As Israel battles Hamas in Gaza and antisemitism continues to rise nationally and worldwide, leaders of more than 50 U.S. municipalities gathered in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Nov. 15-16 for the 2023 North American Mayors Summit Against AntiSemitism.
The annual summit, which the Combat Antisemitism Movement has held since 2021, was planned prior to the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks by Hamas operatives who infiltrated the Gaza border into southern Israel. The mayhem resulted in the murders of 1,200 people, with thousands wounded and as many as 240 men, women and children taken captive and brought to the Gaza Strip. That prompted the start of Israel’s “Operation Swords of Iron”, now in its second month.
Organizers adapted some of the programming to respond to the aftermath.
“The fact that we have mayors that make this their priority in their agenda and invest a lot of time to come here, to learn and come away to continue to fight is an exceptional outcome,” Sacha Roytman-Dratwa, CEO of Combat Antisemitism Movement, a coalition with 700 partners, told JNS. “Protecting Jewish life in America is critical.”
‘A world without bigotry’
Roytman-Dratwa told JNS that he was particularly impressed that many non-Jewish, black mayors participated in the summit.
“This is an amazing outpouring of support from both the Jewish and the non-Jewish community, recognizing together the importance of the message that we’re trying to send to all of our friends, all of our families and the people we work with trying to defeat antisemitism,” Dean Trantalis, the Democratic mayor of Fort Lauderdale and summit chair, told JNS.
“We have cities from all over North America and some from Europe represented here [who] continue to work to try to come up with best practices to understand antisemitism and to try to reverse the trend that we’re suddenly suffering in terms of antisemitic acts,” added Trantalis, who is not Jewish.
On social media, he wrote that he was moved to lobby for the conference to come to his city “after attending last year’s summit in Athens, Greece.”
“The heinous terrorist attack on Israel on Oct. 7 made the event ever more important. The most poignant points in the conference were the stories shared by people whose family members were killed or kidnapped that day,” he wrote. “As a society, we need to create a world without bigotry where everyone can live together with respect and tolerance.”
The 50 mayors and other participating municipal leaders committed to a 10-step action plan to define and address antisemitism in their cities.
Those steps included adopting and implementing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism; appointing Jewish liaisons; enforcing zero-tolerance for Jew-hatred; training municipal staff to respond to contemporary antisemitism; and protecting Jewish faculty and students at city schools.
The leaders also committed to celebrating Jewish American Heritage Month every May and to act based on the U.S. national strategy to counter Jew-hatred.
Oct. 7 aftermath
At a gala dinner that opened the summit at the W Fort Lauderdale, a beach hotel, attendees heard from three Israeli families directly impacted by terrorist attacks.
Maor Elbaz-Starinsky, consul general of Israel in Miami, introduced the three families: Natalia Cassarotti (whose son Keshet, 21, was killed on Oct. 7) and daughter Shemesh; Diego Engelbert, whose sister Karina, his brother-in-law and their two children are thought to be held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip; and Maayan Sigal-Koren, whose mother and four other family members are also thought to be held hostage.
“The world should know what Hamas did is a crime against humanity—against civilians who did nothing wrong to anybody,” Sigal-Koren told JNS. “They took my loved ones, and I want everyone to know that, and I want people to fight with me to bring them back now.”
Levar Stoney, the Democratic mayor of Richmond, Va., accepted CAM’s Civic Leadership Award at the opening gala. “Standing in solidarity for bringing the hostages home is doing the right thing. Standing in solidarity against antisemitism is doing the right thing,” he told attendees.
The former professional basketball superstar Alonzo Mourning, who ended his career at the Miami Heat (for which he is now vice president of player programs), also addressed attendees. “My heart goes out to the families,” he said. “I cannot even begin to imagine the continued pain they are experiencing.”
‘We have a variety of enemies’
The summit’s closing gala dinner took place at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, about 30 miles south of Fort Lauderdale.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) addressed the audience as a Jew, a Zionist and the first Jewish woman to represent the state in Congress.
“I will not shrink in the face of our enemies,” she said. “I don’t use that term lightly, and I don’t use it specifically, because unfortunately, we have a variety of enemies that are coming at us in recent months, but also over millennia.”
“We must use our position to speak up for those who are afraid to speak for themselves,” Brett Smiley, the Democratic mayor of Providence, R.I., told participants at the closing gala, “to provide moral clarity and to make clear to our communities what’s right and wrong, and that hate has no home in our cities.”
Natalie Sanandaji, a survivor of the Nova music festival, where 364 young Israeli men and women were slaughtered the morning of on Oct. 7; media personality Van Jones; Edward Caban, New York City Police Department commissioner; Josh Levy, the mayor of Hollywood, Fla.; and Daniella Levine Cava, mayor of Miami-Dade County, also presented at the closing gala.
So did Danielle Yablonka, a Jewish artist, model and pro-Israel activist, who told JNS that she was honored to be in a room with mayors and members of Congress.
“I feel heard, and I’ve already spoken to congressmen who have said ‘I learned something today,’” she said. “When I hear that someone’s mind has changed, that they’ve learned something, that means everything to me.”
“I want to encourage activism in all forms—creative, visual, individual—so when antisemitism grows, so do I and so do we, and so does my voice and so does the need for empowerment of Jewish students,” Yablonka said in her presentation.
“I always said, ‘I don’t know what I would be if I wasn’t a Jew,’” she added. “In these dark times, I can proudly say, ‘I wouldn’t want to be anything else but a Jew.’”