Over 160 state municipal leaders join fight against antisemitism at Lappin forum

“This is not just a Jewish problem,” Deborah Coltin said at the March 28 forum.

By Shelley A. Sackett

SALEM — The Lappin Foundation on March 28 sponsored “Two Steps Forward Against Antisemitism,” a virtual event aimed to educate Massachusetts city and town officials on two important steps they can take to help their communities stand up to and combat the growing threat of antisemitism. The event drew 168 municipal leaders representing more than 100 localities.

Deborah Coltin, Lappin Foundation executive director, explained the summit’s goal was to educate attendees about two tools available to fight antisemitism: adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s non-legally binding, working definition of antisemitism, and local enactment of a proclamation to annually commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27.

“This is not just a Jewish problem. Where there is antisemitism, there are also other kinds of hate,” Coltin said.

The IHRA, which has promoted Holocaust education, research, and remembrance since 1998, is the only intergovernmental organization mandated to focus solely on Holocaust-related issues. With strong evidence of a recent rise in antisemitism, its experts determined that in order to begin to address the problem, there must be clarity about what antisemitism is, according to its website, http://www.holocaust­remembrance.com.

The IHRA defines antisemitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

Over a dozen scenarios apply the definition in the contexts of criticism against Israel and contemporary examples in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and the religious sphere.

Robert Leikind, regional director of the American Jewish Committee of New England, stressed the importance of a common framework to help governmental officials and others understand what is meant by antisemitism. “In the absence of a clear understanding of the definition, you can’t create policies to deal with it,” he said. “You can’t fight what you don’t recognize.”

So far, 35 countries have endorsed the IHRA, including the United States. Twenty states and five governors have adopted its definitions of antisemitism, including Massachusetts, when Governor Charlie Baker signed a proclamation on Feb. 18.

Peabody Mayor Ted Betten­court, honorary chair at the Lappin event, announced that the Peabody City Council unanimously voted to adopt the IHRA’s antisemitism guidelines at its March 24 meeting, making Peabody one of the state’s first to do so (Newton, New Bedford and Lynn have already adopted the IHRA definition). Mayor Bettencout also issued a proclamation on Jan. 27 recognizing it as International Holocaust Remembrance Day and January as Holocaust Education Month.

The Peabody City Council is considering adding Holocaust education to its middle and high school curriculum, Bettencourt said.

Referencing the verbal attack on Chabad Rabbis Nechemia Schusterman and Sruli Baron on Lowell Street in 2019, Bettencourt stressed that acts of hate will not be tolerated in Peabody. “Love and acceptance can triumph over hatred, intolerance, and exclusion,” he declared.

Underscoring the importance of adopting the IHRA guidelines, Robert Trestan, Anti-Defamation League New England regional director, cited a recent poll that indicated almost all American Jews say antisemitism is a problem. Furthermore, 2021 FBI statistics indicate that 60 percent of all hate crimes are against Jews.

“This is not just anecdotal. The increase in violence and antisemitic incidents is real,” Trestan said.

Sharon was the first town to adopt the IHRA definition in March 2021. Sharon community activist Robert Soffer, who was instrumental in this process, emphasized that antisemitism is as grave a danger for non-Jews as for Jews. “It is the ‘canary in the coal mine’ and indicative of all forms of hate,” he said. “If the municipal managers attending this summit truly embrace this fact, then something very important will have been achieved.”

Rounding out the list of speakers were Josh Kraft, president of Kraft Philanthropies and the Foundation to Combat Anti-Semitism; Jody Kipnis, co-founder of Holocaust Legacy Foundation; Lucy New and Sofia Vatnik, cochairs of the Teen Antisemitism Task Force; and Dr. Hans Fisher, a frequent speaker and Holocaust survivor who was aboard the M.S. St. Louis in 1939. The ship carried more than 900 Jews who had fled Germany and hoped to reach Cuba and then migrate to the US, but passengers were not allowed to get off the ship in Havana, and then shut off from docking in Florida. The St. Louis was forced to return to Europe, where more than 250 of the Jewish passengers were killed by the Nazis.

“Antisemitism is alive and well in the US,” Dr. Fisher told the Journal after the summit. “Police protection, unfortunately, is often necessary right now, but strong school education programs can be very effective in ameliorating this scourge.”

In her remarks, Kipnis urged attendees to work to get their communities to adopt the IHRA definition and proclaim January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. “Ask yourselves two questions: What have I learned? And, how can I make a difference in community,” she said.

For more information about adopting the working definition of antisemitism as an educational tool to identify and combat hate, email Robert Leikind, Director of American Jewish Committee New England, at leikindr@ajc.org. For information about the process Sharon went through to adopt the definition, email Robert Soffer at sofferrobert@gmail.com.

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