Religious Groups Urge House to Combat Antisemitism and Racism

Published in the Woonsocket Call on June 10, 2019

For the second year in a row, the Rhode Island General Assembly’s Senate Judiciary Committee heard a resolution, introduced by State Senator Donna Nesselbush (Democrat, District 15, Pawtucket), calling on lawmakers to denounce and oppose white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups. The resolution was co-sponsored by Senators Samuel Bell (Democrat, District 5, Providence), Joshua Miller (Democrat, District 28, Cranston), Gayle Goldin (Democrat, District 3, Providence) and Ana Quezada (Democrat, District 2, Providence),

The initial resolution, introduced in 2017, urged state police to consider White Nationalists and Neo Nazi groups as terrorists. Because of First Amendment concerns expressed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island that resolution was held for further study, and the language was reworked this run so as not to run afoul of free speech concerns.

Senate Moves to Fight Antisemitism and Racial Intolerance Head On

At the May 30 hearing, Nesselbush (Democrat, District 15, Pawtucket) pushed for passage of S0829, a resolution calling on Rhode Island to “denounce and oppose and the totalitarian impulses, violent terrorism, xenophobic’ biases, and bigoted ideologies that are promoted by white nationalists and neo-Nazis.” She reminded the Senate panel that Rhode Island was founded on Roger William’s principles of religious tolerance, and the state should denounce any type of white supremacy or neo-Nazism and take a stand for religious freedom and tolerance.

Nesslebush’s Senate resolution unanimously passed in Senate Judiciary Committee and ultimately on the Senate Floor. With its passage, no further action is required and the resolution will be transmitted to the Secretary of State, who is charged in the resolution with transmitting certified copies of the resolution to President Donald J. Trump, the members of the Rhode Island Congressional delegation, and Governor Gina Raimondo.

When asked about a House companion resolution that denounces and opposes White Nationalists and Neo Nazi groups, Larry Berman, the House’s Director of Communication, says that Rep. Jean Philippe Barros (Democrat, District 59, Pawtucket) had planned to introduce one but “because it was getting late in the session” he was unable to get his bill introduced. It should be noted that Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio allowed Nesselbush to introduce her Senate resolution recognizing its merit and importance to the Jewish community.

Calls for the House to Confront the Boldness of Hate Groups

As the House is poised to release its anticipated state budget, religious groups and supporters of Nesselbush’s resolution, call for the lower chamber to take a strong stand to denounce and oppose White Nationalists and Neo Nazi groups.

As President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island, being active and serving as Rabbi at Temple Beth-El, Rabbi Sarah Mack, says it’s not too late for the to take a stand against antisemitism. “As Jews, we fight against bigotry and extremism because as a people we have experienced the danger of hate firsthand. While it is important to focus on extremism in all of its forms, we appreciate this resolution that calls attention to white supremacists, neo-Nazis and their hateful agenda. Because of this, I am so thankful to the Senate for passing this resolution, and I beseech our House leadership to do the same.”

Adds Adam Greenman, President and CEO of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, “we are committed to combating hatred in all forms. This resolution would give our state the opportunity to stand up against groups that promote anti-Semitism, white supremacy and other forms of toxic and dangerous rhetoric. We ask those in the House of Representatives to join us in supporting this resolution.”

Rev. Dr. Donnie Anderson, Executive Minister, of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, notes the importance for the House to support Nesslebush’s Senate resolution to fight hate. “In recent years hate speech has found a new platform in social media and is flourishing in the current political climate. This explosion of hate DEMANDS a response from our political leaders. Rhode Island is blessed with wonderful interfaith leaders who interact on a regular basis and have built an atmosphere of caring, respect and trust. This group consistently and often speaks against hate, but we need to hear from ALL of our political leaders. We urge passage of this timely and thoughtful resolution.”

Steve Ahlquist, a reporter at UpriseRI, a Rhode Island news web site covering progressive issues, testified in support of Nesselbush’s Senate resolution, gives his two cents about the importance of politicians combating hate groups. Ahlquist stressed, “Though this resolution is largely symbolic and does not have the force of law, it is important nonetheless that our elected officials ally themselves with Rhode Islanders most at risk of white supremacist violence. It has been documented by myself and others that these groups have twice come to our state to engage in violence, and have promised to return. Residents of Rhode Island need to know that our elected officials will have our backs when they are confronting these hate groups.”

“Our elected officials should be eager to repudiate white supremacy and neo-Nazism. There has been violence done and violence planned in Rhode Island by hate groups visiting our state. There has been and hate crimes at synagogues and mosques. The Senate passed a resolution with ease. It is truly the least we can expect from the House to follow suit,” says Ahlquist.

Rhode Island Religious Community Takes a Stand

For years, it has been reported that antisemitism is becoming firmly entrenched in the Ocean State. In 2017, the Providence Journal reported that the New England chapter of the Anti-Defamation League recorded 13 incidents of antisemitism in Rhode Island. Nazi swastikas were painted on a Providence building, at Broad Rock Middle School in North Kingstown, and even at a Pawtucket synagogue in Oakhill, just a five-minute walk from my house, reported Rhode Island’s largest daily.

When I testified for passage of Senate Resolution 0829, I told the Senators that I often wondered what I would have done if I stood on a street in Germany in 1938 seeing all those windows broken (during a two-day pogrom, referred to as Kristallnacht. Would I have the courage or the gumption to go up to somebody dressed in a brown shirt with a swastika armband and stop him from hitting an elderly Jew?
Hopefully yes, but who knows.

But, on May 30, 2019, at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, I sat beside Sen. Nesselbush and Steve Ahlquist as we “took a stand,” calling on the Committee to pass S 082. Knowing the wisdom in denouncing and opposing the hateful philosophy of white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups that is becoming all too common in Rhode Island, the Senate took its stand.

