MONTCLAIR, NJ - Rep. Mikie Sherrill (NJ-11) called for an apology on Friday from Montclair leader James Harris following comments he made about Hasidic Jews during a local community forum on Monday.
According to the New Jersey Globe, Sherrill said, “It’s always awful to see division, racism, and anti-Semitism in this country, but especially heartbreaking when it is here at home.”
“James Harris’ comments were shocking not only because of the anti-Semitism that seems to be drawn from issues in no way related to the affordable housing problems in Montclair, but also because I would assume his work to stand up against racism would apply equally to all forms of hatred,” she added.
Sherrill said on Friday, “I have pledged to fight hatred anywhere and everywhere, but especially in Montclair where I’m raising my kids.”
“I think Mr. Harris needs to apologize for his hurtful words and I hope we use this as an opportunity for the community to come together in support of the values that Montclair is well known for: diversity, inclusion, and compassion,” Sherrill concluded.
The comments Sherrill is referring to occurred at a community forum hosted by Councilwoman Renee Baskerville on Monday. Baskerville stated that the purpose of the forum was to welcome the new decade with, “a more just, respectful, secure, sustainable, prosperous, peaceful environment: a place where everyone can become independent and be mutually dependent; a place where everyone can be at their best, on their own, and a vital part of the whole.”
Harris, who serves as the Chair of the Montclair NAACP Education Committee and the Chair of the New Jersey Association of Black Educators, was invited up to speak. After romanticizing his early years and reasons why he chose to move to Montclair in 1973, he then began to speak about other communities such as Lakewood and Jersey City.
Some cause for concern arose from audience members when Harris began making descriptions in his speech as he spoke of his visit to Jersey City, saying, "I’m seeing these folks with the long black suits, the curly locks.” Adding that he was told the men were, “trying to buy the properties of the people who live in the neighborhood.”
Harris said there was, “fear of being replaced by these strangers who really weren’t friendly." Then he asks, "How many people are familiar with the Hasidics? The Hasidics are generally not too interactive with anybody other than themselves."
He continued to describe his visit to Jersey City saying, "So some stress started to develop because people remembered Brooklyn and Lakewood. Are we going to be displaced by these people who are not all that friendly and the public schools in Jersey City have not done a good job in talking about what’s really going on in the community. So I was pleased last week, after the unfortunate murder, that the president of the NAACP, the secretary of the NAACP was with [Jersey City Mayor] Fulop, the attorney general and the governor in Jersey City saying we really have to get together and increase our relationships.”
“Now it just so happens, that section of Jersey City has murders every single week. I will guarantee that before Sunday there will be some shootings along Martin Luther King Boulevard,” Harris added.
“So, I'm like wait a minute. Is there a situation where some lives are more important than other lives? Because I didn’t see the governor or Fulop hanging up in there on a weekly basis when these other shootings went down, so I think we have to have an honest conversation. Not only are all lives important, but the response to murder has to be just as intense.”
Harris also made mention of bias crimes being on the rise in New Jersey and mentioned that people of various faiths and religious sects should intermingle more. Harris further spoke of an increase in Latinos in the Montclair community and the need for an increase in the hiring of Latino school staff.
"Then I found out that people are very quick to label anything as criminal of Israel or the Jewish as anti-Semitic," he added. "Excuse me, if facts are facts, it doesn't necessarily make it anti-Semitic." Asking the group to research what Semite means, during his nearly 20-minute speech. (Video of Harris' remarks can be seen here.)
Other speakers followed Harris, including NAACP President Al Pelham, who spoke on goals and achievements of his organization and Police Chief Todd Conforti, who spoke of recent acts of bias in the community.
Rabbi David Greenstein of Congregation Shomrei Emunah, who was not on the program, then raised his hand to speak and Baskerville invited him up to the podium. Standing beside him was Rabbi Marc Katz of Temple Ner Tamid. Greenstein stated that he was ashamed that there was an applause and that no one else denounced Harris' comments, except him.
“If anyone would take those words and take the word Hasidic out, and put in Blacks, this whole place would be in an uproar. This whole place would be disgusted, outrage, offended and there would probably be something going on in the schools. To generalize and to paint with that kind of broad brush, a situation that is so much more painful and complicated is a sin."
"And I’m going to say, Jews are not the problem. Hasidics are not the problem. They’re not your problem. They’re not the problem. There are many problems. There are bad people out there. They’re the problem. There are insensitive people. They are the problem. Crazy people are the problem.”
“To start making the discussion focus on Jews are buying or Hasidics are not very nice when they go and they talk to other people, is just plain sinful. And I really am ashamed that there was applause here and that there was not a single word to stand up except for me because after all, I’m a Jew, so I have to stand up and defend myself."
"We’re all supposed to be defending each other. Every single person here is an ally. Nobody showed up to this meeting against the agenda of this meeting. So why does the conversation have to be hijacked, into a way of talking that is superficial, that’s full of half-truths and complete lies and all of that kind of really unhelpful stuff,” he continued.
"...Anguish, fear, anger...we all have to monitor that. Let's recognize that calling groups of people with that type of superficial, stereotypical language is part of what has created the powerful injustice that everyone in this room knows so well. ...You shouldn't tolerate people with supposed credentials to tell us how to think...and helping us not think," Greenstein said to applause. (Video of Greenstein's remarks can be found here.)
Dr. Baskerville followed Greenstein’s remarks saying, “That is what we are here for tonight. We’re here so that we can have truthful conversations.”
“I’m here to moderate the discussion. I try very hard not to admonish someone for expressing their opinion, but that’s what we’re here for. So if you hear things, you have questions, put your hand up. If you find something offensive, put your hand up, come on over to the mic. If we don’t have these discussions and if we don’t come forward and say I’m offended, then maybe other people in the room won’t even understand that there’s been an offense. And I’m not going to try to pass judgment on what was meant by anybody’s comments, but that’s what we’re here for tonight."
According to Baskerville, there are plans to have follow-up community discussions to address the concerns and comments. Details are to be determined.