While speaking to an audience of approximately 350 people at Reform Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield on Sept. 9, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy acknowledged the obvious:
“Yes, we had a huge increase in anti-Semitic activities” in New Jersey, he said. “The numbers are alarming.”
Indeed. There were a total of 569 reported bias incidents in New Jersey in 2018, the highest number since 2011, according to the 2017-2018 Bias Incident Report issued by the N.J. Attorney General and the N.J. State Police. Of those, 172 were anti-Jewish incidents, accounting for 30.2 percent of bias incidents statewide.
The Democratic governor said he takes the rise in anti-Semitism personally.
“I’m a former ambassador to Germany [from 2009-13], and I just came back from my seventh trip to Israel in the last five years,” he said. “My father-in-law’s ancestors were driven out of Europe in the 19th century, long before the 20th century. For me this is not abstract, but quite personal.” Murphy’s father-in-law, Edward — he passed away last year at 90 — was Jewish.
During his visit to Ner Tamid in a discussion led by CBS national correspondent and reporter Jim Axelrod as part of its TNT Tzedek Leadership Series, Murphy touched on several issues of significance to Jews in the Garden State — the conversation having been steered by Axelrod — including anti-Semitism; the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement; and immigration.
“I welcome our governor and appreciate his ‘mitzvah’ of joining us in our synagogue,” said Ner Tamid Rabbi Marc Katz before turning the program over to Axelrod, a Montclair resident and 20-year synagogue member, and Murphy.
“I’m thrilled to be here,” Murphy said in his opening statement. “We campaigned for a stronger and fairer New Jersey and we stuck to our guns.”
Regarding the source of the increased anti-Semitism in New Jersey and across the United States, the governor expressed an interest in explaining it “without getting too partisan.” He disregarded said intent immediately.
“You’ve got right now, a leader on Washington who is not using, in my humble opinion, the bully pulpit effectively,” he said, an obvious reference to President Donald Trump’s oft-divisive rhetoric. “And, in fact, he is going out of his way to divide us vs. them. You can measure that in many ways.”
Axelrod asked the obvious follow up:
“What do we do about it?”
“First of all, we use the bully pulpit, and we speak out as strongly and loudly as we can,” Murphy responded. “We use all the tools of law enforcement to the fullest extent of what we can do. We put an enormous amount into education. The strength of a pluralistic, diverse state like ours is something we [prioritize] morning, noon, and night.”
He added, “If you’re blessed with the most diverse state in the nation, you wear that as a badge of honor, you stand up proudly with your chest out, and defend it with great vigilance.”
Murphy considers himself a major supporter of Israel.
“When my wife [Tammy] and I were in Berlin, our best friends became the Israeli ambassador and his wife, and they were begging us to go to Israel,” he said. “Our first trip was in August 2014. I actually went during the height of the Hamas war, inspired by [former New York City Mayor] Michael Bloomberg, who, I think, took a commercial flight for the only time in his life. I said, ‘If Mike Bloomberg can do that, I can.’ I just fell in love with the place and went four times with Tammy.”
He’s also looking for opportunities for New Jersey to do business with the Jewish state.
“We have a huge amount in common and a huge amount of opportunities in the business and higher education sectors. We’ve been trying to create some initiatives matching Israeli businesses with businesses in New Jersey. There is an enormous amount we can do.”
The governor does not support BDS, though he admitted he understands some of the frustrations of the Muslim community.
“New Jersey has both, per capita, the second-largest Jewish population after Florida and second-largest overall Muslim population after Michigan, and largest Palestinian population of any American state,” he said. “I was at a mosque in Passaic County six months ago and I was asked about the BDS. I was very critical of the BDS movement, and I don’t think it will be effective. It’s a blunt instrument that I don’t think gets the job done.”
He still hopes for a two-state solution.
“Even if it’s a faint hope with a compromise adhering to all the land swaps and adjustments since the Johnson administration,” he said. “Israel is the size of New Jersey, almost to the square mile, and in the neighborhood it finds itself, if anyone doubts the security challenges they haven’t been to Israel.”
Lastly on Israel, Murphy recognized Andrew H. Gross, executive director of the New Jersey-Israel Commission, telling the crowd, “he’s your friend.”
Turning to the United States’ immigration crisis, the governor believes only a new presidential administration will alleviate the situation.
“It’s completely deplorable, not acceptable right now,” he said. “I officiated at a wedding a few weeks ago. I was told I could say what I wanted. I read the poem of Emma Lazarus at the base of the Statue of Liberty,” referring to “The New Colossus,” which includes the famous stanza, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses …”
“Elections have consequences,” Murphy said. “We need a new national government that will take a different view on immigration.”
The TNT Tzedek Leadership Series at the Essex County synagogue is free and open to the community. The discussion with Murphy was sponsored, in part, by Shirley Cobert in memory of her husband, Mac; the Reform Jewish Voice of New Jersey; and the Community Relations Committee of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.