After all, Rhode Island was founded by Roger Williams on the principle of religious tolerance, and we’re the home of America’s oldest synagogue, the Touro Synagogue, in Newport. What does it say to the nation, and especially to the state’s Jewish, racial, ethnic, LGTBQ communities if the House does not take an opportunity to oppose and denounce hate in their own backyard?

Hopefully, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello will reconsider allowing a resolution, with no fiscal cost, to be introduced to give House lawmakers, like their Senate colleagues, an opportunity to oppose white nationalists and neo-Nazi groups. It is important for both chambers to take a legislative stand to combat the rising incidence of antisemitism and racist incidents. The resolution serves the purpose of sending the message, hate groups who are planning to come to Rhode Island to cause violence are not welcome here.

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Making Genocide and Holocaust Education Mandatory

Published in Woonsocket Call on April 26, 2015

By Herb Weiss

With newspapers reporting an increase of religious and cultural intolerance and hate crimes, it is refreshing to see the Rhode Island General Assembly pass resolutions condemning the systematic and barbarous murder of Armenians and Jews.

On Friday, April 24, Armenians across the nation stopped to remember the Ottoman authorities eight-year brutal campaign taking place 100 years ago to eliminate their ethnic group from its homeland in what is now Turkey. Both chambers of the Rhode Island General Assembly passed resolutions calling this day, “Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day” and urging President Obama and Congress to officially recognize the genocide which resulted in the estimated death of 1.5 million Armenians and to make restitution for the loss of lives, confiscated properties, those who endured slavery, starvation, torture, and unlawful deportations.

Taking Responsibility for Your Actions

On April 6, it was a personal and professional triumph for Rep. Katherine S. Kazarian (D-Dist. 63, East Providence), a fourth-generation Armenian-American, to take the lead in sponsoring Rhode Island’s House resolution to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. In the afternoon before the vote, the East Providence lawmaker unveiled her resolution at a ceremony in the State House State Room attended by elected state officials and fellow lawmakers.

“The only thing worse than trying to eliminate an entire generation and culture is to deny that such a genocide ever took place,” said Kazarian. “For the past 100 years, the government of Turkey has continually refused to acknowledge their part in the ethnic cleansing of the Armenian people, “she said. Until the Armenian genocide that happened 100 years ago on her ethnic group is recognized by the government of Turkey, Kazarian promised to return to the State House every year to keep the issue alive.

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin says, “On this 100th anniversary, it is more important than ever to remember the horror and tragedy that the Armenian people went through, and it is long overdue that as a nation, we recognize the Armenian Genocide. Hopefully, through recognition, vigilance and education, this type of history will cease to repeat itself.”

“From my first days as a legislator to today as Attorney General, I have always advocated for recognition of the Armenian Genocide, and more recently filed an amicus brief in support of the Armenian fight to seek the return of stolen Armenian Genocide era assets through the United States Courts,” says Kilmartin.

“There are many parallels between the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust carried out by Adolf Hitler, which ultimately killed six million Jews,” says the Attorney General, stressing that the Armenian Genocide served as an example for Hitler, who used the lack of consequences for the perpetrators of the Genocide as encouragement for the Nazis in planning the Holocaust.

“When giving a speech to Nazi leaders one week before the invasion of Poland, which effectively began World War II, Hitler reportedly noted, ‘who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?,’ notes Kilmartin, saying that “some historians have even suggested that if more had been done to thwart the Ottomans’ massacre of Armenians, perhaps the Holocaust could have been prevented.”

Eradicating Religious and Cultural Bigotry

Marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps, Rep. Mia Ackerman (D-Dist. 45, Cumberland, Lincoln) submitted a resolution commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Ha’Shoah). The resolution was passed by the House of Representatives.

“The citizens of Rhode Island have a rich tradition of fighting those who would trample individual liberty and human dignity,” said Representative Ackerman. “We must never allow anyone to forget the time when a handful of evil people tried to turn the earth into a graveyard by systematically exterminating an entire race of people.”

The resolution, which was passed by both the House and Senate, also applauded the courageous efforts of those who took part in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, stating “the brave actions in April and May of 1943 stand as testimony to a rare and indomitable human spirit and extraordinary courage exhibited in the darkest hours of man’s inhumanity.”

According to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, by 2020 there will be only 67,000 Holocaust survivors left, 57 percent who will be at least 85 years old. How can the story of the horrific holocaust be told to the younger generation when the eye witnesses are dying off?

Andy Hollinger, Director of Communications for the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, makes an obvious comment. “No one who did not live through the Holocaust can experience its horrors, he says, noting that “Holocaust survivors are our best teachers.”

Today, about 80 Holocaust survivors are still telling their stories and working to educate new generations about this history at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

“When they are no longer here we will rely on the collections — artifacts, documents, photographs, films, and other materials to tell this story,” says Hollinger, noting that the Museum is “racing to collect the evidence of the Holocaust.”

“We’re working in 50 countries on six continents to ensure this proof [witness testimonies, artifacts, and documents] is secured, preserved and made available through exhibitions and, increasingly, digitally, adds Hollinger.

Marty Cooper, Community Relations Director, Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode, believes it is “vitally important that the next generations learn about the holocaust and other genocides and atrocities that have taken place and continue to take place.” He calls for genocide education to be mandatory and part of the middle and high school curriculum.

One of the great lessons we can learn from the Holocaust and Armenian genocide is that hatred cannot go unchallenged. It must be immediately confronted wherever it emerges, by governments, religious leaders, nonprofit and business organizations, more important by each and every one of us. We must avow that these horrendous atrocities will never happen again to future generations.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.