As last week’s Gateway school board meeting demonstrated, Pittsburgh is not immune from religiously insensitive or offensive speech coming from its elected officials — if not outright anti-Semitism.
On the heels of Washington, D.C., councilman Trayon White’s outrageous accusation that the “Rothchilds control the climate to create natural disasters” came Gateway school board member Steve O’Donnell derisively questioning Rabbi Barbara Symons twice about her kippah while at a public zoning meeting: “Do you know you have a thing on your head?”
O’Donnell also chose to address the spiritual leader of Temple David as “Barb” — they had never before met — rather than using her title as a cleric as he did for male clergymen of other faiths.
But it was what came later that really took the cake. Responding to a public chiding by Rev. Dr. David Morse, who read a letter from the Monroeville Interfaith Ministerium presided over by Symons, O’Donnell chose not to apologize and instead accused the rabbi of judging herself to be “better” than he, “perhaps because [she’s] a Jew.” He repeated the accusation soon thereafter.
That O’Donnell later resigned amidst the hubbub — he maintains that he did so because of an impending family move to Pittsburgh — is a welcome development. So too is the apology to Symons that finally came this Monday.
But things should have never gotten this far. When Symons originally reached out to O’Donnell by way of a letter expressing her displeasure at the cavalier attitude and lack of respect he showed her, he should have put the issue to rest. Had he done so, it wouldn’t have become an agenda item at a school board meeting.
And when called out for the slight at that meeting, O’Donnell should have simply said, “I’m sorry,” expressed remorse and moved on. By impugning Symon’s religion and ethnicity, he instead dragged the entire community into the gutter.
Whether White’s remarks or those of O’Donnell rise to the level of anti-Semitic speech depends on the intent of the speaker and by how those comments are perceived by those hearing them. Either way, the Gateway school board incident provides a lesson in the value of interfaith relations.
When Symons took offense, her colleagues at the ministerium came to the defense of a leader who has worked for years nurturing interfaith relations in Monroeville, which Symons describes as a “diverse community.” The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council is also invested in building bridges to other faith-based communities, as are many other local organizations and rabbis.
The importance of these relations played out in real time, leading quickly to O’Donnell’s newfound contriteness.
We are living in a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise. Last year, the FBI reported that despite constituting just 2 percent of the American population, Jews were subject to 54.4 percent of religiously motivated hate crimes. While we are not arguing that a comment about a kippah rises anywhere near the level of hate crime, words do matter. And it’s nice to have friends in the wider community who recognize that as well. PJC