TOMS RIVER – The Township Council passed a resolution “condemning all forms of expression that promote hatred, bigotry, and prejudice,” which led to a discussion on how language can either hurt or heal.
A group of activists have visited meetings in Lakewood, Jackson and the Ocean County Freeholders urging those governing bodies to specifically condemn a Facebook page called Rise Up Ocean County as anti-Semitic. After the Freeholders condemned the page, Rise Up said that there is “no anti-Semitism, no hate” on their site. It also accused the Freeholders of selling out “for a few sheqels and a Lakewood Vaad endorsement.”
Jackson did not condemn it specifically, but several members of the governing body spoke out against hate speech. There was a similar situation in Toms River, as the council spoke out against hate but did not mention the site by name.
Most of the activists commended the governing body for that resolution. A few, like Michael Cohen of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, wanted it to specifically mention Rise Up.
Township attorney Anthony Merlino said that the resolution did not name any particular website because otherwise it would put the council in the position of condemning every group or website that offended a resident.
Some appreciated the broad language of the resolution. Philip Brilliant, president of Congregation B’Nai Israel in Toms River, invoked the song “Imagine,” where John Lennon asks listeners to imagine a world without divisions. He said that Lennon chose softer music to express his sentiment to the largest audience, and compared that to the statement made by the Township Council.
Several Orthodox Jews explained what they’ve been living with, to put the website into perspective.
Resident Scott Gartner said he’s had family killed in the Holocaust. That type of hate didn’t stop over there. Locally, he was walking home with his family one day and a man in a pick-up truck threw an iced coffee at his wife, cursing at them.
People have to speak out against hate, he said. Neutrality only helps the oppressor.
Further, people have to speak to each other, he said. He encouraged people to get to know others who seem different to learn how alike they are.
Tova Herskovitz, a township resident, said there is a feeling of fear among her fellow members of the Orthodox community. There’s a tendency to overlook anti-Semitism, she said. She, too, offered a chance to open a dialogue to dispel some rumors about her faith.
Rina Yakubovsky grew up in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Her family moved here to get away from anti-Semitism.
“It is a very good website…for 1980s Russia,” she joked, comparing some of the comments on the site to things she’s heard in that country. Moving to Jackson, she was mostly protected from that until recently. “Things were going pretty great for 30 years, then it was like déjà vu but not the good kind.”
A Brick resident, Melinda Murray Moich, asked the council if they had visited the web page and what they found offensive. The attorney told the council not to answer.
Moich said that she visits the page to learn more about the environmental and traffic aspects development will cause. She acknowledged that some of the 7,000 followers are “idiots” but the goal of the site is not to be anti-Semitic.
“Thank you for condemning hate because we all do,” she told the council.
Like in other press events, people of all persuasions came out to support one another. Toms River resident Judy Fuentes told people “We need to rise up…in a positive way.” She urged people to spread love instead of hate.
“Is everything perfect in their community? No. Is everything perfect in ours? No,” she said.
Councilman Terrance Turnbach, an attorney, said that there are a lot of things that are legally permissible, such as certain speech, but it doesn’t make it right. “No one of any background should feel unwelcome.”
Councilwoman Laurie Huryk said that she was contacted by an anonymous representative of that Facebook page who asked if they had crossed the line.
“You should never go so close to the line that you have to ask to see if you crossed the line,” she said.
Councilman Maurice Hill quoted the 1st Amendment, and noted how the courts say that free expression is legal even if it’s hurtful. Burning a flag, for example, is a form of legal expression, but it’s something that he takes offense to as a veteran.
There’s a phrase in the military “Ready, Aim, Fire, not Fire, Ready, Aim.” This means you should always think about what you’re going to do before you do it, he said. And people should think about what they say before they post it online.
Councilman Brian Kubiel thanked the people who came out to speak, and also those like Gartner who educated him on some issues.
After the meeting, two strangers who disagreed on some of the issues, but agreed on others, decided to meet later and discuss it further.
The evening had begun with a press conference organized by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Among its speakers were Reisa Sweet from the Ocean County Human Rights Coalition and former Basking Ridge Mayor Ali Chaudry.
Rev. Shawn Hyland, Toms River, told a story about how his kids were on a school bus when the engine made an awful smell. One student said “Must be burning Jews.” He told other stories about seeing swastikas in parks and playgrounds.
“Toms River, we can do better,” he said.
While Cohen was speaking at the press conference, a woman shouted out, asking about Orthodox who discriminate against non-Orthodox. She was told there would be times to speak at the Council meeting later, but she did not.
A statement on Rise Up Ocean County said that its posts are a demand for accountability, despite what religion someone is.
“We admit that we do not always like what is written on that page. We do see comments by the vast audience that are sometimes unsettling in their rhetoric and the clear dislike if not hatred they impart. But we do not feel the page is anti-Semitic,” the statement read. “We do not view the page’s commentators/administrators as anti-Semites. Rather, we know the difficulty they face crawling woefully unbalanced on the fine line between scrutinizing and condemning, being critical and being angry or expressing resentment versus hatred.
“The anger sometimes expressed on that page is not, as we see it, anti-Semitism. It is also not unexpected. One can be angry at members of a group that parades its religion like a badge of honor using it to extol virtue and excuse all manner of behavior, without being anti-Semitic. That was not an anti-Semitic trope,” it said.
Another recent post asked readers to use discretion when they post and to try to provide a family-friendly environment.