Rachel Kranson still remembers the time she was the victim of anti-
Semitic slurs when she was just 11, walking home from shul one day. But it is not the slurs themselves that sting most in Kranson’s memory; rather, it’s the fact that a park full of witnesses stood by and did nothing.
“I would say, never in my life have I felt quite that alone,” Kranson recalled. “When I think about it now, I like to believe there were people in that park who would have liked to intervene if they knew what to do. I think a lot of times people don’t intervene because they don’t want to make it worse or they are afraid on some level. Maybe they’re afraid for their own safety.”
Kranson, a member of the 15-person steering committee of Pittsburgh’s chapter of Bend the Arc — a progressive Jewish organization that advocates for social justice — was one of the organizers of a July 20 training session on bystander intervention, offering participants tools to employ when witnessing the harassment of others.
Bend the Arc Pittsburgh “developed out of very informal conversations that some of us in the Jewish community were having after the 2016 election,” said Kranson, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “We recognized we wanted to do more than we had been doing to influence the political climate in the United States, and much of the political organizing that was happening in Pittsburgh seemed to focus around Israel. So, we really felt there was an opening for a social action group that was more domestic and focused on the United States.” (See the Chronicle, “Bend the Arc develops Pittsburgh presence,” is.gd/vGh7SR.)
The Pittsburgh group has been working with Bend the Arc’s national office, a 501(c)(3), since the fall, according to Kranson. “We are what they call a ‘moral minyan’ of Bend the Arc,” she said.
Alex Soros, son of billionaire philanthropist George Soros, played “a significant role in the creation of Bend the Arc,” according to an interview with Soros in Forbes.
Kranson and the rest of the Pittsburgh steering committee have been working to “show up for people in the Pittsburgh area who have felt particularly vulnerable since the election, such as undocumented immigrants and Muslims,” she said. “But one thing some of us in the group recognized is that we didn’t necessarily feel confident that we could intervene effectively if we saw someone being harassed on the street because of their religious identity, or really for any reason.”
Bend the Arc, partnering with CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) — a controversial civil rights Muslim advocacy group — and the Union Project — a nonprofit that focuses on building an inclusive community — organized the bystander intervention training program to “give people the tools to intervene with confidence should they encounter that sort of situation,” Kranson said.
The training session was led by Mona MacDonald, a certified self-defense instructor and one of the founders of Lioness Martial Arts.
MacDonald taught the group the “five Ds of bystander intervention,” Kranson said. “Direct, distract, delegate, delay and document.”
The tools of direct action focus on how “to use our speech and our body language to help diffuse the situation rather than escalate it,” said Kranson. The group also learned ways to “distract” the harasser and when to “delegate” by calling for outside help, “keeping in mind the person being targeted might not want you to call law enforcement,” such as when the victim is an undocumented alien.
Participants further learned how to continue to intervene following an attack and when it is appropriate to document an incident, such as with photos or video, and what to do with that documentation after the fact.
“For instance, you never want to post harassment situations online without the consent of the person who has been targeted,” Kranson said. “If you don’t, you risk re-traumatizing that person at the very least.”
While Nancy Bernstein has not been a witness to ethnic intimidation, she found the session valuable.
“I think it is really important to show up at these events, both to see who else in the community really cares about the issues and to learn things,” Bernstein said. “There are things I learned that I didn’t appreciate. I think it is really important to understand that these are really serious events and that you have to decide first whether it is a good idea to intervene in a way that is safe. There are ways to actively engage with a person who is antagonizing someone, and there is a way to do it more passively, which engages the person who is the target. Or you can get in between the two people as a distraction.”
Bernstein noted that calling the police to intervene in a harassment situation is not always the best course of action.
“These days, sometimes when the police come, they don’t do the right thing,” Bernstein explained. “They become hostile to the person who is the target. That was something I don’t think we explored enough, because one of the options was call 911, and I mean we all know that in Minnesota this woman called the police because she thought someone was being attacked in an alley, and they shot her — they killed her.”
“And let’s say you’re an undocumented immigrant,” Bernstein continued. “And I call the police because I see someone trying to attack them, and then the police come and takes the target to jail. So, it is a very complex situation, and we all have to be very aware of all the pitfalls of getting involved. We have to be judges of the situation, and that is the hardest part, trying to figure out what is the best way to help the person.”
Bend the Arc steering committee member Avigail Oren said that while she has not witnessed any incidences of Islamophobia, she was happy to pick up some tips so that she could be prepared to step in if the situation did arise. One of the most useful tips, she said, was “how to use your body and voice most effectively to defuse hostile situations. I always thought about it intellectually rather than physically.”
While most Jewish organizations refuse to partner with CAIR, Bend the Arc Pittsburgh was happy to work with that group because of its commonality of purpose in protecting the rights of minorities, according to Kranson.
“We focus on domestic issues, and we have so much in common in those areas [with CAIR] that it seemed like it would be beneficial for both of our groups to move forward on those specific issues,” Kranson said. “I imagine for organizations that have a different focus, that partnership might not have seemed as easy or as beneficial as it was for us.” (See the Chronicle, “Local advocacy group lobbied against Israel during Gaza conflict,” is.gd/fNTLgE.)
Still, the Anti-Defamation League is emphatic in its warnings about CAIR. In a comprehensive report about CAIR published on its website, the ADL cautions:
“CAIR’s stated commitment to ‘justice and mutual understanding,’ however, is undermined by its anti-Israel agenda. CAIR executive director Nihad Awad has accused Israel supporters in the U.S. of promoting ‘a culture of hostility towards Islam’ and CAIR chapters continue to partner with various anti-Israel groups that seek to isolate and demonize the Jewish State. CAIR’s anti-Israel agenda dates back to its founding by leaders of the Islamic Association for Palestine (IAP), a Hamas-affiliated anti-Semitic propaganda organization.”
In 2014, during Operation Protective Edge, CAIR-Pittsburgh joined several other chapters of the national group in a letter-writing campaign condemning Israel in its “disproportionate use of force against the Palestinians in Gaza,” collecting several hundred letters and forwarding them to Pennsylvania Sens. Robert Casey and Patrick Toomey. The form letters read, in part: “Because American taxpayers provide Israel with billions of dollars of aid each year, we have a right to demand that those funds not be used to take the lives of innocent civilians.”
Leaders of the Pittsburgh chapter of CAIR, said Bernstein, who co-chairs J Street Pittsburgh, nonetheless “in my experience, have been excellent, and I very much appreciate there was a partnership in this [Bend the Arc] program.” Bernstein added that the Muslim participants in the program were able to share valuable insights from the perspective of having been the victims of harassment.
Bernstein said she was “not aware of any official [J Street] policy not to work with CAIR.”
“I think that CAIR domestically is doing important work for minority rights in general,” Oren observed. “As a Jew, I’m also committed to protecting minority rights. I am happy to partner with CAIR.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.