Anti-Semitic comments by a Point Breeze activist group with a history of being offensive toward a local Jewish real estate developer, generated a firestorm of emotions.
There is nothing gentle in the Point Breeze air, as reaction to anti-Semitic comments by a local activist group with a history of being disruptive and offensive toward a local Jewish real estate developer continues to generate a firestorm of emotions.
While no one outside the offending group, known as the Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze, defended its actions or comments, opinion was divided as to responsibility for the incident. According to attendee Ori Feibush, a developer and owner of OCF Realty, which has a strong presence in the quickly gentrifying South Philadelphia neighborhood, the incident that caused the abrupt termination of a 90-minute meeting on Feb. 22 is nothing new. Feibush, who witnessed the vitriolic response — including shouts of “Go back to Israel!” — directed at a Jewish developer making a presentation, further placed blame on the meeting’s host organization, South Philadelphia H.O.M.E.S. Inc. (SPHINC), as well as City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, the man who defeated him in last year’s Democratic primary race for the 2nd District, for allowing the situation to fester so long.
“This is not an isolated incident,” said Feibush, who has frequently been at odds with CCPB over the years on proposed development projects. “There’s been a crescendo over the last several years. But this was incredibly antagonistic. No ambiguity: This was 100 percent anti-Semitism. An hour and a half of constant berating. This has been going on at their meetings without consequences for years.
“I hold somebody accountable when they stand by and do nothing,” he continued. “I have nothing personal against Mr. Johnson, but when you’re putting your head in the sand and pretending it’s not going on year after year, and when you run an organization that allows these type of comments to go unchecked, this is the result.”
Johnson was not in attendance at the meeting, but was informed immediately after the incident by the staffer who represented his office. The councilman pointed out that he can’t be held responsible for what takes place in a public forum like this. However, he’s making every effort to have the CCPB stripped of its certification by the City Planning Commission as a Registered Community Organization (RCO).
“In the past, there have been meetings where the topic of development in gentrified areas has become heated,” said Johnson, who said he had no quarrel with Feibush. Indeed, Feibush congratulated him following last year’s election and later in the year attended the funeral of Johnson’s mother. “But it never rose to this level of disrespect. I haven’t heard any complaints before regarding someone making a racial slur at a meeting. Yes, there have been meetings where it’s been heated, but never to that point. For the record, those comments — whether anti-Semitic or racial — are totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Their comments do not reflect the residents of the Point Breeze community. I don’t want the whole community to be painted with a broad stick. They’re the comments of one individual group.”
On Feb. 25, Johnson expressed his concern directly to City Council. “Many of you may have read about a contentious community meeting in the Point Breeze section of the 2nd Council District early this week,” he said. “On Monday night, at a community zoning meeting, a member of a Registered Community Organization in attendance made an anti-Semitic remark. This language was totally inappropriate and will not be tolerated. Gentrification is a controversial issue about which people often disagree, and meetings in gentrifying neighborhoods can get contentious and emotionally charged. I understand that, but I would like to state clearly, for the record, that hateful comments about one’s race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity or sexual orientation will not be tolerated. I have reached out to the Human Relations Commission, which is connecting with the Anti-Defamation League, and the City Planning Commission to begin addressing this issue immediately. I will work with the Planning Commission to ensure that no community organization associated with the City of Philadelphia is allowed to spout hatred. If the provisions of the code need to be changed to do so, I will work to amend the law. This must be addressed now. I am also planning a community outreach effort with the Human Relations Commission so that we can establish clear boundaries at community meetings as well as build bridges of communication within our neighborhoods.”
Claudia S. Sherrod, CEO and director of SPHINC, which hosted the meeting, concurs with Johnson’s assessment. According to Sherrod, SPHINC has had several encounters with CCPB over the years, and at one point had to have police bar CCPB from one of their meetings.
She hopes this incident will put an end to their tactics and was delighted to hear Johnson will attempt to have their RCO status removed. “We’ve put them out many times before and have been trying to resolve this the last four to five years,” said Sherrod, SPHINC director since 1992, who says she’s been working “for” the community rather than “against them” over a 40-year span. “I think the councilman and Planning Commission have to figure out what to do with people who cannot control themselves.
“We don’t tolerate nonsense like this,” she added. “I guess my skin is a little tough, but it hurts to go through this over and over again. It’s the young women who act so ridiculous, who do more harm for themselves than good. It’s painful to see grown women act like children.”
Sherrod was referring to CCPB president Tiffany Green and Green’s associate, Theresa McCormick, though Feibush indicated McCormick was not the instigator. “Tiffany was certainly the loudest, but not the only one,” said Feibush, who estimated two-thirds of the 30 people attending the meeting were African-American, with a good 15 or so of that group participating in the disruption. “Most frustrating to me: They actually believe it’s OK to say that. Social media has made it acceptable to make the comments they did. Candidly, if I ever made those kind of comments, I’d be chased out of the city — and rightfully so.
“I was not presenting, but I will not stand by when somebody is disparaged like that,” he added. “Hopefully, this calls attention to something that has been ongoing for years. I’m afraid the only reason you’re seeing a public response is because the ADL” — the Anti-Defamation League — “responded to it, and they were seeing bad PR.”
Councilman Johnson’s office disputes that contention, saying it’s been trying to deal with the CCPB for quite a while but has been unsuccessful to this point due to the CCPB’s status as an RCO.
Attempts by the Jewish Exponent to reach the CCPB for comment were unsuccessful. The CCPB did issue a strongly worded email disputing allegations the comments were anti-Semitic. They also accused Feibush and Johnson’s representative in attendance, Steve Cobb, of lying, saying Feibush has a personal vendetta against CCPB members, while warning Cobb not to pursue the matter with the Planning Commission.
Feibush insists they’re totally off-base, while Johnson says ground rules need to be established so such incidents won’t happen again. “When these types of meetings take place, we need to establish ground rules of respect,” said Johnson, who visited Israel two years ago with a delegation from the American Jewish Committee in an attempt to strengthen relations between the African-American and Jewish communities. “People can agree to disagree and not throw racial slurs in the midst of what’s supposed to be a civil conversation about development. I’ll be reaching out to the host organization. They have to do a better job monitoring it.”
Feibush, meanwhile, hopes the incident leads to change. “It’s discouraging and disheartening,” said Feibush, who was raised in Upper Dublin, though he also holds dual Israeli citizenship through his parents. “This was a mob mentality. But let’s not pretend this all happened this week. This has been going on forever.”
In the week since the incident occurred, the ADL has sent letters out to SPHINC and the CCPB expressing its concern, but has yet to hear back. They also contacted Johnson’s office and discussed the possibility of a joint effort to educate individuals leading these meetings on awareness of stereotypes and other biases to prevent them from becoming an issue.
The City Planning Commission, meanwhile, has yet to take any measures regarding Johnson’s allegations. According to a commission representative, stripping an organization of its RCO status is unprecedented. However, such groups must renew their license every two years.