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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“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.

On Taking a Stand Against Racism and Antisemitism

Published in Woonsocket Call on August 27, 2017

Morris Nathanson, an 89-year-old who served in the United States Navy in World War II, was outraged for President Trump’s failure to strongly speak out against the hateful philosophy of neo-Nazis, white nationalists, Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and militia groups exhibited at a violent protest that escalated out of control in the streets around the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Va.

Growing up Jewish, Nathanson is horrified about the growing racism and antisemitism so visibly flaunted at the Charlottesville rally and seen throughout nation. Before the Second World War, his parents had escaped the violent pogroms in Russia, ultimately settling in a three decker house with relatives in Pawtucket. Family members who remained in Europe were killed, victims of the Holocaust, he said.

“It’s is indefensible,” says Nathanson, an Eastside resident who in an internationally acclaimed artist and semi-retired restaurant designer, for Trump to not outright denounce the neo-Nazi groups. He warns, “We must recognize the growth of the neo-Nazi movement for what it is, a terrible disease that must be eliminated.”

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 for Nathanson and millions of Americans last weekend 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 to ostensibly support a protest against the removal of a statue of Civil War confederate General Robert E. Lee. But it was really an opportunity to display their strength.

Battle Lines Drawn

On the evening of Friday August 11 at 10:00 p.m., the torch bearing marchers, some wearing Nazi-style helmets, carrying clubs, sticks and round makeshift shields emblazoned with swastikas and other Fascist symbols, and others entered the one-block square in downtown Charlottesville, the site of the controversial monument, chanting “Jews will not replace us”, “Blood and Soil” (a Nazi rallying cry), “White Lives Matter,” along with homophobic, racists and misogynistic slurs. Heavily armed militia members, carrying semi-automatic weapons and dressed in camouflage military fatigues came to support and embolden their fellow extremist groups that identify as the “alt-right”.

At the site of the controversial monument in the City’s park and surrounding streets, throughout Friday evening and Saturday, August 12, members of alt-right groups opposed counter-protestors including Antifa, a far-left militant political movement that opposes fascist groups, members of Black Lives Matter, and church groups along with others who oppose racial bigotry and antisemitism. During the weekend rally, it was reported that 15 people were injured. On Saturday, James Alex Fields Jr., a 20- year-old, drove his gray Dodge Challenger into a group of counter-protesters, killing 32 year old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 other counter-protestors. Two Virginia State Police officers, monitoring the protests, died when their helicopter crashed.

Immediately following the rally on Saturday and the death of Heyer, Trump went to Twitter and posted an opened ended statement, calling the nation to “condemn all that hate stands for.” Following this tweet, on Sunday, August 13, he issued a statement at his golf club in Bedford New Jersey, stating, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.”

Trump Vacillates on Who’s to Blame

On Monday, August 14, intense political pressure would force Trump to make a statement at the White House to strongly condemn KKK and neo-Nazi groups after he blamed violence at the Charlottesville, Va., two days earlier in a tweet on “many sides”

By Tuesday August 15, Trump had backed off his public scolding of America’s hate groups At an impromptu press conference held at Trump Tower, he cast blame for Charlottesville’s violence equally on the “alt-right” and “alt-left” counter- protestors. “You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent,” Trump said, noting that “Nobody wants to say that, but l say it.”

“Not all of those people were neo-Nazis and white supremacists, believe me,” says the president, noting that some protestors wanted to stop the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue. Some were “nice people” he stated.

“So this week, it’s Robert E. Lee, I noticed that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after. You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?” said Trump.

Trump’s comments that not all rally marchers were neo-Nazis or white supremacists caused a political tsunami, with critics pointing out that these individuals marching with the neo-Nazis were not “nice people”. It was guilt by association.

The two former Bush Presidents joined world leaders, GOP and Democrat Senators, Governors, and rank-and-file Republicans, Democrats, and Fortune 500 Executives to chastise Trump for his failure to speak out against Nazi and white supremacist ideology and that his comments trivialized the antisemitism and racism of these extremist alt-right groups.

Even the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the senior uniformed military leaders in the United States Department of Defense who advise the President, posted tweets denouncing the alt-right extremists and blaming them for Saturday’s bloody violence in Charlottesville.

However, white supremacists took Trump’s Charlottesville statements as an endorsement to their legitimacy and acceptance to allow their members to become more visible in society. David Duke, a white nationalist and former Imperial Wizard of the KKK, tweeted, “Thank You Mr. President Tamp; God Bless You for setting the record straight for All Americans.” The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, quickly called Trump’s statements on blaming both sides a sign that he implicitly supported their goals and objectives.

The Increasing Visibility of Racism and Antisemitism

Ray Rickman, 65, Executive Director of the nonprofit Stages of Freedom, says, “I am deeply worried about the piercing images of men marching with Nazi torch lights on the University of Virginia campus. These men were screaming “Jews won’t replace us.” It was Nazi Germany all over again. The idea of seeing a Nazi flag, the most vicious symbol of antisemitism on American soil, is almost unbelievable to me. All of this is followed by the deeply divisive comments from Mr. Trump”, says the long-time Rhode Island activist.

“This man in the White House has shown total disrespect for the millions of American soldiers both living and dead who died to save the world from the Nazis,” adds Rickman, noting that “It’s the first time since Woodrow Wilson that a president has refused to condemn racism after such an act of violence.”

Rickman says that the neo-Nazi groups used the Charlottesville gathering as a public show of force and to promote hatred. “Maintaining the Robert E. Lee Monument was just an excuse to attack Jews and Blacks,” he says, noting that the three-day protest was planned as a “hateful rally by people who hate people of color and Jews. It is as simple as that.”

One of the most interesting aspects of beliefs held by General Lee was that he was not in favor of raising Confederate monuments, says Rickman, noting that in 1869 he wrote that it would be wiser “not to keep open the sores of war but to follow those nations who endeavored to obliterate the mark of civil strife.”

Combating Intolerance and Hatred

While both GOP and Democrat lawmakers lambasted Trump’s choice of words for laying the blame of violence at the Charlottesville rally on 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, if Trump fails to use his national bully pulpit, and the moral authority of the Office of the Presidency to steadfastly condemn hate groups, national and state elected officials and Americans of all walks of life must take on this responsibility.

In response to the violent weekend in Charlottesville, Va., the Illinois Senate adopted a resolution, sponsored by Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, urging law officials to recognize white nationalists and neo-Nazi groups as terrorist organizations.

Nathanson, who in 1965 marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama to fight racism, calls for organizing rallies at the state and national level to “reduce the damage of Trump’s comments.”

It would be 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.