MONTCLAIR — A longtime civil rights leader has been suspended from his position with the Montclair NAACP amid a firestorm over comments he made about Hasidic Jews in other New Jersey communities.

James Harris issued a written apology Monday evening for his remarks at a Dec. 30 forum.

"My whole life has been devoted to civil rights and promotion of justice and equity for all people. I abhor violence against any community," Harris said, while condemning the recent violence in Jersey City, in Monsey, New York, and "all of the recent hate crimes against the Jewish communities."

"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."

On Tuesday, Montclair NAACP President Albert Pelham said the organization had suspended Harris from his post as education chairman for six months following an executive committee session Monday night.

"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," Pelham said in a written statement.

Harris, who also is chairman of the New Jersey Association of Black Educators, said in his written apology: "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)."

The polarizing comments from Harris were made at a end-of-year session hosted by Montclair Fourth Ward Councilwoman Renee Baskerville. A resident who attended the forum shared video from Harris' remarks on Facebook.

During his time at the podium, Harris began by mentioning diversity in Montclair and across New Jersey.

He then mentioned Lakewood, which Harris said is the "Orthodox center of the United States of America."

Harris said in his role as the chair of the NJABE, he found it amazing that "the Jewish community controls the Board of Education and the City Council — but they spent huge amounts of money sending kids to the Yeshivas. And, they've gutted the budget for the black and Latino students who are left in the public schools."

In addition to mentioning Hasidic Jewish communities in both New Jersey and New York, Harris said "the Hasidics are generally not too interactive with anybody other than themselves."

During his nearly 20-minutes of remarks, Harris also said "I found out that people are very quick to label anything as critical of Israel or the Jewish as anti-Semitic."

"Excuse me, if facts are facts, it doesn't necessarily make it anti-Semitic," Harris said in the comments live-streamed on Facebook.

David Greenstein, a rabbi in Montclair, was the first to contest Harris' remarks at the same Dec. 30 meeting, while Marc Katz, a Bloomfield rabbi who also attended, shared a written response to Harris' "problematic" comments a day later.

"Hasidic Jews were the only real example he gave of the problem of changing demographics. This is a how anti-Semitism works. Jews are blamed as the sole cause of society's problems. There are a lot reasons for our housing shortages in Montclair. Jews moving to Lakewood is not one of them and only serves to stoke fear," Katz said on his own Facebook page.

Noting Harris' decades of leadership with the Montclair branch of the NAACP, Pelham said "his comments come at a time in this divided country when hate has overpowered love and compassion. While the purpose and theme of the December 30th meeting was around Unity, his comments have created a firestorm and will only serve to further divide us as a community."

Montclair Mayor Robert Jackson on Saturday had promised a swift sit-down between rabbis and African American clergy to address the relationship between the Jewish and African American communities.

That meeting also took place Monday afternoon, according to Jackson.

"Hate, bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism, and intolerance have no place anywhere and particularly in our community and as a community we will work tirelessly to ensure that they are addressed head-on and rooted out," Jackson said in his Jan. 4 written statement.

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