BENNINGTON — On Monday, Bennington Select Board Vice Chairman Michael Keane issued a public apology for negative comments made towards a Bennington resident, and citizens spoke out, harshly criticizing his words.
Chairman Thomas Jacobs said he had been in Canada for a large part of last week and was "surprised and disappointed" to come back to the news that Keane had posted on his personal Facebook page a picture of resident Joey Kulkin standing in the doorway of Fiddlehead at Four Corners, with the caption, "Doorway with detached isolate, perhaps a dybbuk."
A dybbuk is a creature from Jewish folklore, the malicious soul of a dead person who possesses a living body. Kulkin, who is Jewish, responded by calling the comments anti-Semitic, and wrote, "Keane specifically chose a derogatory Jewish term to spit on me as well as other Jews in Bennington, Vermont, and around the world. (His) bigoted comments were both hurtful and a vile representation of the worst parts of humanity."
"He had made the front page for reasons that are not acceptable to him or your's truly," said Jacobs.
Keane requested the opportunity to address the issue, and said, "I really want to start by saying how sorry I am for the post that I put on my Facebook page that week that Joey Kulkin and many others found offensive. I've spoken with Joey and extended my apologies to him. I also offer my apologies to our community for my ill-conceived choice of words. It was not my intention to challenge Joey's religious or ethnic heritage. I have great respect for people of the Jewish faith and traditions. I have been married to a Jewish woman for 32 years. If there were a speck of that bias in me, Edie would have picked up on that, and we would not be together. She would not put up with that for one minute. Again, I apologize."
Dianna Ivey-Leake, co-president of the Congregation Beth El's Board of Trustees, submitted a comment to the Banner on behalf of the congregation, saying, "Congregation Beth El, the Bennington region's Jewish center, admonishes Michael Keane for his use of an offensive slur taken from Jewish folklore towards a member of this constituency. We encourage fruitful and respectful personal and political discourse, and counsel against the use of slurs in all communication, especially that which takes place in the public eye. We particularly encourage caution against the insensitive or careless appropriation of slurs that are drawn from any religious group's folklore, including our own."
Keane's wife, Edie Sawitsky, spoke at the meeting, and defended her husband, saying that dybbuk simply means "wandering spirit" and noting that it does not appear in the Racial Slur Database an rsdb.org, which features 118 other derogatory terms for Jewish people. "I wanted to be here because I do not want anyone to think that I don't support my husband 110 percent."
James Lawton, whose wife, state Rep. Kiah Morris, D-Bennington, was the subject of disparaging comments on social media regarding her race last week, spoke of the importance of eliminating hateful discourse. "We have to return to civil discourse," said a visibly emotional Lawton during the public comment period of the meeting, "This is a cornerstone of our democracy." He said the town needs to move back to the Bennington he has known, not the one that sees residents make racist attacks against his family, and not the one where political figures display similar behaviors toward their own citizens.
"This needs to change, for the safety and well-being of everyone," he said, "True hate is living in our community, the scale of which goes beyond the comprehension of most of us who live here. They are living next door to us, they are working out at the gym next to us, and they are shopping in the stores that we frequent. They are monitoring and participating in our social media platforms. They are members of neo-Nazi and other white supremacist groups, and their rage and their hatred is so deep in their hearts that they are a very real threat to the health and well being of the people they choose to target. That is why I implore you to understand that as representatives of our community, elected or otherwise, the words you to use in public, on social media or any other platform, carry so much weight. It is of vital importance that, as representatives of this town, we rise above the types of actions that involve racial and ethnical attacks and other disturbing discourse in our communications on any medium, or we are no better than them, and we're adding fuel to the flames of these dangerous individuals, who are listening for their calls to arms."
For her part, Morris posted this message to her campaign's Facebook page in response to the Keane incident: "This isn't about political correctness or Freedom of Speech," she wrote, "this is about openly identifying, calling out and correcting hateful actions and words. These acts are part of a continuum of bias and discrimination. While these recent acts were overt, many experience other acts in silence and without reparation. We each have an obligation to take direct action. Think carefully about language and what it means. No matter how much we oppose another person's ideology, politics, or personal behavior it does not, nor should it ever give us license to use bigoted actions or language to level our disapproval. This type of behavior has no place in our communities."
"Knowing (Keane) is not a dangerous man, like the person behind my wife's attacks, does not make the post okay," said Lawton, "especially because he is a representative of this town, and is supposed to be a leader of our community. I, as well as my wife, reached out to this board member personally and admonished him dearly for what he had done. I told him that his first apology for this action was weak and it seemed very insincere, and I suggested that he step up and do a much better job... I told (Keane) that he very well could have made (Kulkin), as well as his family, a new target for these people. He heard me, and he responded very positively."
Jeff Grimshaw of Bennington said this is not just a single incident for Keane. "I, and my business (the Facebook-based media outlet, Bennington News Network), have been the victim of hundreds of attacks by Mr. Keane, ranging from our incompetence to outright mockery, and it went on, and on, and on... Mr. Keane came to me, hat in hand, last October and apologized for all of those, and I accepted that apology. Due to outside circumstances, those attacks have started again, so, I would caution the board that we need to hold Mr. Keane accountable for this apology. It's easy to backslide into a long, long pattern of behavior, and I'm glad everyone wants to see it stop. It must stop now."
"You've heard Mr. Keane's apology," responded Jacobs, "Whether it is accepted by the community, he can only offer it. And I can tell you, we don't have to go falling on our swords. When you make an apology, you make an apology, and if that's accepted by the community, well and good. We're hoping the community recognizes that it was a sincere response to a situation that was obviously beneath his dignity. Frankly I have confidence that he has both the skill and the wisdom to take it to heart."
— Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.