New York’s youngest elected official is determined to fight anti-Semitism

Lafazan says it’s time for younger Jews to run for office and make policy changes that will help both Jews and other minorities in an attempt to stop bigotry.

By Joseph Wolkin, World Israel News

In New York, Joshua Lafazan, 26, is already one of Long Island’s most vocal politicians.

He’s been serving the public since he joined the Syosset Board of Education before even graduating high school.

Lafazan continues to work his way up the political ladder. In November 2017, he was elected as the legislator of the 18th District in Nassau County. The victory made him the youngest elected official in the history of New York.

In 2019, Lafazan was reelected, once again serving the district in a heavily diverse area within the Town of Oyster Bay on Long Island.

This came just months after he became an adjunct professor at Long Island University. His popular course is titled: “Running for Office in the 21st Century: Why America’s Next Generation Can Run For Office Now and Win.”

Lafazan is determined to fight anti-Semitism not only in his own district, but in New York State and beyond. He’s seen anti-Semitism on Long Island, and his message is clear. It is time for younger Jews to run for office and make policy changes that will help both Jews and other minorities in an attempt to stop bigotry.

Q: What does it mean to you to be Jewish?

“It means a lot considering it’s a strong part of my identity. My grandfather Boris was a refugee of the Holocaust. To hear the horror stories of he, his family and millions like him went through just because they’re Jewish gives me a strong feeling of just how much the Jewish people have had to overcome.

“We’ve faced centuries of historical oppression. Knowing that history, to be proud of my Judaism is why I speak out against injustice, not just against Jewish people, but people everywhere. Not only do I feel a strong sense of Jewish pride, but it guides my outlook as a policy maker in terms of seeing injustice and speaking out.”

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Q: What needs to happen to slow down the trend of increasing anti-Semitism?

“First and foremost, we have to speak out categorically and swiftly to admonish those making these comments and actions. We need people of all faiths to condemn anti-Semitism unappologetically and loudly. We need to do a better job of educating. With the rise of social media, we have to reach kids earlier. We have to explain that words have meaning and historical injustices.

“While running for school board, somebody made a fake Twitter account with a Jewish star on my forehead to mock me. I remember how hurtful that was. I grew up in Syosset, which had a vibrant Jewish community and Jewish holidays were recognized. I went to Hebrew school down the road. It was a wake-up call that, though my hometown might be tolerant, the world may not be.

“Then, my world was rocked when I was in Israel for my cousin’s bar mitzvah and heard of the news that swastikas were drawn on the walls of Syosset High School. I feel that young people don’t understand the weight of that symbol and their actions. We need to do a better job of teaching. We have to continue to have the urgency of having Holocaust survivors come speak to classes.

“I know many of my non-Jewish classmates will never forget hearing the horror stories from Holocaust survivors. This was not centuries ago or something they read in a textbook, but it was something they saw with their own eyes.”

Q: Why do you feel people commit hate crimes?

“Quite frankly, I think the derivation of many of these cases is ignorance. There are so many people who spew hate on the internet and in other places. They are scapegoating the Jewish people as the root of problems across countries around the world, and that is not a new phenomenon. A truly effective antidote to ignorance is education. Education at a younger age is crucial, especially when children hear prejudicial comments from their parents. We can teach them that just because mom and dad might have a prejudicial view doesn’t mean you have to.”

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Q: About a year ago, in your district, the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County became the victim of a hate crime with swastikas defacing the property. What went through your mind when that happened?

“My first emotions were outrage and anger. I had an urgency to act. When swastikas were drawn at Teddy Roosevelt Park in my district, I put together a coalition of religious leaders to denounce the act. We had a fund for information that led to the arrest of the perpetrators. This was the first time I had done this, but it’s a coalition I now have together. Going forward, it’s crucial to catch these perpetrators. Those who perpetrate hate in broad daylight and sell fear in our communities should be admonished and brought to justice.”

Q: When anti-Semitic incidents happen in your area, you’ve always mentioned your grandfather. What is his story?

“My grandfather Boris is one of my heroes. He was a refugee from the Holocaust in Poland. He came to this country with nothing. He and my grandmother built a life from nothing in Brooklyn, raising four daughters, including my mom. What he and my grandmother have told me time and time again — one of the proudest moments I’ve had is hearing this from them — is that, ‘You are our version of the American dream.’ From the horrors of what he saw first-hand, he doesn’t harbor hatred.”

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Q: What would it mean to you to run for higher office at some point and represent your family legacy in that regard?

“It would be incredibly important to me. Likewise, when I ran for school board, it was just two generations later. To see their grandson go to Cornell and Harvard, and then run for office is, in their own words, ‘Only in America.’ It renews my faith in how wonderful this country is. To represent my family in the highest levels of government would be exceptionally important. I have cousins currently serving in the Israeli Defense Force and I would love to bolster the alliance between Israel and America. It would be an honor. We’ll see what the future holds.”

Q: What’s your message for younger Jewish people who are considering running for public office?

“My message is that anti-Semitic attacks exist. It underscores the need for you to run. I share that message far and wide. The fact that hatred exists means you have to run. We need young Jewish leaders in America and across the world to stand up against injustice.

“I find that, when I speak to young Jewish leaders, they’re not just concerned about anti-Semitism, but hatred of all types. It’s why that when there were attacks on the Muslim community, I went to the Islamic Center of Long Island and stood with [President] Dr. Isma Chaudhry. It’s why I continue to stand up against hatred and why I march with my Black brothers and sisters in Nassau County. What I find is that because Jewish people are so acutely tuned in to the level of hatred directed at them, I find young Jewish leaders want to eradicate that hate at anybody.”