Never is Now, Now: Takeaways from the ADL’s Eye-Opening Conference on Antisemitism, Hate and Extremism
As I entered the Javits Center on Nov. 10, picked up my name tag and walked down the steps into the conference hall. My curiosity was piqued. Never Is Now 2022, an annual conference run by the Anti Defamation League (ADL) on antisemitism and hate had already begun. The ADL is the leading organization whose mission is to battle against antisemitism, extremism, discrimination and hate of all kinds. In support of their valuable mission, YU requested that students, if able, attend this conference. I, along with several other students, decided to partake in this meaningful and interesting opportunity.
Yes, I know exactly what you're thinking: It must’ve been one of those high-end preachy conferences where there are more fancy suits and coffees being drunk than actual speaker content. While there was a lot of coffee being drunk and a lot of people in suits, it was also exceedingly eye-opening. There were a myriad of notable speakers and engaging topics of discussion. Listening to FBI Director Christopher Wray, famed “Friends” actor David Schwimmer, NYC Mayor Eric Adams and the CEO of Pfizer, Albert Bourla, amongst many, was captivating and insightful.
One of the speakers, Tanya Gersh, is a real estate agent from Montana who transformed into a leader in fighting antisemitism. After the mother of extremist neo-Nazi Richard Spencer reached out to Gersh, who is Jewish, regarding a real estate sale, Spencer was irate. Andrew Anglin, the editor of the Daily Stormer, an antisemitic website that took its name from Hitler Nazi propaganda, encouraged the online community to take action and orchestrated a horrific harassment campaign, relentlessly terrorizing Gersh and her family with antisemitic threats and messages, as well as releasing pictures of her personal information and pictures of her family to pin as targets. The hate mail included death threats, slurs, curses and holocaust images and memes. They depicted her as the enemy. After immense emotional, physical and social victimization, Gersh decided to fight back. She sued Anglin, and in a federal court decision called “Gersh v. Anglin,” she was victorious with a $14 million judgment verdict.
Instead of playing the victim, Gersh took action and spread the message throughout the country that extremists and others who spread hate cannot and will not be tolerated and that there are severe consequences for those who abuse freedom of speech and swap it for hate speech. This deleterious extremism eats away at the very fabric of America, and the very fabric of humankind, and must be annihilated. This story shared by Gersh is paradigmatic to the suffering extremism and hate speech can result in, and illustrates the importance of being a hero, not giving in, and courageously snapping out of playing the role of the victim.
Another speaker, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, a Greek Jew, was instrumental in helping create the Covid mRNA vaccine, which was the turning point for illness, deaths and isolation stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. He spoke about the severe injurious nature of misinformation. The son of Sephardi Jews including a mother who was nearly seconds away from being killed in the Holocaust, Bourla spoke about the dangers of misinformation in regard to propaganda, antisemitism and in spurring the atrocities of the Nazi rise to power. He astutely remarked that “Hatred and ignorance prevent us from seeing each other as people and individuals, and false information leads to fear which in turn leads to tragic outcomes.”
Additionally, Bourla was referring to the lies and disinformation spread regarding the vaccines, which heavily hindered individuals' adherence when given the opportunity to get immunized. Doing so would help oneself, one's family and the entire society, but due to the spreading of rumors and false information, there were, as Bourla said, “tragic outcomes,” which caused many unvaccinated individuals to die from COVID-19.
The worst, Bourla remarked, is when “people in power knowingly lie.” Falsities become normalized when individuals with a lot of power repeat them or continue to spread lies. An individual who has a following and the power of persuasion, irrespective of party, political views or opinions, cannot abuse their influential power. Bourla called for the importance of “data-driven conversation and respectful debates, not personal attacks and the spreading of lies, because lives depend on it.” He highlighted the severity of the matter and the importance of facts and data-driven conversation. “That doesn’t mean we can’t have disagreements; democracy is built on disagreement,” he added. “But rather we need to respect those [with] whom we disagree and rely on the facts.”
The last speaker was well-known Republican Liz Cheney. Cheney, the previous chair of the House Republican Conference and House representative of Wyoming, shared a unique perspective. The lifelong Republican is more recently known for sabotaging her political career to fight against perceived hate speech, violence and extremism. She spoke about the political divide in the country, as opposed to the political issues which differ amongst each and every citizen and party. It is not a matter of political difference in which people differ in their opinions about the economy or taxes, as Cheney remarked, “I look forward to the days in which we can disagree.” It is rather the vitriol and personal attacks which come with the arguments. It is the name-calling, animosity and vituperative attacks. This leads to political divide and animosity and thus breeds angry and hate-filled individuals. She emphasized that the role of a leader in a democracy is to understand that and to not tear apart an already divided nation.
As Abraham Lincoln famously remarked, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” This is true about any unit; a partnership, a marriage, a company and certainly a national democracy where the stakes are too great to crumble. The leader is one whose duty is to encourage dialogue, not silent opposition. To teach comradery, not incite violence. To motivate care, not instill hatred. To bolster Lincoln’s proverbial house and not divide it further.
Everyone shuffled out of the same transparent doors to exit as we had entered the conference, yet everyone left with different conclusions, ideas and opinions. Through being open and listening to what others had to say, I gained a lot. Yes, I learned about standing up against hate, the dangers of misinformation and extremism, the importance of facts and data and the cruciality of not being filled with hatred or animosity. But on an even more fundamental level, a realization this event evoked is the idea that embracing an experience and being open to dialogue, listening and discussion, whether in line with one's own personal beliefs or not, can do wonders to one’s seemingly close-minded way of thinking. Embracing others' opinions that are not our own broadens one's perspective and adds to the depth of one’s character. So yes, there were a lot of people in suits and coffee being drunk, but the experience and ideas I left with were much more valuable than the cup of joe I drank there.
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Photo Caption: Never Is Now 2022 at the Javits Center
Photo Credit: Yedidya Schechter