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Holocaust Remembrance Day In Rockland County Pinpoints Fragility of American Democracy

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Justice Anne Minihan Delivers Arresting and Poignant Words On Antisemitism & The Role of The Judiciary; Community Mourns Passing of World War II Veteran Alan Moskin

By Tina Traster

Rockland’s community on Monday gathered in the Jurors Room at the county courthouse to mark a day in history that urges us to pay attention, participate in America’s precious democracy, and protect the truth.

In a fittingly symbolic venue, more than 300 people attended Yom HaShoah 2023 – an event both solemn and inspirational with wisdom imparted by members of the judiciary, educational institutions, and survivors of the Holocaust. Yom HaShoah, translated from Hebrew as “Holocaust Remembrance Day,” is an internationally recognized date that marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943.

While Holocaust Remembrance Day has been marked through the decades with “never forget” vows and reminders of past atrocities, the commemoration in Rockland yesterday took on a tone of urgency because of rising antisemitism, as well as a feeling of collective grief as the community mourned Alan Moskin, a solider who helped liberate a Nazi death camp and a pillar of the Jewish community, who died on April 15th.

The Jurors Room on the second floor of the Rockland County courthouse permeated with a feeling of weightiness and importance with the august presence of the county’s justices, cloaked in robes, sitting fanned out on the stage. Paul Adler, a commercial real estate professional, philanthropist, and involved member of the Jewish community, led the commemoration with poignancy and flashes of humor. He was joined by co-sponsors from the Justice Brandeis Law Society 9th Judicial District, the Rockland County Bar Association, and the Holocaust Museum and Center for Tolerance and Education.

“When the Nazis took over, the Bar and the Judiciary should have been the last line of defense,” said Adler, prior to airing of a short documentary featuring a handful of Rockland County’s Holocaust survivors. “Unfortunately, it didn’t hold. Instead of swearing allegiance to country, they swore to one man.”

Adler went on to say he believes jurists like the ones participating in the ceremony “would hold the line, stay the course, understand, because they love this country.”

At the same time, Adler warned of a rising wave of antisemitism, reminding the audience that such hatred poses an existential threat to American democracy. Feedback from Holocaust survivors, some who were present on Monday, conveyed growing fears and concerns in the short documentary “Democracy is Fragile.” They said hate in Germany and Europe started slowly, seeped into the fabric of life, that for many it was too late before they understood the grip antisemitism had on fellow citizens.

“People did not learn from the past,” said one survivor. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

But it was the eloquent and arresting words of Justice Hon. Anne E. Minihan, an administrative judge in the Ninth Judicial District and the keynote speaker, that mesmerized the audience with an analysis of the role of the judiciary and its relationship to democracy. Throughout the delivery of her notes, the room was silent enough to hear a pin drop; the audience intuitively understood the magnitude of her message.

“We must, must, acknowledge that antisemitism is not part of the distant past,” said Minihan. “Not a single day has passed in the two months it has taken me to write and rewrite these remarks when I haven’t read about antisemitic attacks and antisemitic narratives that circulate in mainstream media, let alone social media. Of course, and not at all surprisingly, they are not only words of denial and distortion. Action follows words and those who would leverage deceptions and denial to foment and encourage violence are very much alive and flourishing.”

The Anti-Defamation League reports antisemitic incidents in the U.S. rose 36 percent in 2022, and for the third time in the past five years, the number of assaults, vandalism, harassments and bomb threats against Jews is higher than has ever been previously reported.

In New York, antisemitic hate crimes in 2022 rose 125 percent from those reported in Nov. 2021. And in the first two months of 2023, attacks on synagogues in the U.S. increased 71 percent from the same two-month period of 2022.

“This is not a Jewish problem,” said Minihan. “It’s an American problem – and it is the canary in the coal mine because the dramatic rise in antisemitic attacks shows us with crystal clarity the normalization of hate in America today.”

Perhaps no one in that room Monday was unaware of the tensions that play out nationally, in New York City, and in Rockland County, which has the largest concentration of Jews in the country outside of New York City. That unease rears its head in the county at town and planning board meetings, on social media, in discourse everywhere. This is something Rockland County owns.

Minihan turned her talk to the role of American justice in combatting antisemitism.

“As robust as American democracy is, if enough pressure is applied to its fault lines, the whole thing will collapse.”

And then her most important words spilled forth. Minihan said the system collapses when we succumb to “outcome-oriented” justice, which means the justice system aligns itself with political interests. She said, “I shouldn’t speak in euphemism. By partner I mean collude.”

With hints of admonition, Minihan stressed judges should not be elected or appointed to advance a political platform.

“If we choose our judiciary with the sole qualification that judges align exactly with political tenets and beliefs, we view justice through an end-justified-means lens, and when that happens, we encourage our judges to lift their blindfolds and deviate in our duty to dispense justice fairly and impartially in every case.”

Even a hardened reporter felt a swell of hope at this moment, grasping for the ideal of what American democracy means in the best of all worlds.

The ceremony rounded out with a candle-lighting ceremony, including one to mark the passing of Moskin. The audience collectively read a pledge to uphold the U.S. Constitution. Virginia Norfleet, founder and CEO of Haverstraw African American Connection and Andrea Winograd, Executive Director of the Holocaust Museum, spoke jointly of their ongoing crusade to educate school children.

And finally, in what seemed like the exclamation point on a heady ceremony, Minister Angel Brooks Hill performed a cappella “Lean on Me,” while soliciting audience participation. In that song, and in that moment, with the refrain of those three words, she summed up the essence of humanity. We need one another. We must rely on one another. We must trust our fellow man.