State Sen. Ron Latz didn’t need to come out on the first sub-zero night of Minnesota’s winter this year to hear the stories of his constituents’ fears and concerns about antisemitism. Being Jewish, the St. Louis Park legislator knows these things all too well. But with more than 20 constituents around a conference table last month, Latz listened.
More than 200 Twin Cities Jews participated in listening sessions organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas with their legislators, part of the grassroots effort to lobby ahead of the state’s legislative session, which opens Feb. 12.
“Sen. Latz doesn’t need to be convinced about the tremendous assault we’re all under in terms of antisemitism,” said Ethan Roberts, the JCRC’s deputy executive director. “He certainly doesn’t need to be convinced of the necessity of Israel’s not just right but obligation of self-defense. However, the reason why we still want you to be here is when Senator Latz goes back to the Senate and talks to his colleagues, he will bring with him your stories. And that’s going to be powerful.”
More than 20 legislators held meetings with constituents that were as small as three people and as large as 33, and lasted on average more than an hour each, compared to the 15 minutes a constituent might get visiting the legislator in their office. The overwhelming sentiments that Roberts said he’s heard are fear and isolation.
“There’s abandonment from causes that they have been a part of, from friends and neighbors,” he said. “Part of it is that people just don’t know what to say. So they don’t say anything.”
Roberts said that polling shows people’s concerns. A Jewish Federations of North America poll of American Jews from late last year shows that 75 percent of those surveyed said they were either very or somewhat concerned that the war will cause issues in terms of security and safety in their communities.
Session could be lively
Roberts said the sessions have been important to help prepare legislators for the upcoming session where anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups are expected to push for legislation that repeals the state’s anti-Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction bill that was passed in 2018.
“We know is going to come because I had a couple of people meet with me via Zoom to ask me to support a bill to repeal the anti-BDS legislation law in Minnesota,” Latz said. “And they were both Jewish, anti-Zionists. And they both knew that I was the one who co-authored the bill in the Senate.
“They should not have been surprised that I said I’m not going to try to repeal the bill that I was a major advocate for.”
Latz said he’s expecting some other anti-Israel legislation to be introduced at the legislature. His DFL party holds a slim 34-33 edge in the Senate, and the caucus just changed leadership last week when Sen. Kari Dziedzic stepped down as majority leader due to a recurrence of cancer that she was diagnosed with last year. Sen. Erin Murphy is now the majority leader. The DFL has a 70-64 edge in the house.
“This meeting is to gather information, to have some of the tools to be able to push back and to say, ‘I’ve got a very strong constituency that believes this and is experiencing this. This is the reality within my district,’” Latz said. “It communicates a message that there are real people in the community that are being impacted by this, who may not always be the loudest voices in the media or in communicating with the legislature or holding protests and rallies and waving flags.”
Julia Latz, Ron Latz’s wife, immigrated to the United States from the former Soviet Union. She said that what scares her is that the stories she heard from her husband’s constituents are not too dissimilar from those of people who left Russia.
“Russia got to the place it did because people stayed silent,” she said. “You can’t be silent when the loud voice wins.”
State Sen. Bonnie Westlin, from Plymouth, said that she’s told party leadership that she won’t vote for a bill that has anything to do with a foreign conflict that has nothing to do with us.
“We have work to do, and there are policies that will really impact constituents that are within the scope of our authority,” she said. “The only thing that can happen (with a resolution focussed on Israel) is bring in more conflict and division. I’ll do everything in my power to make sure that won’t happen on any side of that.”
Roberts said that, almost universally, the message has been heard.
“I think that there’s a strong sense that what happened in Minneapolis is not something that people want to replicate at the Capitol,” he said.
‘Tremendous sense of fear’
People at the first meeting with Latz, who declined to be interviewed directly, spoke generally about their concerns in their workplaces and their children’s experiences in schools.
“When it comes to Israel, no one is careful with their words,” one participant said. “I feel silenced and hurt by co-workers who’ve been strong advocates for other groups that aren’t now.”
State Sen. Steve Cwodzinski (DFL-Eden Prairie) said that he heard from one middle school student at his meeting about being treated differently and harassed on social media because she was Jewish.
“Growing up Jewish in a small, northern Wisconsin town, I got some of the usual, small-town antisemitism,” Cwodzinski said. “But not as heightened as today. It’s just horrific the things people about [the student].”
Roberts said that a St. Paul resident told Leader Murphy last week that she was glad her Holocaust-surviving parents weren’t alive to see the antisemitism that she sees. A parent in Plymouth said that her 5-year-old asked “When they come to kill us, should we tell them we’re not Jewish?”
Westlin, who’s a Jewish member of the DFL caucus, said she appreciated hearing the stories of her constituents and was able to share her viewpoints on how she interacts with colleagues. She also talked with constituents about how she sees antisemitism manifest itself on the right and the left.
“Antisemitism on the right tends to be very explicit, sometimes violent, and obvious,” she said. “From the left, it’s more subtle…often reflecting an ignorance about what it looks like, what the tropes are, and what the history is. We’ve had some really good conversations about that as well.”
Rep. Larry Kraft, who represents House District 46A – the eastern part of Latz’s senate district – heard constituents say that they were afraid of being “visibly Jewish.”
Roberts said the JCRC’s request going into the session boils down to one thing: don’t make things worse.
“People are finding comfort and support” from the meetings, Roberts said. “And legislators have said the right things.”
The grassroots effort from the JCRC is new for the organization. Roberts said it would not be possible without the volunteer work of Lior Sztainer, who helped organize the events.
“Lior, with no advocacy or grassroots or political experience whatsoever, has just stepped up like so many people in our community,” he said.
Roberts added that he’s not surprised at how well the meetings have gone.
“These are powerful stories, and we have a community which is both scared and resilient,” he said. “And people people don’t want to be afraid. We have a community that is very uncomfortable being victims. That’s the thing about being Jewish is that being a victim is not our happy spot. It might be for others. We’re not.
“People in our community are very motivated to do something about that and they see this opportunity in these meetings as a way to not be the victim.”