Speaking recently at the Construction and Management Interstate B2B Expo it was clear by the panel’s title, “Open Bias or Overdevelopment?” that our community was looking to explore the root causes of issues being faced now across the state. At the heart of the matter are the issues facing us in Mahwah/Monsey and Lakewood/Jackson and determining if such controversies are being caused by insensitive overdevelopment or by xenophobic or otherwise base anti-Semitism.
The predominantly Orthodox attendees described a spectrum of issues faced from township officials and local media outlets’ detailing why they believed that many actions and rhetoric lacked objectivity and were punitively selective.
Examples of outright bias in Mahwah and Jackson, including discrimination in the usage of public facilities, accusations of the Jewish communities not paying taxes, of being a dirty people, are obvious and open. Alleged occurrences in local bureaucracies are generally more nuanced and hence more difficult to deal with.
The negative impact of often unfair media coverage on intergroup relations and on elected officials demands more reflection and when necessary, strong push-back from the Jewish community.
During the discussion, a debate ensued when a Chasidic gentleman stated that we as Jews in the diaspora must recognize our status as guests in a land that has been overwhelmingly good to our people. He continued that Jews need be appreciative of the advantages we have, understand that we are different and perhaps worrisomely exotic to our neighbors, and go where we are permitted and not aggressively bring attention to ourselves.
Another Chasidic gentleman took umbrage saying that in America we are all immigrants bound by the laws and the constitution, and the religious accommodations as provided by courts and reaffirmed by judicial precedent only came about through aggressively defending our rights because of our fighting. And we should never let bigots intrude on our rights.
I respectfully offered a third path, one of intercommunity and interfaith collaboration and relationship building.
Yes, it is true that there will be bigots amongst us who must be vigorously fought, but I refuse to believe that such attitudes are deeply pervasive in America. When bringing up exotic issues like an eruv we must realize that there are many people, terrified of the unknown, who would simply fight to restrict the imposition of what they are not familiar with.
We must recognize the benefits of a balance of the two approaches debated above and understand that we are blessed by the fruits of American modern society and we have no fewer rights than those around us to live in a manner that we see fit. However, we must also recognize that we at the same time do not have more rights than those around us and cannot impose the difficulties on others because of our way.
A positive outcome lies in mutual cooperation and understanding and with the promotion of open dialogue prior to taking action in a given locality. In the eruv battles in Mahwah alone I hear individuals testifying to the purpose of such a religious accommodation as though they are biblical scholars when in reality they are dangerously rumor mongering on matters they know precious little about. It is our responsibility to make every attempt to work with all the people who reside in our shared spaces and allow for understanding and harmony to prevail in the discourse.
Yes, we have legal and constitutional rights and we should not be hesitant in using such resources when necessary to fight for justice. However, we must also conduct ourselves in a manner that we and our children can be proud of, only moving our agenda forward in a manner that recognizes that we do not live in a vacuum, and that behaving as though we are can bring serious damage to our communal credibility and prospective alliances against the very bigotry we seek to overcome.
By Michael D. Cohen
Michael D. Cohen is the eastern director, Simon Wiesenthal Center, and an Englewood city councilman.