The Bergen Record reports on how Jews reacted to a gaffe by a black concilwoman.
Teaneck councilwoman's words anger residents, members
BY JOSEPH AX, Staff Writer
TEANECK — Councilwoman Monica Honis has come under fire from some Jewish council members and residents for saying that reelecting her without her two running mates winning as well would be like sending her “to the gas chamber.”
The comment came Monday during a meeting of residents of the township’s Northeast section. Honis was emphasizing the importance of voting for all three members of her informal slate in order to forge a new council majority in Tuesday’s non-partisan election.
Councilman Elnatan Rudolph, an Orthodox Jew who is heading up the Team Teaneck slate that opposes Honis and running mates Barbara Toffler and Audra Jackson, called the “gas chamber” reference “deplorable.”
“Making an inference like that, whether you’re joking or not, in the same week as Holocaust Remembrance Day?” he said Tuesday. “Those words are used to describe one thing. I don't think there’s any justification for that.”
On Tuesday night, during a raucous council meeting, Honis defended her words, declaring she did not regret them and had chosen them carefully to evoke the injustice of the use of the death penalty against minorities. Honis is black.
“When I made the statement I made last night, I was referring to the death penalty,” she said Tuesday. “The death penalty disproportionately affects minorities. I’m making a statement on how it feels to be sitting up here with the people I sit with. ... I chose my words very carefully knowing full well there was a 98 percent chance that some person would take my words and turn them around to make them something they were not meant to be.”
Councilman Adam Gussen – who worships at an Orthodox synagogue – called on Honis to resign, saying her words were insensitive and culturally ignorant.
Later in her statement, Honis offered an apology of sorts but continued to blast Gussen and any others who would attack her for her words.
“Yes, some people think it may have been insensitive, and I’m sorry if you felt that way,” she said. “It was not intended to be that way. But I said it knowing full well that there are people here who would turn it against me.”
On Wednesday, Gussen called Honis’ explanation “ludicrous” and “reprehensible.”
Honis’ running mates said they were certain she did not intend to give offense. Jackson said that she would not have used those words and would have apologized if she had been in Honis’ position.
“But I want to make it also clear that she did not on Monday evening seek to offend anyone,” Jackson said.
Toffler, who is Jewish, admitted to “cringing” on Monday but said Honis was speaking out of her own cultural experience.
“I’m Jewish, and of course the phrase ‘gas chamber’ is significant,” Toffler said after Tuesday’s meeting. “But I didn't feel that she was saying anything anti-Semitic. I think she has been very straightforward and honest about her intent.”
Howard Rose, also Jewish and a candidate for council, said he believed the choice of words was “stupid and insensitive” but did not think Honis meant to offend anyone.
“When I heard it, I winced,” he said during the meeting Tuesday, before Honis made her statement. “But I understood that that statement was not made in that context. I don’t believe for a moment that it was made as an anti-Semitic remark. I believe that the words that might have been used to better reflect what was being said were, ‘I’d rather be in an electric chair. I’d rather be in a jail cell.’Ÿ”
Ned Goldman, another candidate who is also Jewish, called Honis’ explanation “contrived” and said that it indicated “her inability to provide real leadership to a diverse community.”