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Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Sometimes recognizing anti-Semitism is obvious. At other times the anti-Semitism may be less overt, thereby making it more difficult to identify and rally opponents to denounce the bias and hatred. The Rise Up Ocean County Facebook group, and its opposition to the booming growth of the Lakewood Jewish community, appears to fall into the latter category.

The situation is anything but simple. There are well-documented problems facing the Orthodox community in Lakewood, including multiple cases of government benefits fraud, the crushing social costs of busing 32,000 students to private schools, the resulting underfunding of local public schools, aggressive tactics by real estate agents to identify new properties for sale in neighboring towns, and other issues.

Given the contentious environment, communal leaders might be reticent to look too closely when local residents express concerns. It takes courage for a leader to recognize when criticism and opposition take a decidedly toxic tone and rally a coalition to oppose it.

Ocean County community members noticed that the Rise Up Ocean County Facebook group, ostensibly focused on overdevelopment and the destructive effects of communal growth in Lakewood and surrounding communities, had a troubling tendency to use terms and images that reflected bigotry against Jews. They reached out to the Simon Wiesenthal Center to share their growing alarm.

One post in particular stood out for its misappropriation of a well-known WWII poem by Pastor Martin Niemoller, opposing silence in response to Nazi oppression. The historic poem states, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists… Then they came for the Jews… then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

The Rise Up Ocean County Facebook group posted a video with these words appearing on screen: “First they came for my house, but I did not speak up. Then they came for my board of education but I did not vote because I was complacent. Then they came for my township and county government, but I did not vote because I was busy that day.” In a column on the Facebook group and the video, Asbury Park Press columnist Randy Bergman noted that “the ‘they’ referred to in the video was made evident by photo images of Orthodox Jews.”

Other deeply troubling aspects of the Rise Up Ocean Country Facebook group, which has attracted nearly 8,000 followers, include their refusal to publicly identify their administrators, posting an image with the phrase “United Against Anti-Gentilism,” their accusations of “colonization” by the Lakewood community and that politicians opposing them sold them out “for a few shekels,” repeated uses of video and images of Jewish community members, among others.

Michael Cohen, the eastern director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and a member of the City Council in Englewood, met with local leaders in Ocean County, shared the community members’ concerns about the Rise Up Ocean County group, and together they built a wide coalition opposing the group. The coalition includes leaders of the NAACP; Agudath Israel of America and Beis Medrash Govoha; Ada Gonzales, a Lakewood school board member, Rev. John P. Bambrick of St. Aloysius Church in Jackson, Ocean County; Evangelical pastor Rev. Shawn Hyland; and local residents.

The coalition approached the Lakewood Town Council and the Ocean County Board of Freeholders, asking them to publicly condemn the actions and tone of the Rise Up Ocean County Facebook group. Both government bodies passed strong resolutions in opposition to the group.

The Ocean County Freeholders’ resolution, passed February 20, cites the “mischaracterization” of the poem by Niemoller and that the Rise Up group “circulated other anti-Semitic video footage attempting to depict minor Jewish children as a threat to society.” While acknowledging the right of free speech, the resolution states that the conduct of the Rise Up group “is contrary to the goals of American free society and liberty,” and that the Freeholders “wish to go on record to condemn such hate speech.”

The coalition of leaders approached the Toms River and Jackson town councils, asking them to pass similar resolutions; both governing bodies declined to do so.

Though discouraged by the responses of the Toms River and Jackson town councils, the coalition of leaders is heartened by the clear actions of the county freeholders and the Lakewood Town Council. And they’re buoyed by the growing public awareness about the anti-Semitic nature of the Rise Up Ocean County group.

Underscoring the importance of calling out Rise Up Ocean County for their bigotry, Michael Cohen stated, “This group’s anti-Semitism needed to be exposed, to ensure that it received no credence in the wider community. Those responsible for the site have gone way beyond the line of reasonable opposition and therefore are not worthy to be at the table for honest communal discussions.”

Father Bambrick added, “We’ve noticed a global rise in anti-Semitism and while we might not be able to do much about it globally, we can certainly help on a local level. There is a strong Catholic teaching that encourages us to improve the common good and this fits well with that. And the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting showed us how hateful words can transform into violence. Given all this, I believe we all have an obligation to fight anti-Semitism locally, especially when it approaches the line of incitement; we must oppose them before they cross that line.”

By Harry Glazer