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Religious, ethnic groups announce coalition to fight hate in Southern Az

A coalition of more than 50 religious, ethnic and race-based organizations from Tucson and Southern Arizona was formed in response to recent local incidents of antisemitism, anti-Asian sentiment, Islamophobia, and racism.

“Any attack on any race, religion or ethnic group is an attack on decency and good and on all of us,” the organizers of the coalition said in a statement that they read at their first meeting on Thursday. “We urge everyone in Southern Arizona not only to reject all such attacks, but to build bridges of respect and acceptance.”

The members of the group met for the first time at the Tucson Jewish Community Center on Thursday to announce the mission of the coalition.

Speaking at the front of the group, Sam Cohon, a rabbi with the congregation Beit Simcha of Tucson, said that they came together to "assemble as a coalition and to start to have ongoing meetings with community leaders." They also want to know how to respond as a group when faced with hate crimes in Southern Arizona, Cohon said.

Earlier in the month, a rabbi at the Chabad on River synagogue in Midtown Tucson found a swastika and an ethnic slur spray-painted on a side door of the Jewish place of worship.

The CEO of the Tucson Jewish Community Center, Todd Rockoff, said talk of this coalition’s formation started soon after that incident but is more a response to a larger issue of hate that religious and ethnic communities wanted to recognize.

“The impetus for local synagogues to come together happened after the recent attacks,” Rockoff said, also referring to an earlier act of vandalism at Tucson’s Congregation Chaverim. “It turned into a larger recognition of hate and bigotry that was reaching into a variety of corners of life in Tucson and Southern Arizona.”

At a group meeting with representatives present in-person and over Zoom, the individuals representing 52 different religious and ethnic-based organizations took turns speaking on the need for them to come together to push Tucsonans to get to know each other.

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“This isn’t just about us as community leaders standing up to stay something. Don’t wait for the community leaders to do something. Get to know your neighbor,” the president of the Culture of Peace Alliance, Sat Bir Kaur Khalsa, said. “It’s very important that we understand each other and that we’re learning how to talk and hearing each other with respect.”

Some of the groups represented in the coalition include Dunbar Center, the Chinese Cultural Center, NAACP, Chicanos Por La Causa, Pan Asian Community Alliance, University of Arizona Hillel, Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, University of Arizona Pan Asian Council and the Young Women’s Christian Association.

No magic pill exists to solve hate, Rockoff said. What this organization plans to do is create an environment of mutual respect and friendship among groups there and in communities throughout Southern Arizona, he said.

The members of the coalition said that this is this being the first meeting, they’re only starting. When asked how far ahead the coalition is looking, Cohon jokingly said “Well this was our first meeting, so 30 years at least.”

But commenting on how large the challenge ahead is, Sara Metz, a rabbi with Congregation Anshei Israel, said “It’s not upon us to finish this task. It’s upon us to start it.”

“We had a week to do this,” Cohon said. “We realize this is a first step.”

Different members of the coalition said that fostering friendship and dialogue will be critical to preventing future acts of hate.

“We’re not waiting for the next incident,” said Rockoff. “”We’re working together regardless of whether there is an attack. We’re trying to be proactive, on reactive.”

This first meeting provided reassurance for many participants, including Gokhan Dorum, who came representing the Sema Foundation, a local groups that helps Muslim migrants from Turkey, Central Asia and the Balkans.

Rockoff said that even though the coalition doesn’t have local government support, he hopes that Mayor Regina Romero’s statements condemning the Chabad on River attacks will be a foundation for them to cooperate in the future.

“Our migrant community (that we work with) is quite well-established at this point and have a good idea of what it's like living here,” he said. “But we don’t want anything to violate their sense that this is a place of togetherness or that hurts who we are as a community. For us, any attack hurts us as a community, and we want to work against it.”

The Tucson Jewish Community Center played a lead role in forming the coalition over the past few weeks by hosting the conversation among the different community leaders, Rockoff said. In the future, Cohon said that all the groups hope to be leaders in their own community segments and hope people throughout Tucson take the initiative to understand each other and connect.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel

Rabbi Sam Cohon speaks to the press to announce the formation of a coalition against hate and bigotry at the Tucson Jewish Community Center on June 17, 2021. Joined by nearly three dozen faith leaders, Cohon and others hope to form relationships among faith leaders as a response to the vandalism of two Jewish congregations in Tucson over the last several weeks.