Friends, make yourselves a big cup of coffee or tea and pull up a chair. I have a lot to say about the Rockland County GOP’s now internationally famous anti-Semitic campaign video.
First, let’s address those who have said they genuinely don’t see why the video is anti-Semitic and have asked for an explanation. I will take them at their word and hope they have asked in good faith.
The video has been condemned by the whole of the Jewish community, both in the United States and around the world, from secular to ultra-Orthodox. Even the Republican Jewish Coalition, an organization no one would mistake for an icon of snowflake wokeness, wrote on Twitter that the video is “absolutely despicable…pure anti-Semitism…,” and that the Rockland County GOP is “an embarrassment.” This may mark my first point of agreement with a Republican organization of any kind. So yes, this video did not disturb only the frum (religious) community, but what another notable Rockland County Republican was once pleased to call “normal Jews.” The broader Jewish community may not agree on much, but we all know blatant anti-Semitism when we see it. So, if you watched this video and couldn’t see what the fuss was about, it’s possible you lack the historical and cultural context to recognize what nearly every Jewish person, as well as our friends, families, and allies, saw immediately, accompanied by a familiar feeling of nausea.
We saw the classic move of all bigotry anywhere: a division of human beings into two categories called Us and Them.
“Us” is depicted as a smiling White family with no markers of religious or ethnic identity posing outside their home.
“Them” is, apparently, Aron Wieder, a lot of apartments, and some terrible weather. “Them” is a storm, a catastrophe, an apocalyptic event brewing on the horizon, coming to take away everything held sacred by “Us.” “Them” is a destructive singularity, represented in their entirety in the person of one often outrageous political figure. The diversity (yes, the frum community has great diversity within it, something I learned working at Finkelstein Library) of beliefs, practices, political opinions, and lifestyles among the groups that make up the larger Jewish community is elided, and the humanity of the individual human beings— Jewish women, men, and children—is erased, replaced by the terrifying Them.
“Us” versus “Them” is a zero-sum game. As the Rockland GOP’s video states, “If they win, we lose.”
This is the language of Birth of a Nation, the 1915 film that gave rise to the modern Ku Klux Klan, and of Joseph Goebbels’ 1932 speech titled, not coincidentally, “A Storm Is Coming.” If you are inclined to excuse the Rockland GOP by asking how they could possibly have been expected to have watched that particular episode on The History Channel, you should know that when County Executive Ed Day ran using a similar video with the same title in 2017, many people told him and the GOP about it repeatedly. They know that the title and tone of their video are ripped from a speech by Hitler’s chief propagandist, and in a county with thousands of Jewish residents, many of whom have Holocaust survivors and victims in their families, Lawrence Garvey used it anyway. What decent person would do that? What decent person would defend or excuse it? And what does it say about the Rockland County GOP that they believed voters would be motivated by it?
It’s also the language of the contemporary white nationalist/white supremacist movement who, a little over a year ago, marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia chanting “Jews will not replace us!” before one of their number drove deliberately into a crowd, murdering a young woman. Lawrence Garvey wrote on Rockland GOP’s Facebook page, “This is a Rockland issue and not one that needs to be debated on a larger scale nor is it about anything other than the issue that faces us here.” Aside from the foolishness of thinking that one can post a video on the Internet and have it seen only by one’s intended audience, this sentence reveals a stunningly provincial ignorance about the American political climate of 2019.
Reported hate crimes against people of color, religious minorities, and LGBTQ people have spiked in the past few years, as the President of the United States cages immigrants at the border, bars visitors from Muslim countries, and threatens to revoke the 14th Amendment with an executive order. In recent months, anti-Semitic hate crimes in New York City have increased alarmingly. Language that pins the blame on an entire community for the actions of a handful of genuinely problematic real estate developers and local officials endangers every identifiably Jewish person. The “Storm is Brewing” video was not created or released in a vacuum, but in a volatile political environment, both nationally and locally. Anyone so blinkered or naïve that they failed to notice (or care) is far too irresponsible to lead a political organization or to hold public office in any capacity.
The same goes for any Rockland Republican who did not publicly denounce it.
