In the week leading up to the first anniversary of last summer’s Unite the Right white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., the regional Anti-Defamation League office announced a new partnership that would probably make the torch-bearing marchers recoil in disgust.
In the Mayor’s Reception Room at City Hall on Aug. 9, Alan Gubernick, board chair of ADL Philadelphia, announced the creation of the Black-Jewish Alliance of the ADL, which brings together leaders from both communities to strengthen ties and rebuild the partnership that dates to the civil rights movement.
Charlottesville, Gubernick said, “delivered a wakeup call across the country.”
He pointed to the ADL’s mission since its creation in 1913 to “stop the defamation of the Jewish people, and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.”
“We must all recognize that we are living in a moment when those in our country, those who hate blacks, who hate Jews, who hate anyone different from them, feel emboldened,” he said. “They seek an America that is radically different from the one the ADL has been fighting for for so many years, and that is why our work is not yet done.”
Mayor Jim Kenney commended the ADL and reflected on growing up in South Philly with a significant Jewish community, meeting Holocaust survivors who lived nearby and hearing their stories.
His life was enriched as a result of knowing them and learning of their resilience, he said.
“I can’t imagine what a Holocaust survivor must’ve thought watching the tiki torches of Charlottesville and listening to what they were spouting,” he said, calling the rally a “despicable display of hatred and bigotry.”
Of Philadelphia, he said, “We have absolutely zero tolerance for all forms of hate and discrimination. When we see such acts, we must continue to speak out and condemn them.”
The alliance was born after Blane Stoddart, a local businessman who serves as co-chair of the alliance, attended his first ADL event a few years ago and had a conversation with ADL Regional Director Nancy Baron-Baer.
The alliance is a chance to stand together “against the twin evils of racism and anti-Semitism,” he said.
“We now live in a time when the forward progress we have made as a nation is now in jeopardy of being taken away by a stroke of a pen or with the appointment of one more justice of the Supreme Court,” he said. “The Black-Jewish Alliance is an attempt to continue to move our nation forward.”
He pointed to the innumerable incidents that have occurred since his first ADL encounter — including swastikas painted on public spaces and private homes, and reports of racist and anti-Semitic insults hurled at students, such as one report from Southern Lehigh High School of students calling black classmates “cotton pickers” and using “Heil Hitler” salutes.
Indeed, per a report, since the beginning of 2017, ADL’s Center for Extremism has tracked more than 900 white supremacist propaganda incidents. The 2017-18 school year saw a 77 percent increase of incidents on campus from the previous year.
“Nothing has changed. Racism is cyclical,” Stoddart said. “So we must be vigilant. We must work together to move the needle forward in real time so that we can progress as a country, and right now I feel that we are heading in the wrong direction. And the Black-Jewish Alliance stops the needle and helps us to move in the right direction.”
While the Philadelphia program is serving as the “guinea pig,” his goal is to have a Black-Jewish Alliance in every city where the ADL has an office.
“For this country to make progress on anti-Semitism and racism,” he said, “blacks and Jews must work together.”
During the announcement, Stoddart highlighted a key program of the alliance, “Sharing Stories; Sharing Ourselves,” created in partnership with houses of worship in which members of both communities come together in conversation.
The first program was held over the summer at Congregation Beth Or with Bethlehem Baptist Church.
“Having Beth Or hosting that event is a huge part of building community, building bridges between communities and making it a happier, safer place without hate in our world,” said Associate Rabbi Jason Bonder, who was at the event representing the synagogue.
Making the world a better place is engrained in Jewish values, he noted, and the storytelling sessions and the alliance partnership is one place to start.
“It was important to me to represent Congregation Beth Or and also the Jewish people to say we are very much against hate and very much toward wanting to make this — our community, our world — a better place,” he said. “Being here and saying that the Jewish people and the black community, we’re all here and here to stay and stand up tall in the face of hate is really important to me.”
The alliance committee is a purposefully small group of just about 18 or 20 leaders evenly representing both communities, said Robin Burstein, senior associate regional director.
While the leadership is small, they are hoping to make a big impact through programs across the entire community.
“We really want to promote understanding,” she said. “We want when there are incidents that happen for blacks and Jews to stand together against it.”
As the initial conversations about forming the alliance began before the events that transpired in Charlottesville, the rally was only a further impetus.
“We … knew because of those events that there are people out there who hate both Jewish people and black people, that we needed to stand strong and be allies together, that that image is powerful,” she said. “So when incidents happen, we will be able to stand up and say, ‘We won’t stand for this any longer.’”
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