Left to right, Walter Berbrick; Sandra Cano; Don Carlson; Stephen Casey; John Goncalves; Sabina Matos; Ana Quezada; and Aaron Regunberg participate in the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island forum for 1st Congressional District candidates Tuesday at the Dwares JCC on Elmgrove Avenue in Providence. (Jocelyn Jackson/Rhode Island Current)
PROVIDENCE — The rise of antisemitic harassment and Israeli politics took center stage Tuesday night during a forum attended by Democratic candidates running for Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District seat at the Dwares Jewish Community Center of Rhode Island.
The forum, attended by an audience of about 100 people, offered a brief respite from the barbs thrown at recent debates as candidates embraced a respectful tone in condemning anti-semitism and elaborating on their positions on U.S.-Israeli relations.
Eleven of the 14 candidates received invitations from the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island to be on stage. They included: Former White House Aide Gabe Amo, former candidate for Secretary of State Stephanie Beauté, former U.S. Naval War College Professor Walter Berbrick, Pawtucket state Sen. Sandra Cano, Yale Law Professor Donald Carlson, Woonsocket state Rep. Stephen Casey, Providence City Councilman John Gonçalves, Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, former Providence Rep. Aaron Regunberg, and Providence state Sen. Ana Quezada.
The Rhode Island Republican Party’s endorsed candidate, Gerry Leonard, was invited but did not attend.
Former South Kingstown state Rep. Spencer Dickinson and Allen Waters and Republican candidate Terri Flynn were not invited because they did not meet a campaign fundraising threshold requiring the filing of reports with the Federal Election Commission.
Providence’s Temple Beth-El Senior Rabbi Sarah Mack served as moderator. Her first question asked candidates what specific policies they would support to address the rise of anti-semitism. Mack cited 41 instances of anti-semitic harassment reported to the Alliance between July 2022 and July 2023. She said it was part of a 36% rise in incidents from 2021 to 2022.
“As the only person up here, though certainly not in this room, who’s been asked where my horns are?” replied Regunberg, the only Jewish candidate on stage, acknowledging his experience dealing with harassment and discrimination.
“The antisemitism we’re most concerned about is coming from the far right,” Regunberg said.
He cited the Biden Administration’s National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism, released in May, in his answer.
“It’s really important we understand the role this kind of hate plays,” he continued. “I think it’s really important we create a historical foundation for understanding how this hate is utilized.”
Across the board, candidates echoed some of those points, saying that education was the best tool to fight hate. Cano pointed to efforts she has made in the state Senate to promote genocide education.
“I think that we need to pass protections across the country not only for reporting,” Cano said. “But also to ensure education that’ll stop these hate crimes.”
Matos said that as a congresswoman, she would examine policy across the spectrum to increase physical security for those in vulnerable communities.
“It’s not lost on me that every time I come here, there is someone guarding the entrance,” Matos said. She said she would seek funds from the Department of Homeland Security to fund security measures — like security guards — for community groups.
Matos spoke in support of a ban on assault weapons, which have been used in mass shootings targeting Jews.
“This is something that has been used unfortunately too many times against the Jewish community,” she said.
Israeli judicial reform
Candidates were also asked on how the U.S. should approach the seven-month long protest movement rocking Israel after conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed through a series of judicial reforms critics say would concentrate power in his hands.
Most candidates said they had concerns regarding the reforms and how it may affect Israel’s governance. Several cited the nation’s decades-long alliance with the U.S. as reason to support Israel.
“The U.S.-Israeli alliance has been built on a foundation of strong democracy,” Berbrick said, adding that there may still be points of disagreement. “I’m going to make sure Israel has what it needs to defend itself.”
“We have to be at Israel’s side no matter what.”
I’m going to make sure Israel has what it needs to defend itself. We have to be at Israel’s side no matter what.
– Walter Berbrick, a Democrat running for Rhode Island's open 1st Congressional District seat and a former U.S. Naval War College professor
Amo said Israel, as the region’s only democracy, was a strategic asset to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
“I’m hopeful that leaders in Israel are taking heed of the strength of the protest movement there,” he said. “We would not want to have this current situation take us off the path to do whatever we can do to build democracy in the region.”
Gonçalves, whose longtime partner is Jewish, was the only candidate to mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the evening.
“We need a long-term solution that provides dignity and safety for the Israeli and the Palestinian community,” he said. “I stand in support of Israel and its success unequivocally.”
Gonçalves said he believed Netanyahu should be held accountable for his “anti-democratic judicial coup and unjust racism.”
“Condemning Netanyahu’s actions is not condemning an entire country and people, which is an important distinction to make,” Gonçalves said. “It’s not anti-semitic to criticize a government or policy.”
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Correction: This story has been updated to correct the number of candidates invited to attend the debate. Incorrect information was previously provided to Rhode Island Current by the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island that all candidates had been invited to the event.
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