The funny-not-funny irony at the heart of this controversy, though, is its occasion: this video was meant to turn out voters for the 2019 County Legislature races, (particularly mine in District 15, a seat that has been held by a single Republican for about 30 years). “Ed Day needs our help,” the video says. But help to do what? The Rockland GOP is banking on the fact that few voters know what the County Legislature, or County Government in general, does. Day ran on a platform of stopping overdevelopment in 2017, using a similar “Storm is Coming” video, and if he didn’t know then that the County has very little authority to do anything about development if a town or village is determined to allow that development, then he surely knows it now. New York’s legal principle of Home Rule places almost all land use decisions in the hands of municipalities, not counties.
Read that again: the County has very little say in land use and development because these are not in the County’s jurisdictional purview. Land use decisions in New York are subject to town and village boards. Not County Executives. Not County legislators. If people opposed to all development held every seat in the Legislature and the County Executive’s office, they still could not end unsustainable development in Ramapo, Clarkstown, Orangetown, Stony Point, or Haverstraw, if a supermajority of the municipal officials approved it.
Talk about things “THEY Don’t Want You To Know!” This is the secret the Rockland GOP hopes voters never figure out.
Furthermore, the Rockland GOP has tried to convince voters who don’t have much time to devote to following the County Government play-by-play that Rockland Democrat=”Bloc Puppet”=Hellbent on unsustainable development. This is, of course, nonsense, and anyone who follows the legislature knows it. In fact, a bipartisan majority of county legislators oppose unsustainable development. They use the tools at their disposal—buying and preserving open space, updating the Comprehensive Plan, making best-practice recommendations in environmental and land use policy—but they cannot overrule a town’s decisions.
The County also exercises no influence over public education. To help East Ramapo public school kids, we can assist in turning out the vote for pro-public school Board members, show up for Board meetings, and advocate for state intervention with our State Legislators and Senators, as well as with the Commissioner of Education, the Governor, and the Board of Regents. No County resources go to public schools, and therefore, the County has no jurisdiction.
The only true statement in the “Storm is Coming” video is that County Legislators will be responsible for redistricting after the 2020 census. I am committed to drawing fair districts that do not disenfranchise any community (as our current map disenfranchises African-Americans and many immigrant communities), nor allocate undue influence to any one group. But anyone trying to convince voters that redistricting changes the demographic realities of Rockland County is not being truthful with them.
So, we’ve established that the video is anti-Semitic and founded on a lie the Rockland GOP hopes voters are too ill-informed to suss out.
But what about the issues?
Many have asked, how can we talk about the issues facing Rockland County without saying things that might be interpreted as anti-Semitic? This is an important question, one local activist groups have often struggled with. Rockland County faces serious issues relating to sustainable development, water, sewage, traffic, open space, taxation, and public education, and we have no choice but to talk about them. I spoke at a Ramapo Town Council meeting recently about proposed changes to the comprehensive plan (not the far more contentious meeting the week before) where I heard thoughtful speakers representing various communities in Ramapo express their hopes and concerns about future development without resorting to fear-mongering or bigotry. It can be done, if our critiques and concerns are about finding workable solutions to problems, not about disliking Orthodox Jews.
Framing all issues in Rockland as “Us” vs. “Them,” declaring everyone who disagrees with you a “bloc puppet” or part of the “Ramapo Mafia” (Btw, really? Do you know what the Mafia actually does? Does this seem an appropriate analogy to you? Does this sound like something a decent person should say?) guarantees increased polarization and precludes progress. We can’t form issue-based coalitions to address local problems using identity-based politics. For example, frum homeowners who moved to Rockland because they wanted their children to play outside in the fresh air may be strongly in favor of protecting their property values and neighborhoods, but if those arguments come from mouths that also spew hateful language against their community, they will be more worried about protecting their families from anti-Semites than about defending one-acre residential zoning.
Bigotry is not only immoral and antisocial—it’s also tactically obtuse. It prevents us from doing what we actually need to do, which is come together, acknowledge the realities, listen respectfully, and attempt to understand one another’s viewpoints. We need to find common sense solutions to problems, and common ground to stand on together.
The Facebook conspiracists won’t join us there, nor will the real estate developers who won’t be happy til they cut down the last tree in the county and the elected officials who can’t say no to them, but I still believe that reasonable people far outnumber them. In order to run for office in this county, I have to believe that.
If you’d like to know what my goals are if elected to the County Legislature, or if you’d like to donate or volunteer to fight back against the Rockland County Republican Party, please visit my website at www.julieforrockland.com
Thanks for reading to the end! Kudos to all the elected officials and candidates who did this in two hundred words or fewer. You are the REAL heroes!
Happy Labor Day weekend to all! And Shabbat Shalom.