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Commentary: A heartwarming gathering took place on Saturday, July 29, at the synagogue Congregation Beth Israel in Bellingham. Sponsored by One Whatcom, a relatively new human rights group in the county, its stated objective was to “offer support to our Jewish community in the face of rising antisemitism.”
The Anti-Defamation League has documented a rise in acts of intimidation and violence against Jewish Americans in this era of white nationalism spurred by the Trump presidency. Hate crimes against Asians also spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic as many blamed China for the spread of the virus. Despite the fact that Whatcom County had elected a Sikh, Satpal Sidhu, as county executive in 2019, the local Sikh community, no stranger to acts of intimidation, grew very concerned.
One Whatcom was born during the wave of hate crimes against Asians in March 2021. Kamalla Kaur, executive director of the Sikh community outreach group the Chardi Kala Project, contacted Connect Ferndale and Better Together Lynden to network with other community groups who might have similar concerns regarding anti-Asian violence and racial intolerance in general. The three groups allied as One Whatcom and began to have intercommunal meals at the Gurdwaras, Sikh places of worship.
Last weekend, it was the Jewish community’s turn to be uplifted. The program included the Jewish service to end the Shabbat at sundown on Saturday. It was also an occasion to honor Holocaust survivor, the late Noémi Ban. A long-time Bellingham resident, Ms. Ban became widely acclaimed as a public speaker and educator about the Holocaust. Rabbi Joshua Samuels performed the Shabbat rituals and shared a summary of Ms. Ban’s life story.
Lummi Nation violinist and human rights activist Swil Kanim performed and told stories of his Jewish friend who let him practice violin at his house, and his encouraging Jewish violin teacher.
Synagogue Social Action Committee chair Linda Blackwell said “when approached to hold the event with Kamalla and One Whatcom, our social action committee was enthusiastic . We were so grateful that anti-racist groups in Whatcom county wanted to honor Holocaust survivor Noemi Ban and also offer support to our Jewish community in the face of rising antisemitism.”
“Chardi Kala” means keeping our spirits uplifted by grace. The Chardi Kala Project began in 2018 to respond to racial discrimination against Sikh Americans in Washington state. The Project sees education and building connections between communities as the best ways to create better understanding.
Connect Ferndale began in the fall of 2019 after a period when the white nationalist Patriot Front had plastered anti-indigenous and anti-immigrant posters and stickers up and down Main Street. That was unsettling to folks who sought to counter such racism and project a different image for the community. Their mission statement reads “Connect Ferndale cultivates community growth and connection through civic participation and community building to advance inclusion, honor diversity, and encourage participation for everyone in our community.”
Better Together came about in Lynden as a result of events surrounding the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman in May 2020. The movement began with a few young people standing on Front Street holding signs stating things like “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace!” They met with a mix of supportive and threatening responses from passersby over several weeks. Better Together staged a March for Black Lives on July 5. They expected perhaps 100 people to participate and some counter-demonstrators as well. When several hundred marchers arrived and were met by counter protesters, some of whom had guns mounted on pickup trucks, Better Together resolved to continue its racial justice advocacy.
When I began to hear the buzz around One Whatcom last year, I heard it described as a network of movements that had formed in the north county signaling that racial justice was not only the concern of Bellingham liberals. However, Kamalla told me that was not the case. Last November the communal meal was held at the new Singh Sabha Gurdwara in Bellingham. She said “when we say One Whatcom, that’s what we mean. Our goal is to create and deepen friendships, share meals, and come together to fight hate crimes everywhere in the county. That includes Bellingham.”
All of the organizations sponsoring the event, including the Social Action Committee of Congregation Beth Israel, have ongoing schedules of programs. One Whatcom is planning its next community meal with the Latino community in Lynden in the fall. Each of these groups can easily be found via your favorite search engine. Be on the lookout for them as ways to support the emergent multiracial democracy in Whatcom County.
— Contributed by Vernon Damani Johnson
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