State Rep. Kevin Boyle (D-District 172) hosted a House Democratic Policy Committee public hearing Nov. 28 to discuss how to combat the rise in anti-Semitic events in the Philadelphia area as well as raise awareness for other legislators.
Boyle planned the hearing in response to three high-profile acts of apparent anti-Semitism within the Greater Philadelphia area: desecrated tombstones at Mount Carmel Cemetery, rocks thrown through windows and other vandalism at Temple Menorah Keneseth Chai and an assailant who urinated on Congregation Beth Solomon.
Seventeen members of the state House Democratic Caucus attended the event from across Pennsylvania, joined by Policy Committee Chairman Mike Sturla (D-District 96) of Lancaster County.
“We had a real cross-section of the Democratic representatives in the state House in attendance, and it speaks to the focus and the concern of so many people, particularly elected representatives as it pertains to the national climate when it comes to discrimination and hatred,” Boyle said.
The panel discussion, which took place at Congregations of Shaare Shamayim with about 40 people in attendance, included Jeremy Bannett, associate regional director of the Anti-Defamation League; Naomi Adler, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia; Michele Foster, president-elect of Hadassah Greater Philadelphia; and Chuck Feldman, president of the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center.
Panelists spoke about the increase of anti-Semitic attacks throughout the commonwealth, with testimonies from their respective local Jewish organizations.
“There’s been a lot of discussion nationally about hatred and an increase in discriminatory attacks, and there has not enough focus specifically on anti-Semitism,” Boyle noted. “We need to focus on rectifying and preventing future attacks.”
Bannett explained to the legislators a broad perspective of anti-Semitism in Pennsylvania, noting specific incidents to give a face to the statistics.
“We offered policy recommendations to encourage Pennsylvania lawmakers to create a comprehensive response to anti-Semitism in all forms of bigotry,” Bannett added, because when it comes to bigotry across the country, anti-Semitism is “often the canary in the coal mine.”
“It’s an indicator of the health of society as a whole, so everybody should be concerned about rising anti-Semitism.”
Some of the ADL’s policy recommendations include creating legislation modeled off of Act 70, which encourages anti-bias education in schools across the state; starting a Hate Crimes Prevention Task Force, made up of elected officials, law enforcement, advocates and other stakeholders to research hate crimes in Pennsylvania and more effectively investigate and respond to anti-Semitic and biased crime; encouraging mayors to sign on to the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Compact to Combat Hate, an initiative to fight extremism and denounce all forms of hate; and modernizing harassment laws to include cyber harassment.
Bannett said the increase in anti-Semitic events stems from the emboldened words anti-Semites and white supremacists are spewing — citing the election and presidency of Donald Trump as an empowering moment for them.
“You can see the direct result of this on the ground,” he said. When Trump deemed blame on “both sides” after Charlottesville, the ADL reported the largest spike of anti-Semitic incidents — 221 of the 306 nationwide incidents during the third quarter occured after Charlottesville.
Feldman noted to the legislators, who came from as far as Erie and Scranton, that the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center provides Skype-in programs with Holocaust survivors for schools to share Holocaust education in their districts.
“We need to let young people know, especially, about the history of what hatred and intolerance and bigotry can create,” he said, “and to encourage the students not only to gain the knowledge but to share the knowledge with their friends and family — to be upstanders, not bystanders.”
Feldman applauded Boyle and his brother, U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-District 13), who often support issues affecting the Jewish community, like sponsoring Holocaust and genocide education across the state.
Even while explaining what HAMEC does and sharing short video testimonials from survivors, Feldman noticed a parallel between the legislators and young students.
“Their response was to watch it silently transfixed,” he said. “They gave the same response that the thousands of students give when they’re sitting in classrooms and auditoriums.”
More often than not, students bombard the survivors after their talks with admiration and hugs as if they’re rock stars, Feldman said, but teachers have emphasized to him how it has continued to impact their lives year after year.
He hopes the legislators walked away with the same feeling.
“This is a vitally important issue, and they should do whatever they can do to legislate against hate crimes,” he said. “The fact that people came from all over the state to participate in this panel and to hear from organizations that are very active in the Jewish community is a very positive sign.”
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