Rabbi provides clarity on Trenton council members’ remarks about Jews
By Star-Ledger Guest Columnist Clifford M. Kulwin
Reprinted from: https://www.nj.com/opinion/2019/09/rabbi-provides-clarity-on-trenton-council-members-remarks-about-jews.html
In a closed door Sept. 5 Trenton meeting, City Council president Kathy McBride noted that an attorney defending the city in a lawsuit, “was able to wait (the plaintiff) out and Jew her down.”
I checked the calendar to reassure myself it was still 2019.
Just a few days ago, Paterson City Council member Michael Jackson accused a developer of trying to “Jew us down.” And in August, Jeffrey Dye, an official at the state Department of Labor and president of the Passaic NAACP was removed from both positions when his history of anti-Semitic statements was revealed.
I live in New Jersey and belong to the Oranges and Maplewood chapter of the NAACP so I was relieved to see Gov. Phil Murphy and NAACP leadership act quickly and decisively. I would love to know why Dye’s history of hate speech did not keep him from these high level and visible positions but, at the moment, the words of McBride and Jackson, elected officials both, bother me far more.
Jackson was quickly called out by City Business Administrator Vaughn McKoy, who demanded an apology. Jackson did so, explaining that the phrase was one from his “background,” and that it just popped out in the “passion” of a heated debate.
As of last evening, McBride had not apologized, nor made any public comment other than to note that “I am not at privilege to speak about anything at executive session per the law that governs executive sessions. It was an executive session and by the law I am not privy to speak on that per the law.”
Like Business Administrator McKoy, Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora’s outrage could not have been clearer. “This anti-Semitic remark, particularly about an attorney in our law department who happens to be Jewish, should have no place in our public discourse. I hope that after some reflection you would apologize for these remarks.”
Jackson said his words were spoken “without malice.” If McBride ever comments, I am sure she will say something similar. To both, no doubt, it was just an expression.
And that’s just what George Muschal, McBride’s council colleague, said in the most jaw dropping utterance of all: It’s “just a statement of speech. You know, it’s like a car dealer, they wanted $5,000, you Jew ‘em down to $4,000. It’s nothing vicious. The expression has been said millions of times.”
I am a Jew and a rabbi, ergo the matter is of more than academic interest. So elected officials McBride, Jackson and Muschal, let me be crystal clear. It is not “just” an expression. It is a vile, repulsive and horribly bigoted expression. And since I’m the one it talks about, I’m the one who gets to say that.
Every group is subject to stereotypes. For Jews it’s been going on a really long time. Four hundred years ago Shakespeare created Shylock, the Jewish moneylender of The Merchant of Venice. Shylock was venal and greedy. His portrayers often sported a big fake nose. Shakespeare reflected the prejudices of his age, which is kind of interesting since he didn’t know any Jews. (Edward I threw them all out in 1290.) Wherever his stereotype of Jews came from, the play gave it new life.
In the 1930s, millions tuned in to Father William Coughlin’s radio show as he blamed “Jewish bankers” for the Russian revolution and lamented President Roosevelt having become their “tool.” In 1934, writes historian Alan Brinkley, Coughlin received 10,000 pieces of fan mail every week. Amazingly, Coughlin was emphatic that he was no anti-Semite! Rather, he called upon “good Jews,” like good people everywhere, to join him.
I am sure that on occasion Coughlin himself said the words “Jew him down.” I am equally sure that he said it’s just an expression. It’s not.
Ms. McBride, Mr. Jackson and Mr. Muschal, you are elected officials. Your words and your actions must embody the ideals of a just, free and tolerant society. Perhaps, as Mr. Jackson said, this expression came from your upbringing, and you just never really considered its true meaning. And that’s fine. We all live and learn. But never say anything like it again. Every time you use those words, you reinforce the bigotry Jews have faced for centuries.
Rabbi Clifford M. Kulwin is Rabbi Emeritus at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston.