“First They Came for the Jews…”

Published in Woonsocket Call on April 29, 2018

On April 26, 2018, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on Senate Resolution No. 2696, urging law enforcement officials to recognize white nationalists and neo-Nazi groups as terrorist organizations. The Senate Resolution would enable law enforcement to pursue such groups’ activities and whereabouts with the resources and attention devoted to domestic terrorist groups. It would be tragic for the Senate panel to not pass this resolution introduced by Senators Goldin, Miller, Nesselbush, Quezada, and Crowley. Representative J. Aaron Regunberg introduced the House companion measure (H.B. 8131).

In response to last year’s racially-charged violence in Charlottesville, state legislatures across the nation have considered similar legislation. Roger Williams, founder of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, was a staunch advocate for religious freedom and tolerance. With that commitment, it is important for Rhode Island lawmakers to not send Senate Resolution No. 2696 to legislative purgatory but to pass it to strongly denounce the white nationalist and neo-Nazi ideologies of racial, social and religious intolerance that terrorize the state’s racial, ethnic and religious minority communities.

Anti-Semitic Incidents Increasing in Rhode Island

Last month, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported that the increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the Ocean State have nearly doubled from 2016 to 2017, with the number of reports jumping from 7 to 13. Let’s put a face on these incidents. According to the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, it was reported by media that just one day after an anti-Semitic act of vandalism in the City of Pawtucket, on May 23, 2016, Stebbins Stadium in Cranston was spray painted with graffiti, including swastika symbols as well as hate messages directed to Muslim and African American communities. Among the incidents reported in 2017 by the media: a swastika burned into a sign located on a bike path in Barrington, anti- Semitic graffiti spray painted on Warwick Vets High School and a swastika made from human waste found in RISD dorm bathroom.

But, white nationalists and neo-Nazi hate ideology is also increasing throughout the nation. The increase is reflected nationally with the ADL reporting a nearly 60 percent increase.

The jarring historical imagery of the torchlight procession of supporters of Adolf Hitler moving through the Wilhelmstrasse in Berlin on the evening of January 30, 1933 came to life to Rhode Islanders and to millions of Americans last year when hundreds of neo-Nazis, white nationalists, KKK, militia members and other right-wing groups gathered for a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va. Carrying tiki torches, flags with swastikas and confederate flags, they came to the City’s Emancipation Park, chanting “Jews will not replace us”, “Blood and Soil” (a Nazi rallying cry), “White Lives Matter,” along with homophobic, racists and misogynistic slurs.

It’s Time for Rhode Island to Speak Out

While both GOP and Democrat Congressional lawmakers lambasted President Donald J. Trump’s choice of words for laying the blame of violence at the Charlottesville rally at the feet of both the far-right demonstrators and counter protestors, there were some who remained silent or defended his comments, saying his words were adequate.

With the increased public visibility of the neo-Nazis, white supremacist and other hate groups, and with President Trump failing to use his position and moral authority to strongly condemn the ideology of hate groups, the Rhode Island General Assembly is now positioned to take on this responsibility.

In response to the violent weekend in Charlottesville, Va., the Illinois Senate adopted a similar resolution, sponsored by Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, urging law officials to recognize white nationalists and neo-Nazi groups as terrorist organizations. As a state founded on the principle of religious freedom, Rhode Island can follow.

It is an appropriate time to remember the speech given by Martin Niemoller, a German Lutheran minister who opposed the Nazis and was sent to several concentration camps. He survived the war and explained:

“First, they came for the Jews. I was silent. I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists. I was silent. I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists. I was silent. I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me. There was no one left to speak for me.”

For Rhode Island lawmakers, it is time for you to speak out.

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