Montgomery County Council unanimously passes antisemitism resolution

November 3, 2022

Washington Jewish Week

Following three months spent fine-tuning a non-binding resolution that defines and reaffirms Montgomery County’s commitment to stand up to hate and against antisemitism, county councilmembers unanimously passed the statement on Nov. 1.

Councilmembers and county residents debating the resolution agreed it is important to take a strong stand against hatred and violence against any group. But opponents of the resolution said its incorporation of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism and its accompanying 11 amendments steps on free speech rights because it would have a chilling effect on criticism of Israel and its policies.

The definition has been used to label as antisemitic speech that “demonizes” Israel, holds Israel up to a “double standard” and “delegitimizes” Israel.

To alleviate those concerns, the council added a 12th amendment that states, “However, criticism of Israeli government policies or actions does not constitute antisemitism.”

That was not enough for a group of 38 organizations, which held a press conference in front of the County Council building in Rockville on the eve of the vote. Fewer than 20 people attended.

At the press conference, Rabbi Yosef Berman from the New Synagogue Project in Washington, D.C., said the IHRA definition “was crafted in such a way as to conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism.”

He urged the council to understand that antisemitic acts are perpetrated by extreme right wingers and former President Donald Trump and his followers and not those unsupportive of the Israeli government in its actions concerning the Palestinians.

This resolution will not make county residents any safer, Berman said. Instead, “This resolution chills our speech.”

Also speaking against the resolution was Hannah Shraim of MD 2 Palestine. “This definition is extremely contentious and divisive,” she declared. “It is used as a tool to silence” those who speak out against Israel.

Other organizations opposing the resolution include Peace Action Montgomery County, Students for Justice in Palestine at University of Maryland in College Park, Montgomery County Muslim Washington Interfaith Alliance for Middle East Peace, J Street at University of Maryland and Montgomery County Democratic Socialists of America.

Some of those opposed to the resolution attended the council meeting. Because the council has a policy of not holding public hearings on non-binding resolutions, they were not given the opportunity to speak.

However, they made their appearance known, waving signs and calling out and jeering councilmembers who spoke in support of the resolution.

Also attending the council meeting were Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School’s 10th grade class on Jewish history.

“It was a great educational opportunity for the students to go,” said Head of School Mitchel Malkus. “We felt it was important for them to learn and understand how the local government” responds to antisemitism.

Before the council meeting, the students learned about various definitions of antisemitism.

Several area synagogues sent emails to their congregants asking them to email councilmembers and/or show up at the council meeting to express their support.

“At its core, it is an effort to stand up to hate,” Council President Gabe Albornoz said of the resolution. He stressed it was an educational tool that reaffirms the county’s commitment against religious-based hate and is not meant to stifle speech.

He noted that 85% of religious-bias incidents in the county in 2021 were antisemitic, even though the Jewish population here is only 10%.

“The Montgomery County Council has consistently condemned antisemitism,” Albornoz said, adding that the county must not waiver in its efforts to denounce hatred against any group.

“Violence towards anyone is not acceptable to anyone in Montgomery County. That is why I am supporting this resolution,” said fellow Councilmember Craig Rice (District 2).

Councilmember Hans Riemer (At-large) called all expressions of hate “an outrage.” He stressed that the amendment declaring that criticism of Israel does not equate with antisemitism is “a very helpful definition.”

However, he noted, when someone criticizes Israeli policies and then “says that Israeli policies are not held to the same standard because Jewish people have influence over our minds. That is not acceptable.”

Councilmember Tom Hucker (District 5) said while it is important to stand up to antisemitism, he has heard from many constituents of all faiths who shared their concerns about the IHRA definition. “We need to make sure we are vigilant” in protecting free speech, Hucker said.

He wished residents could have been more engaged in the process of forming the resolution, and Councilmember Nancy Navarro (District 4) said she also would have preferred more dialogue.

Councilmember Andrew Friedson (District 1), who introduced the resolution, said it was intended to start a conversation, noting, “This resolution serves as a powerful statement.”

Between 2019 and 2021, antisemitic incidents in the county “rose an alarming 175%,” he said, pointing out that Jewish students and Jews walking to and from synagogue are harassed.  He also cited incidents of swastikas painted near Jewish schools and stores.

“Children report being afraid to openly identify as Jewish, even in Montgomery County,” Friedson said.

Following the unanimous vote, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington issued a statement thanking the council and noted, “This resolution is overwhelmingly supported by Montgomery County’s diverse Jewish community.”

Also thanked were Councilmember Evan Glass “for his good faith efforts to broker a compromise during this challenging process,” and the “thousands of members of the Jewish community and our allies that wrote to Councilmembers to express their support for this resolution.”

The IHRA definition is “the universal gold standard to provide context and depth as we work together to combat this oldest form of hatred,” according to the JCRC statement.

“Unfortunately, opponents created a toxic environment by using this as an opportunity to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They turned this into a painful political dispute, which should never have occurred,” the JCRC statement noted.

County Executive Marc Elrich stressed that the resolution will not constrain speech. Addressing those who are concerned that they may be targeted for surveillance due to their political views, Elrich said in a statement, “I want to assure people that this resolution does not anticipate, allow, or promote actions that violate people’s civil liberties – freedom of expression is and always will be one of our most important core values. It does not change what we are already doing in response to hate crimes.”

Rather, Elrich wrote, “What this Resolution does is reaffirm our County’s commitment to enforce our laws to protect people from acts of hate – we will continue to investigate acts of hate, prosecute people when illegal acts are committed and reassure the community that we will work to keep all communities in Montgomery County safe, which is what we do today. How we will enforce our laws will not change.”

Maryland state Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-Sistrict 17) tweeted out her “Relief and joy that the @MoCoCouncilMD voted UNANIMOUSLY to condemn violence and hate.”

Also praising councilmembers was the AJC. “Antisemitism comes from a variety of sources, the far-right, the far-left and those who have been taught to hate Jews in the name of religion. We need to respond to Jew hatred in all of its forms and force the antisemites back to the fringes of our society,” said Alan Ronkin, regional director of American Jewish Committee in Washington, D.C.

His organization noted that under the IHRA definition, antisemitism includes denial of the Holocaust or the downplaying of how many Jews were killed by the Nazis and their allies and the drawing of comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.

It also labels as antisemitic connecting contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis, accusing of Jews as a people of real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group and the denial of the Jewish people of their right to self-determination.

The Anti-Defamation League in Washington, D.C., also praised councilmembers for their unanimous vote.  

“It is only through education, advocacy, community partnerships, and workplace engagement that we will be able to address the rising antisemitism in the United States,” said Regional Director Meredith R. Weisel. “We commend our law makers in Montgomery County for recognizing that together we can work to condemn and raise awareness around antisemitism wherever and whenever we see it.”