Following a local rise in bias incidents and uproar from some members of the Jewish community over an upcoming appearance at the library of an author who supports the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS), a resolution condemning anti-Semitism is expected to be on the Highland Park borough council’s Sept. 3 agenda, according to Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler.
Mittler said she’s “very concerned about the kind of things I’m hearing about and the kind of things directed at the Jewish community.” The resolution also includes a provision condemning BDS, according to Brill Mittler.
Council member Mathew Hale is author of the resolution. “I believe in our community it is in our interest to stand up and take a strong stand against anti-Semitism,” he said. Hale is the council’s liaison to the borough Human Relations Committee (HRC). HRC and the borough attorney need to approve the resolution before it can be heard on Sept. 3, according to Brill Mittler. It would then be up for final adoption Sept. 24.
Mittler told NJJN the resolution was triggered by reaction to the library’s invitation to Dr. Golbarg Bashi to read her children’s book, “P is for Palestine,” and an uptick in local anti-Semitic incidents, such as a Jewish man walking to synagogue on Passover who was followed by a man yelling anti-Semitic slurs, and a group of middle school students who designed a hate-filled website posted in early spring on reddit.com targeting Jews, African-Americans, Muslims, and the LGBTQ community.
Members of HRC received copies of the proposed resolution at a July 31 meeting, but the text was not released to NJJN as the committee said it did not have time to review or revise it.
The resolution was also discussed among borough council members at a public session following the Aug. 6 council meeting, according to residents in attendance.
“Here in Highland Park we pride ourselves on our civility and multiculturism,” schools superintendent Dr. Scott Taylor told NJJN. “It was really disappointing to me and really struck me that as diverse as we are that we are still dealing with these types of issues.” He added that while the district has not noticed a recent uptick in bias incidents, the ones that happen are now “more exaggerated, hurtful, and aggressive.”
The website, launched by an all-male group of middle school students at Highland Park Junior/Senior High School, was quickly taken down after it was discovered by a teacher who overheard two of the creators discussing it. The district declined to provide a screen shot of the offensive material to NJJN. Taylor said the website creators included “a ringleader” and other sixth-eighth graders between the ages of 12-14 with various levels of involvement. The site was shared among a small group and Taylor said most students at the 350-student school weren’t aware of its existence.
NJJN was told by an informed source who asked to remain anonymous that the involved students also received suspensions, though Taylor declined to confirm that information.
Taylor said even before discovery of the website, two years earlier the school district was one of the first in the state to implement “restorative practices,” that “restore a sense of community.” For example, the school holds regular “circle talks” with students who have harmed the community through fighting or other actions during which the aggrieved parties — which could include parents, teachers, and other students — are voluntarily invited to attend. A staff clinical psychologist also works with the offenders.
The circle, overseen by district dean of restorative practices Julianna Lukash, is used in conjunction with other disciplinary tools included in the district’s code of conduct. Taylor said evidence has shown these practices help prevent behavioral recurrence.
To combat bias, the middle school hosts Grade Eight Against Hate and diversity day workshops. In addition to these programs, Taylor said the district has an application into the Anti-Defamation League to bring in its “No Place for Hate” program to combat bullying, bias, and hate, and is partnering in programming with the Building Bridges program of the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights & Genocide Education (Chhange) at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft and Garden State Equality.
At the July 31 HRC meeting, Rabbi Esther Reed, senior associate director of Rutgers Hillel and a Highland Park resident, gave a presentation on the history of anti-Semitism in the United States, noting that in 2017 more than 58 percent of all bias incidents involved Jews, according to the FBI statistics, and that the delegitimization of Israel is often “masking anti-Semitism.”
HRC chair Ashton Burrell said as an African American he was struck by “how much our struggles are the same,” and voiced strong support for standing up for the Jewish community.