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Sunday, October 22, 2017

This is a piece that I never should have had to write.

I had hoped to deliver these at last night’s Township of Mahwah regularly scheduled public workshop session.

The issue on everyone’s mind was the controversy surrounding the issue of the eruv expansion.

Representing the Simon Wiesenthal Center, I had hoped to express that we fully understand the community’s desire and right to protect their quality of life. I say this also as someone who serves as an Englewood City Councilmember and who deals regularly with municipal governance. The safeguards that the citizens of Mahwah seek to protect their community are already in place, through existing ordinances.

Last night, I wanted to share my concerns to the governing body, and explain why the manner in which they have addressed this controversy has unleashed through social media and other local outlets a shocking stream of anti-Semitic rhetoric.

I went last night to caution that elected bodies seeking to protect the quality of life in their communities anywhere in the United States should make reasonable accommodations for people with different beliefs.

I have to write this piece because the Mahwah council president was wrong in denying myself and other representatives of the Jewish community a chance to be heard.

The practice of municipalities in New Jersey is to have a public session at the conclusion of each public meeting for both residents and other stakeholders to provide input and insight on any issue on which they so choose. Individuals wishing to comment are legally free to do so upon any matter so long as they do not threaten litigation or are currently a party in litigation within that named body. Neither myself nor the others with me, including a Holocaust survivor, fit that description, and yet we were prevented from saying our piece.

I heard many angry voices last night from fearful residents, some of whom barely contained their disdain for "those people." After the unchallenged attacks went on for over an hour, the substitute counsel instructed me that I could not mention the word eruv.

I write this piece because there is a better way forward—direct dialogue and discussion. As a religious Jew who uses an eruv in New Jersey, and as a representative of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, I am going to reach out to both the leaders of Mahwah’s City Council and backers of the eruv to meet—something that should have happened months ago. I cannot guarantee the outcome but I know that a face-to-face meeting would do much to erase some ugly stereotypes.

Let’s work together to defeat hate speech and stereotyping and replace it with civil discourse and dialogue.

This issue won’t disappear so I write this piece to urge all involved to live up to their responsibilities as neighbors and as Americans.

Michael Cohen is the Eastern Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a global human rights organization researching the Holocaust and hate in a historic and contemporary context. Learn more at http://www.wiesenthal.com