PROVIDENCE – Mayor Brett Smiley is working hard to be proactive in the fight against antisemitism in the city and to encourage dialogue throughout the community.
He says he wants all residents of Providence to feel safe, and he’s especially focused on the Jewish community right now.
“I want everyone to know that we have their backs,” he said in a recent interview.
Smiley – and 50 other mayors from across the U.S. – recently attended the 2023 North American Mayors Summit Against Antisemitism, which focused on stemming the rising tide of antisemitism. Smiley was the only mayor from New England to attend the conference, which was held Nov. 15-16.
Sponsored by the Combat Antisemitism Movement, the mayors discussed common issues and problems and learned best practices and action steps to fight hate. And they committed to a groundbreaking 10-point plan to combat antisemitism.
Smiley said the strategies offered at the conference fit right in with what the city is already doing.
“I was heartened to find that we are already doing several of them [the steps in the plan],” he said.
Among the 10 points was adoption of the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) working definition of antisemitism, which the city has already adopted.
According to the IHRA, “antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews,” but it acknowledges that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”
“It’s not lost on me … that I could criticize my government without criticizing my country,” Smiley said. “Criticizing the state of Israel doesn’t mean you are criticizing the existence of the state or its right to exist.”
Other steps already adopted by the city include recognizing Jewish American Heritage Month, which begins on May 1 in 2024, and participating in the Shine a Light campaign during Hanukkah.
The plan also encourages coordinating municipal law-enforcement security arrangements at Jewish community institutions; allocating resources for initiatives to foster interfaith tolerance, understanding and harmony; and adopting a zero-tolerance policy for antisemitism.
“We are going to work with the [city’s] Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging director to facilitate trainings and alleviate the frustration on the part of the Jewish community that antisemitism is left out of DEI training,” Smiley said.
Educational institutions are included in the 10-point plan as well. Smiley said he wants to work to ensure that colleges “remain a place where free speech is welcome, but draw the line at hate speech.”
“You want to do that in a way that doesn’t create fear or violence,” he said.
“My plan is to adopt all 10 steps,” said Smiley. “I want to keep this in the conversation and use the power of the office to give voice to how Jewish residents are feeling.
“The city of Providence prides itself on being a welcoming and embracing place, even though we often fall short. We are taking every step we can to keep the vibrancy that makes Providence.”
FRAN OSTENDORF (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the editor of Jewish Rhode Island.