Watching the historic inauguration last week of Josh Shapiro and Austin Davis immediately evoked images from civil rights demonstrations of six decades ago.
Every year as the nation marks the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Jewish community reflects on its integral role in the civil rights movement. In particular, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was a close friend of King and was often seen in those iconic images by his side.
While both men of faith, the two ostensibly had little in common. Heschel was born in Warsaw, Poland, more than two decades before King’s birth in Atlanta.
Their legacy is one of not just working to uplift their communities but partnering to strengthen the whole of American society. While private citizens, they recognized the constructive role elected policymakers can have.
Similarly, Shapiro and Davis are not only from different faiths but significantly different parts of the commonwealth and different generations. Each has a track record of “thinking outside the box” that will be most beneficial at this juncture in American history.
During the first term of the Shapiro-Davis administration, the United States will celebrate its 250th birthday. The unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness envisioned in the Declaration of Independence are being tested. In recent years, there has been a meteoric rise in antisemitic and racially motivated hate crimes.
As Shapiro would often make clear on the campaign trail, “It is not up to us to finish the work, but we are not free to avoid it.”
The state that gave birth to our nation is also home to the most violent antisemitic attack in our nation’s history. While no policymakers in Harrisburg can fully tackle this pandemic of hate, they should not shy away from proven strategies to attack it.
The Shapiro-Davis administration is uniquely positioned to mobilize local and state elected officials to work with everyday Pennsylvanians to combat racism and antisemitism.
In 2021, the Southern Poverty Law Center tracked 30 hate groups in Pennsylvania. These are in communities rural and urban.
That same year, the FBI reported hate crimes targeting Americans because of their race increased more than any other category. Between 2019 and 2020, there was a growth from 3,954 to 4,939 total incidents. In 2020, there were 2,755 attacks targeting Black Americans – the largest rise.
In 2019, the Anti-Defamation League, recorded more than 2,100 antisemitic acts in America of assault, vandalism and harassment. This was an increase of 12% over the previous year. That year, the world watched as brave police officers battled with violent antisemites who attacked and killed worshippers in Poway, California, shoppers in Jersey City, New Jersey, and partygoers in Monsey, New York.
In response to this rise in hate and to honor the legacy of King and Heschel, legislators in Michigan launched the bicameral Black and Jewish Unity Caucus in July 2020.
Since the launch, it has taken legislative action. Equally important, it has used the power to convene Jewish and Black everyday Michiganders for thought-provoking dialogue that has led to constructive citizen action.
Having both served in the state House and with a legislature more diverse than ever before in Pennsylvania history, the new governor and lieutenant governor would be wise to examine and prompt legislators to adopt the Michigan model.
In December, Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York launched a statewide Hate and Bias Prevention Unit. This is in response to both the devastating attack on Black shoppers in Buffalo and continuing antisemitic violence on the streets of Brooklyn.
The new unit will be responsible for spearheading public education and outreach efforts. It will serve as an early warning system and quickly mobilize when bias incidents occur. This innovative approach will include 10 regional councils comprised of diverse local leaders. Community members will be able to share concerns and work with the full weight of the governor’s office to organize educational programming and host hate crime prevention events.
The new administration should closely examine a similar model of regional councils. With his infectious energy and creative millennial mindset, Davis would be an ideal convener for regular regional events.
Fifty-five decades after King’s death, Black and Jewish Americans are facing a sharp rise in hatred and violence. King wrote that “we may have all come on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.”
These words most certainly ring true today. The Shapiro-Davis administration is uniquely positioned to help navigate this boat as they begin their term. They have demonstrated that what unites Pennsylvanians is stronger than what divides us.
Ari Mittleman is originally from Allentown. He is the author of ”Paths of the Righteous.”