James Harris
James Harris, right, speaks at the Break the Hate talk on Nov. 14, 2019. Harris has been asked to step aside from his leadership role at the Montclair NAACP for six months.
ADAM ANIK/ FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

James Harris has been asked to temporarily step aside from his leadership role within the Montclair NAACP after he was criticized for making anti-Semitic remarks during a Dec. 30 community meeting.

On Tuesday, Jan. 7, Montclair NAACP President Al Pelham announced that the executive committee decided that Harris would step down from his role as education committee chair for a time period of six months. Harris has held the position for about four years.

“The mission of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is to secure the political, educational, social and economic equality of rights in order to eliminate race-based discrimination and ensure the health and well-being of all persons,” Pelham wrote. “While Mr. Harris clearly stated at the beginning of his address that he was representing the New Jersey Association of Black Educators, he went out of his way to mention and bring the NAACP into the conversation. Some of Mr. Harris’s overall comments and tone that evening were in clear contradiction of the NAACP’s mission and thus the Montclair Branch condemns them.”

The decision was made during an executive meeting of the NAACP on Monday evening, Pelham said. The executive committee voted unanimously on a recommendation from the floor that Mr. Harris would step away from the chair of NAACP Education Committee for six months.

“There is much work to be done regarding the many issues facing the Montclair Public Schools and the branch does not want this unfortunate issue to be a distraction,” Pelham said.

At the Dec. 30 meeting, Harris made comments referring to Orthodox and Hasidic Jews in Lakewood and Jersey City.

The subject of the meeting at that point had been about gentrification and housing affordability in Montclair. As he was speaking, however, Harris accused the largely Orthodox Jewish community of Lakewood of “gutting” the public schools and alleged Hasidic Jews were attempting to convince residents in Jersey City to sell their houses.

The remarks were met with widespread condemnation and criticism from community members, clergy and township officials, as well as from Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill.

Harris issued an apology for his remarks on Monday.

“I condemn the recent violence in Jersey City, NJ, Monsey, NY and all of the recent hate crimes against the Jewish communities. I offer my condolences. I would like to express my sincere regret and apologize for the remarks I made about the Hasidic community and the development of Montclair, NJ.
“My personal statement was meant to focus on the impact of gentrification on lower socioeconomic communities in Montclair, NJ. Instead, I used a regional example of Lakewood, NJ real estate and public education funding. Unfortunately I used terms and examples that have been interpreted as anti-Semitic.
“My statements were in no way connected to or reflections of views and values held by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People(NAACP) or the New Jersey Association of Black Educators(NJABE). I will remain dedicated to working for equal; rights and justice for all residents of Montclair. I respectfully ask that everyone please accept my apology,” Harris said.
Harris was not immediately available for comment on the NAACP’s decision.

On Monday, a meeting took place between Jewish and African American clergy from Montclair and the surrounding area, at the invitation of Mayor Robert Jackson. No comments have been made of what occurred at the meeting.

During a council meeting on Monday, resident Woody Woods criticized township officials for what he saw as a failure to immediately ask Harris to cease his remarks.

Any act of hate speech, whether based on race, religion or other factors, should immediately be stopped, Woods said. “This is America. We’re all human beings,” Woods said.

Pelham thanked Harris for his 40 years of service with the NAACP, including holding numerous leadership positions.

“Unfortunately, his comments come at a time in this divided country when hate has overpowered love and compassion. While the purpose and theme of the
Dec. 30 meeting was around unity, his comments have created a firestorm and will only serve to further divide us as a community,” Pelham said.

Former Civil Rights Commission chair Joe Kavesh spoke out on Harris’s behalf on Monday having worked closely with him on civil rights and related causes over the past decade.

“He has been a tireless advocate for justice, and I have always believed his heart is in the right place. Coincidentally, I am Jewish, and I do not believe James Harris is anti-Semitic, nor is there anything in his past that would suggest to me that he is. It is my hope that this controversy does not get exploited for political purposes, and that everyone can move forward to work on our common goals,” he said.

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