Monday, February 1, 2010

Monday Afternoon in Park Slope: Brooklyn Officials & Religious Leaders Respond to "Kill Jews" Flyers in Press Conference at Congregation Beth Elohim

We were in Park Slope this afternoon at Congregation Beth Elohim on Garfield Place and Eighth Avenue for a press conference called by Councilmember Brad Lander to respond to the "Kill Jews" flyers (really strips of paper) found scattered across nearby Sixth Avenue last week.

Thanks to Louise Crawford, who posted the announcement of the press conference on Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Paper's Stephen Brown (who also took the photos below) gave us the facts in his story:

In a stunning display of intolerance, Sixth Avenue in Park Slope was littered with strips of papers reading “KILL JEWS” in capital letters from Fourth to Ninth streets on Wednesday.

Nearly two dozen of the strips were picked up by Karen Guilbert, who had just finished walking her daughter to school...

Before she turned the slips over to the police, Guilbert played amateur detective by turning the strips over and piecing them together. All that emerged was that the slips had been cut from a document from a taxi driving school. Yet there were no addresses or phone numbers on the strips that offered any further clues...

An officer from the 78th Precinct turned the notes over to the NYPD’s Hate Crimes Unit...[In addition,] last September, the same notes turned up in Bay Ridge, Boerum Hill and Clinton Hill

[and] vandals struck two synagogues in Brooklyn Heights in 2007 and left the same message on car windshields.

We were one of the first people at the Temple House of the Reform synagogue and were greeted outside by Rachel Goodman of Councilmember Brad Lander's office, which organized today's press conference responding to the incidents.

Like Rabbi Andy Bachman and a couple of others, Rachel asked us, "Who are you with?" and too embarrassed to say, "Dumbo Books," we just said we were some schlemiel alerted by the post on OTBKB. News12 Brooklyn cameras were there, and maybe other channels, along with real print reporters and probably more articulate bloggers.

Detective Adam Barish (in the camel overcoat) was there to represent the NYPD.

Both Councilmember Lander and Rabbi Bachman, good guys from way back, came over to say hi as we tried to make ourselves unobtrusive in a middle row, sitting there as the various speakers and others came in, although there weren't many regular people in the audience. The big machers were waiting for Marty Markowitz, and just when Brad Lander said, "We'll give Marty another minute," the borough president entered the sanctuary.

Brad Lander spoke first and then introduced the other speakers. Lander said that all the elected officials and their representatives and religious leaders were there to stand up united against hatred, not only in this instance directed toward Jews: "There is no room for hate speech and intimidation against any group in our show our united front against those who would try to divide us."

Rabbi Andy Bachman welcomed everyone to Beth Elohim and spoke out against anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and homophobia. He noted that the congregation was founded in 1861 during a war fought to end slavery of one oppressed group, and said the inscription over the entrance to the synagogue's main sanctuary, built in 1909, said, "Mine house shall be a house of prayer for all people" (Isaiah 56:7).

As he did last fall when confronting the hate-filled demonstrators from the cult of Westboro Baptist Church, Rabbi Bachman said that the Brooklyn community will stand united: "Hatred of this kind, against anyone, anywhere has no place in our neighborhood, our city, or our country. It only strengthens our resolve to build a tolerant and peaceful world."

(An aside: we first came across the Topeka-based Westboro family cult in 1994 in Gainesville, when we saw them with their "God Hates Fags" and other signs standing on the corner of 34th Street and Second Avenue as we were walking home from class at the University of Florida College of Law. All kinds of passing drivers - including some members of the Gators basketball team - were cursing the pickets, which included several of Rev. Fred Phelps' grandchildren, kids younger than 12 or 13. Watching them from the window of our apartment, we called the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services [now Department of Children and Families] to report child abuse.)

It was exciting to see that Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, whom Brad Lander noted has taken a leadership role in responding to the Haiti earthquake calamity, took time out to come today and express her deep concern about the anti-Semitic literature, calling the "hateful messages" totally unacceptable: "I stand firm with the 11th Congressional District in decrying this heinous act of prejudice and bigotry."

