More than a month ago, a slate led by Great Neck Village Mayor Pedram Bral easily defeated challenger James Wu and two trustee candidates in a race that exposed fault lines of ethnicity, racial differences, religious conflicts between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews and the political divide between Democrats and Republicans in the era of Donald Trump.
But the campaign debate did not stop with the election.
Continuing an argument begun during the campaign, a group of Bral supporters led by Jeffrey Wiesenfeld accused Steven Markowitz, the chairman of the Glen Cove-based Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County and head of the Great Neck Democratic Club, of an “anti-religious animus” against the Orthodox community.
As proof, they submitted what they said was an email sent by Markowitz – from four years ago – during the election pitting Bral against then-Mayor Ralph Kreitzman.
The email showed the sender as “Steven Marko…” It read: “Have no reluctance to tell people that this election is about an attempt by right wing Orthodox groups to take over the village.” The recipients were not identified.
The email also seemed to raise several questions, as did the response.
Does the use of “right wing” before Orthodox lesson the onus of singling out Orthodox Jews? How does identifying Orthodox Jews differ from classifying voters as whites without a college degree, black women, Hispanics and suburban women? And do the words “take over the village” make it worse?
The role played by observant Orthodox and Persian Jews in Great Neck has been an issue in several recent elections almost always spoken in hushed tones.
The concerns expressed have included the impact of Jews who observe the Sabbath on Friday night and Saturday on local shopping districts and concerns that Orthodox Jews who send their children to religious schools will not support Great Neck school district budgets.
But no one was discussing the niceties of this debate.
Wiesenfeld and other critics demanded that Markowitz step down as chair of the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County.
Wiesenfeld, in an email sent to administrators at the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County with a letter from resident Robert Spitalnick warned, “If he is to remain your chair, we’ll contact every donor whom we know.”
Should a center that helps us remember the Holocaust and supports tolerance be boycotted because of a four-year-old email? Should the person who had led the organization – and allegedly sent the email – be forced to step down? Those are questions that were also not answered.
Nor was there a clear answer about whether Markowitz sent the email.
In an earlier conversation with Blank Slate Media Publisher Steven Blank, Markowitz said he did not remember writing the email.
In a subsequent interview with a reporter for the paper, Markowitz denied having sent the email.
“None of this is based on reality,” he said. “It’s all based on a hate campaign.”
More than a dozen letters were sent to the paper by prominent members of the community, citing Markowitz’s contributions to the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center and his efforts to bring together people of all religions.
But last week, Markowitz accepted responsibility for the email after Wiesenfeld and other critics said they would provide proof that Markowitz sent the email in 2015 unless he issued an apology in this newspaper.
In the apology, Markowitz maintained that he still did not remember sending the email and said the words used in it “are not acceptable and divisive.”
In a welcome sign of comity, Wiesenfeld said he accepted Markowitz’s apology.
But people in and outside Great Neck hoping for a break from a divisive debate based on race, ethnicity, religion and political affiliation were out of luck.
President Trump made it is clear this week that he intends to base his 2020 re-election campaign on all of the above. So goes Great Neck, so goes the nation. And then some.
On July 14, Trump tweeted that four congresswomen — Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, all minority members, should “go back” to “the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
Never mind that three of the four women were born in the United States and the fourth, Omar, is a Somali refugee who became a naturalized U.S. citizen at the age of 17.
Anthony Scaramucci, a Manhasset resident who grew up in Port Washington and briefly served as White House communications director, wrote on Twitter that Trump would never have told a white immigrant to go back to his country.
“That’s why the comments were racist and unacceptable,” he said.
Scaramucci’s comments got him disinvited from a Republican fundraiser, according to The New York Times.
Trump continued his campaign against the four freshman congresswomen during an event on the South Lawn of the White House and then, finally, at a rally in Greenville, North Carolina. The crowd then took up Trump’s cause for him, chanting, “Send her back! Send her back!” as he railed against Omar.
Some heard echoes of Nazi rallies from the 1930s. Others saw a pattern followed by other authoritarian leaders of the past.
True to form, Republican elected officials were mostly silent about what Trump said, making them complicit in whatever follows.
Still, Scaramucci’s comments and the willingness of the two sides in Great Neck to make peace offer a way forward for the country.
Political appeals based on race, religion and ethnicity are never acceptable. And when they are used, it is the responsibility of everyone – Republicans and Democrats – to condemn them.