State Senate unanimous on Velis antisemitism amendment




Staff Writer

Published: 05-27-2024 10:31 AM

BOSTON — State senators this week unanimously approved an amendment sponsored by Westfield Sen. John Velis that seeks to confront and address rising incidences of antisemitism across Massachusetts.

The amendment would instruct the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to provide curriculum, resources and professional development to school districts to teach students about antisemitism in age-appropriate ways.

The amendment would also organize a commission to make recommendations on how the commonwealth can combat antisemitism and implement the White House’s National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism.

“It is deeply disturbing and truthfully infuriating to know that Massachusetts is among those five states that cumulatively make up almost half of our country’s antisemitic acts of hate,” Velis said in a statement. “We pride ourselves for being an inclusive and welcoming state here in the Commonwealth, but for too many of our Jewish friends and neighbors, we are not living up to our promise.”

According to the Anti-Defamation League, more acts of antisemitism were recorded nationally in 2023 than in any other year since the ADL began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979. With Massasachusetts, the other four states accounting for 48% of recorded antisemitic acts were California, New York, New Jersey and Florida.

The ADL cites 8,873 antisemitic incidents across the United States in 2023, a 140% increase from 2022.

The increase in Massachusetts was even starker, with 440 antisemitic incidents amounting to a 189% increase from 2022 to 2023. Incidents included vandalism, harassment and physical assaults targeted at Jewish children, adults and institutions.

The dramatic increase in incidents took place primarily in the period following Hamas’ attacks on Israel on Oct. 7, the ADL states. Leaving out all Israel-related incidents, antisemitic acts still rose by 65% to 5,711 over the 3,457 non-Israel-related incidents recorded in 2022.

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“In the past six months we’ve seen a significant uptick (in antisemitic acts) — bullying in schools, graffiti in public places and schools,” said Nora Gorenstein, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts. “It’s a disturbing trend.”

Velis said a watershed moment for him came in a recent meeting with a constituent. The woman told him that her 8-year-old daughter was afraid for people at school to know she was Jewish.

“It broke my heart that an 8-year-old child would be sad, would be embarrassed, would just not feel comfortable telling the world, and needed to conceal the fact, that she was Jewish,” Velis said in remarks on the Senate floor.

He said there were 101 antisemitic incidents in Massachusetts schools in 2023, and that education and awareness were key to confronting bigotry.

Gorenstein said it’s important to have the support of community in addressing bigotry, including antisemitism and that the Jewish Federation has been focusing recently on community education around what is antisemitism.

Antisemitic acts can be hard to tabulate. A Northampton City Council meeting in November was derailed during public comment time by a succession of Zoom callers using aliases and spewing antisemitic and racist comments. Council President Jim Nash said it was clearly an organized attack; the motive was not known.

Many Jews say the rise in threats, online and in person, has caused them to tone down or remove outward signs of their faith, hide their Jewish identity or refrain from speaking about Israel.

According to the American Jewish Committee, an advocacy group, most Americans who witnessed antisemitism saw it online or on social media, but only 5% said they reported it. More than one in five American Jews said an online incident made them feel physically threatened.

Velis noted that the White House called for state support in implementing its national strategy, and he said it was time for Massachusetts “to get off the sidelines.”

He said his amendment sends a message to the state’s Jewish residents. “We see you, we hear you, we promise to do better — we promise to do our part in Massachusetts,” he said.