Rep. Clarke concluded by saying that she'd continue to use her seat on the House Homeland Security Committee to fight for more funding for the Urban Areas Security Initiative grant program, and other initiatives that allow the Jewish community fight against local threats in security."

The next speaker, Marty Markowitz, began by regretting the unpleasant reason for getting together with everyone and recalled last September's demonstration at the shul by "hate-spewing" Westboro cult and Rabbi Bachman's inspirational response, blowing the shofar "in the name of the God of love." (We were even more inspired when he added, "And in the name of the God of Groucho Marx, we put our thumb on our nose.")

We loved the borough president's characterization of "the nuts" responsible for the flyers, saying it was probably the work of "a sick person consumed by self-hate" who directed it outward toward Jews. He assured the crowd, "This mutant will be eventually apprehended." (For a moment we thought we were watching the filming of X-Men 4.) Marty ended by discussing Brooklyn's diversity as its greatest strength and reminding people to "remain vigilant in condemning hatred and discrimination against anyone."

Park Slope's other representative on the City Council, Stephen Levin, came to the podium, said he was not happy to be present under the circumstances but "proud to stand here" alongside what former Mayor Dinkins called the city's "gorgeous mosaic" as a reminder that we "must operate in confluence." Because "hatred is just around the corner," even in Brooklyn, Levin said, "we have to keep our eyes out" for hatred and make sure it's "confronted, challenged and debunked."

The next speakers, Fred (we didn't catch his last name) from Mayor Bloomberg's office, and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York's Rabbi Bob Kaplan (photo above), followed in the same vein, although Fred pointed out Det. Barish and noted that it was important that people report hate crimes or hate literature to the police, and Rabbi Kaplan warned that we've recently seen too many "sick minds capturing the imagination of others" and stressed that parents must talk about tolerance to their kids when they hear of incidents like this or those against any group.

Next up was another local clergyman we admire a lot, the Rev. Daniel Meeter from Old First Reformed Church on Carroll Street and Seventh Avenue, which provided support to Congregation Beth Elohim during the Westboro demonstrations and a venue for Yom Kippur services when the synagogue's sanctuary ceiling collapsed. Rev. Meeter said that hatred against one group is hatred against everyone, that the "two simple words" on the hate literature were causing doubt, fear and violence. He called on everyone to "do the right thing" and speak out.

We've met Mohammad (Moe) Razvi, the Executive Director of the Council of Peoples Organization (COPO), before, and he's always impressive. (Other members of the Muslim community present for the press conference included Debbie Almontaser, sitting across from us.) He said we're not born with prejudice, that it's picked up at family dinners and remarks in the home while we're watching the news or sports. "Let your children know," Mr. Razvi said, that we will not stand for any of our friends being targeted - as he himself has been - and speak frankly about hatred to those who say anything against a particular segment of the community: "A crime against one is a crime against all."

Rabbi Ellen Lippman from Kolot Chayeinu Temple, spoke eloquently, recalling Hillel's
‘if I am not for myself, who will be for me?’ Therefore I stand with my colleague rabbis and other concerned Jews to make this anti-Semitic hatred public and to strongly condemn it. Hillel also taught, ‘If I am for myself alone, who am I?’ We call on all who condemn such hatred in our neighborhood to stand with us in determined opposition. And Hillel asked, ‘If not now, when?’ The time is now, without delay, to make public this outrageous display of cowardice and hatred, and to call for immediate investigation into its origins and perpetrators.

We were impressed on our way out by listening to a Detective Adam Barish of the NYPD discussing the case with a police officer. They really seem to be trying to find out who did this. One of the things that came out of this press conference, in addition to the denunciation of the hate, was a plea during the final question-and-answer period, from Brad Lander and others, to anyone who knows anything about these anti-Semitic flyers or the similar ones found in Bay Ridge and elsewhere - or indeed, other incendiary threats against any group: call the police Hate Crimes Unit with any evidnce about the matter.

We're grateful to everyone who took the trouble to come out and speak out today.

No comments: