Before Gurbir Grewal became New Jersey’s attorney general in January, he was the first Sikh American to serve as a county prosecutor. Tall and bearded, Grewal wears a turban in accordance with his religious beliefs. Although Sikhism has no connection to Islam, American Sikhs are sometimes incorrectly thought to be Muslim.
On one recent occasion, Grewal and his 8-year-old daughter were approached by a Caucasian mother and her young son in a Bergen County supermarket. When he locked eyes with the child, Grewal assumed it would go one of two ways:
“Either the kid was going to go the terrorist route, or he was going to ask me for three wishes,” he said. “He went the terrorist route, saying to his mother, ‘Look, Mom. Osama bin Laden.’ The mother laughed but said nothing to her child.”
Grewal related the story during his speech, “Pursuing Justice in an Age of Unique Challenges,” on April 26 at the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Metro Annual Meeting and Dinner at the Orange Lawn Tennis Club in South Orange.
Since the incident, he has replayed it in his head several times, wondering how he should have responded: He could have pointed out he was a Sikh, not a Muslim. Or that he was the chief prosecutor of Bergen County. Or that bin Laden was in no way representative of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. Instead, he used it as a teaching moment for his daughter.
“I told her she needs to be accepting of others who may be different from her in any way, and that she needs to be proud of cultural differences and accepting of different religions.” The AJC audience members were well aware, he said, that “sadly, the Jewish community has already had too many similar conversations with your own children.”
But despite the mantra of “Never Again” as it pertains to the Holocaust, he lamented that according to a recent study by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, two-thirds of millennials do not know what Auschwitz is, and 22 percent don’t even know what the Holocaust was. He said that violence and hate directed toward Jews are not limited to faraway cities, noting the rise in such bias incidents in New Jersey and across the country.
“And who can forget the march in Charlottesville last summer, where marchers chanted ‘Jews will not replace us’?” he asked. White supremacy “is perhaps the most horrible reminder that we are all in this together whether we are Jews or Muslims or Sikhs or African Americans or Hispanic Americans.”
He quoted the well-known biblical phrase, “Tzedek tzedek tirdof,” or “You shall surely pursue justice,” saying that he is fortunate to be in a position that allows him to fight racism, anti-Semitism, and “senseless acts of hate.”
He added, without mentioning names, that “a lot of these challenges are coming from Washington, D.C.” with “too many attacks on our immigrant brothers and sisters.”
“Unprecedented steps coming out of Washington,” he said, are “requiring us to take unprecedented steps fighting for justice in our courts.”
In introducing Grewal, AJC board member Philip Sellinger said, “Historically, New Jersey very much played an undersized role in terms of challenging the federal role in both Republican and Democratic administrations. Under this attorney general and [Gov. Phil Murphy], this administration has joined a coalition in almost 40 different actions against the [Trump] administration.”
Before being nominated Bergen County prosecutor by former Gov. Chris Christie, Grewal served at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey under one of Christie’s successors, Paul Fishman, a Democrat.
Grewal is a graduate of Georgetown University and law school at College of William and Mary. He is the son of Indian immigrants to the United States. He grew up in Fairfield and now resides in Glen Rock with his wife, Amrit, and their three children.
Grewal said “the pendulum of justice, or civility, has swung back in the wrong direction. We are seeing people openly questioning the loyalty of their fellow Americans for no other reason than what they believe, where they come from, or how they look. Sadly, those messengers of hate are no longer confined to those dark recesses of the internet where they used to hide.”
He said they have “been emboldened to come out of the shadows” because some of our elected leaders have invited them, and “maybe they are also emboldened because all of us haven’t done enough to call out their behavior.”