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Bigotry and Politics

How does a politician represent people? How does a single individual with a single upbringing and worldview entirely influenced by a particular culture, class, religion or race seek to speak for, stand up for, or listen to everyone?

It’s not a simple task. It’s especially a challenge for a politician who hasn’t endured the discrimination, harassment, and bigotry faced by people of color and women. I’m a white man. I’ll never know what it’s like to be a truly marginalized person.

As I run for State Senate in an increasingly diverse Southern Brooklyn district, I try to remain cognizant of what I know and what I don’t know. I seek to be an ally of those who feel the political process has left them out. I try to be sensitive to the many cultures living here.

I grew up in Bay Ridge, white and Jewish. I didn’t endure the anti-Semitism of my ancestors, who fled Russia for a better life here. I did deal, however, with the occasional jokes about my religion. Most of the kids around me were not Jewish. They didn’t understand why I didn’t celebrate Christmas. They asked me why my people wore “funny hats” and beards, or why we were all so “cheap” or “into money.”

I tried to shrug it off. I tried to be self-deprecating. I was rather secular, after all, and told myself I was an American first. But, as my mother would tell me, if you ever forget you’re a Jew, an anti-Semite will remind you.

As the summer of 2001 wound down, I was playing baseball for the Dyker Heights Knights, manning the outfield and occasionally pitching. I had a plucky teammate named Mohammad who, like me, lived in Bay Ridge and loved the game of baseball. Mo, as he was called by everyone, was a catcher and a power hitter who would rack up his fair share of strikeouts. When he whiffed, he would moan loudly, but when he got a hold of one, it was something to behold.

September 11th happened shortly after my summer ball season ended. I’ll never forget my father saying to me, very sadly, that things might get a lot harder for Mo now. I didn’t quite understand. He was a kid like me who lived in Bay Ridge his whole life, whose parents came to all the games like my parents came.

It was because, my father said, racists would start to blame all Muslims for what happened. They would look for scapegoats. Patriotism surged after 9/11, but so did hatred.

When my Republican state senator, Martin “Marty” J. Golden, who has represented my neighborhood since 2003, said last year that the 9/11 hijackers came from Bay Ridge, I felt a hot surge of anger. It came from an old place, from the memory of that summer and Mo behind the plate, catching fastballs and pounding his mitt. Mo and his family were just like everyone else.

Mo wanted what I wanted. To get the big hit, to win the game, to go home to a warm dinner, to grow up and play in the Major Leagues.

“A number of them that drove the planes into the, 9–11, into the building at World Trade Center that killed 3,000 Americans — are you ready for this? They were in this community, they lived here in Bay Ridge, they were visiting in this community,” Golden told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer in 2017.

This is untrue. None of the hijackers came from Bay Ridge. None of them had ties to Bay Ridge. Like his favorite president, Donald Trump, Marty Golden never lets facts get in the way of good old-fashioned bigotry.

On September 11th, 2017, I went to the 9/11 ceremony at the 69th Street Pier in Bay Ridge. I wasn’t yet a candidate for office — I went to watch, to remember, to reflect again on that day of cataclysm.

Golden was the sponsor of the ceremony. I knew because his name was attached to the little American flags that were handed out. As the ceremony began, and the religious leaders came forward, one by one, I was struck by what was missing: an imam. No one from the Muslim faith was there to offer a prayer. I would later learn that none was invited.

Golden seems to forget he’s representing 318,000 people in his Senate district. Many of them practice faiths that aren’t his own. Many of them come from communities that have been marginalized. Many of them want politicians to stand up for them but turn away from the political process because they are ignored, again and again.

With politicians like Golden representing them, I don’t blame them.

I promise to be a state senator for every person in my district. To represent not just people like myself, but everyone — Arab-Americans, Asian-Americans, African-Americans, Latinos, the LGBTQ community, and all people who feel they don’t have a voice in government.

We can’t build any kind of progressive future without them.

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