Holocaust survivor speaks out on anti-Semitism at Shaaray Shalom in West Hempstead

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There was standing room only as county officials, residents and members of synagogues from surrounding communities gathered at Congregation Shaaray Shalom in West Hempstead to observe Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 12. Guest speaker Abraham Foxman, the former national director of the Anti-Defamation League, discussed the importance of knowing how to say no to hatred, bigotry and anti-Semitism.

“You can watch all kinds of films, you can read all kinds of testimonials, but it’s not as important as your presence here tonight,” Foxman said. “Your presence here tonight, and probably in nights to come, is a resounding message to all bigots that we will not be silent.”

Foxman, 77, a Holocaust survivor who immigrated to the U.S. in 1950, explained that the “hateful” events that occurred did not start with the gas chambers. “It began with words,” he said. “Ugly, hateful words that demonized and degraded Jews. Those words, met by silence, became ugly, hateful deeds.”

Many speakers at the event reflected on the ADL’s report showing a 90 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in New York state in 2017.

“As incidents of anti-Semitism are on the rise nationwide and locally as well, we cannot allow a cavalier attitude to take root and to blossom,” said County Executive Laura Curran. She added that this attitude does not stem from ill will, but rather from a lack of knowledge.

“We have a tool that future generations won’t: the survivors,” said State Sen. Todd Kaminsky. “There is no better education than listening to them, and we have to make sure that our young people are able to do so.”

Adam Novak, Advisory Council Chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Long Island, reminded the attendees that the number of Holocaust survivors is dwindling, which makes it more important to remember them. He said that Long Islanders have to learn from their lessons.

“Long Island is unique in its breadth, and its scope and depth of just different cultures, religions and people,” Novak said. “We have to continue to build those bridges between all communities . . . and we must always remember the horrors of the Holocaust so that it won’t happen again.

Mindy Perlmutter, executive director of the JCRC-LI, said that Long Islanders are lucky to have survivors like Foxman around, and events like this. “When you have a program such as the Yam HaShoah, you’re not just bringing communities together, you’re remembering atrocities,” Perlmutter said. “People say never forget, and that’s what we have to keep remembering.”

Rodney McRae, executive director of the Nassau County Commission on Human Rights, said this was the first time the group had taken part in the program, and that he hoped it would strengthen their relationship with all communities.

“The most important thing is the collaboration of the different races,” McRae said. “I’ve learned a lot, but I think that’s how we improve our relationship — just by learning more about each other.”

Foxman explained that even though news outlets like CNN did not exist during the Holocaust, the world knew what was happening. “Those in positions of power to make decisions to stop what was happening knew,” he said. “Now that we watch the slaughter in Syria, nobody can say they don’t know, and yet very little is done.”

He added that knowing the history of the Holocaust is not enough. “We need to speak up and speak out, and protest when anyone is maligned or threatened with contempt, no matter who the victim or the perpetrator is,” Foxman said. “We need to cleanse our communities of prejudice. It sounds easy, and I know it isn’t easy, but it takes courage.

“We have to find ways to live together, to grow together and to learn together,” he continued. “We have to choose our words carefully, we have to understand their power and danger, and take responsibility in the words we utter.”