts of violence, but lots of language like ‘you people,’ or ‘those people’ and overall bad language. These aren’t Nazi sympathizers. They are people who believe they are protecting their way of life and their fears have made them angry and disrespectful.”

JFNNJ’s president Stephanie Goldman, with Shames, released the following statement: “The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey commends State Attorney General Christopher Porrino for upholding the law and recognizing there is no place in our state for hateful and discriminatory rhetoric and actions. The Attorney General’s filing of a lawsuit again the Mahwah Township Council demonstrates his commitment to religious freedom and constitutional law by holding the township council accountable for attempting to ‘make laws on the basis of some archaic, fear-driven and discriminatory mindset.’ We applaud the attorney general for his leadership in support of religious freedoms. We encourage all involved parties to return to accepted civil discourse.”

The suit charges in harsh terms that Mahwah’s behavior is reminiscent of when 1950s era suburbs tried to keep out African Americans. “To think that there are local governments here in New Jersey, in 2017, making laws on the basis of some archaic, fear-driven and discriminatory mindset, is deeply disappointing and we intend to hold them accountable for it,” said Porrino. “In this case, we allege the target of the small-minded bias is not African-Americans, but Orthodox Jews. Nonetheless, the hateful message is the same,” he said.

The barrage of anti-Semitic comments, phone calls, emails and social media posts in relation to the ordinances are noted in the complaint. For example, proposed signs to be put in parks keeping out non New Jersey residents include disclaimers that guests of a resident and employees of local businesses are permitted use. In an email to the council president included in the complaint, a non-Orthodox Mahwah resident said her mother is concerned that she won’t be able to take her grandchildren to the park when she visits. The council president replied that the ordinance was not intended for her situation.

Michael D. Cohen, Eastern Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and a city councilman in Englewood, has followed the Mahwah proceedings closely and attended all of the Mahwah city council meetings on this matter since July. Commenting on the lawsuit, he said “The Simon Wiesenthal Center applauds the actions of the attorney general in recognizing that the unfortunate series of events in Mahwah over the past few months’ required legal action.

"We commend him for his bold actions and for having the initiative and leadership to combat anti-Semitism and discrimination in all its forms. The Simon Wiesenthal Center continues to play a part in exposing such events and in encouraging the city’s fathers to work together with the Jewish community to find instead a path of dialogue, understanding and mutual respect."