"Don't believe everything you read on the internet."
While this familiar internet meme uses humor to make its point, the point is a serious one indeed. When we encounter a news item on a website, we need to ask: Who is saying this? Are they doing reliable journalism, or are they spreading false or misleading news or disinformation?
This issue has come to the forefront here in Bennington over the past couple of days, since a string of buses began dropping children off at the former Southern Vermont College campus for a summer camp run by a New Jersey organization called Zichron Chaim. Quickly, a highly inflammatory story with the headline "Jackson NJ Lawbreaker Sets Up Sketchy Summer Camp In Vermont?" from an organization called Rise Up Ocean County began making the rounds.
Let's step back a moment and ask, who is Rise Up Ocean County? According to their tagline, their mission is "Mobilizing to preserve and improve the quality of life in Ocean County."
But that's not how the New Jersey Attorney General's Office sees them. Instead, they see them as peddlers of anti-Semitism and racism.
"In April 2019, the Director of our Division on Civil Rights, Rachel Wainer Apter, sent a letter to Facebook expressing concerns with a page on the company's social network entitled 'Rise Up Ocean County,'" New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal said in a joint statement in January. "We had serious concerns with racist and anti-Semitic statements on the page, including an explicit goal of preventing Orthodox Jews from moving to Ocean County, and we made clear our view that the page appeared to violate Facebook's terms of service. We have continued to follow up with Facebook since that initial letter in April, and we renewed our concerns as recently as this week."
The state was not alone. The news website NJ.com reported on Feb. 5 that "... posts like one last year stating, 'We need to get rid of them like Hitler did,' in reference to the county's Orthodox Jewish population have drawn criticism from groups including the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a global anti-Semitism watchdog group, which have called on Facebook to take down the Rise Up page."
In February, Facebook acted, taking down Rise Up Ocean County's page for the use of "hate speech."
Knowing about Rise Up Ocean County's history of anti-Semitism, it becomes clear why the organization has tried to inflame passions against these visitors, making unsubstantiated allegations that we cannot responsibly repeat here.
What we know about the Zichron Chaim camp is what we have reported: That they have worked with local and state permitting officials, and that local and state officials say they believe the camp is in compliance with all applicable regulations, including those having to do with COVID-19.
It's worth remembering that Gov. Phil Scott announced on May 29 that, as part of his plan for reopening the state, overnight youth summer camp programming would be allowed to resume in a limited capacity and with strict safety and travel procedures, beginning June 7.
State Sens. Dick Sears and Brian Campion issued a joint statement on Monday, saying, "We reached out to the offices of the governor, attorney general and the Department of Public Safety to make certain that the new tenants at Southern Vermont College are following the state's health guidelines and the governor's executive order on COVID. The state was not aware of the lease until we contacted them as all permits were provided by the town of Bennington."
It should be noted that Southern Vermont College, which previously agreed to lease the campus to Zichron Chaim, filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition on July 1, and the board of trustees was dissolved at that time. This could account in part for a lack of sufficient notice that the campers would be coming to Bennington.
But Sears and Campion raise a good point. At a time when residents are quite reasonably concerned about their safety from COVID-19, it is easy to understand why the arrival of 350 or so children and adults from outside the state would set off alarm bells. It's regrettable that the public was not better informed before the buses started arriving.