The message at LIU Post’s inaugural State of Anti-Semitism conference was clear across all speakers: hate crimes against the Jewish community are on the rise locally and nationally.
Anti-Defamation League New York Regional Director Evan Bernstein said his organization’s mission in its 103 years is to stop the defamation of Jewish people while securing justice and fair treatment for all people.
According to Bernstein, New York Police Department has tracked 111 anti-Semitic hate crimes in the five boroughs this year, which is a 40 percent increase relative to the same point last year, and 40 percent of the 270 hate crimes are anti-Semitic.
Bernstein also said of the cases tracked by the Anti-Defamation League last year, 1/3 were on Long Island. But numbers aren’t everything, Bernstein said.
“Numbers don’t capture what happened Sunday when I’m playing with my son, and I’m contacted by a board members who’s neighbor in Riverhead walked out of his house to get his Sunday New York Times, and when he turns around, he sees the word ‘Jew’ spraypainted on his door,” Bernstein said. “Numbers also don’t capture the orthodox Jewish man who this winter had chunks of ice thrown at him by two teenagers in Brooklyn. The numbers don’t capture the fear of an elderly woman and what she must have felt when her neighbors yelled at her ‘Nazis did not kill enough of you.’ That’s why it’s so important to look beyond the numbers because these events have a true impact in our community.”
A law enforcement panel consisting of Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of New York Nadia Shihata, FBI Supervisory Special Agent Anthony Bivona, Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas, Suffolk County Police Commissioner Timothy Sini and Nassau County Acting Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder spoke about and answered questions on local trends on Long Island and in New York.
Singas said forums like the one at LIU Post are part of the reason that a Hate Crimes Act became part of state law in 2000.
“At the time, many people wondered if we really needed hate crimes legislation,” Singas said. “Is it really necessary, and can’t we just prosecute an assault against one person the same way as we prosecute assault against another person? Is it right for us to say this assault deserves a higher penalty than this one? The answer at the time and since is an overwhelming yes, it is absolutely necessary because what we find is that hate crimes not only targets an individual but targets an entire community.”
Singas said Nassau County created a hate crimes unit this year, working with county officers and detectives to investigate and prosecute any hate crime.
Ryder explained how a hate crimes case is dealt with in Nassau County, starting with the patrol officer who responds to the scene initially. From there, a squad detective begins an investigation before the biased crimes unit, created in 1980, or Special Investigation Squad works through the case.
“We still push that out today,” Ryder said. “That’s where a lot of our issues start, it’s with our children. If a kid has done it once, they’ll do it twice, three times. Hopefully they’ll get the idea and change, but we’ll continue to monitor them through social media.”
Conference attendees were concerned about a row of temples in Great Neck along Old Mill Road, where an estimated 6,000 Jews will worship during the High Holy Days in late September at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Great Neck Synagogue and Temple Beth-El. Ryder said he has met with Nassau County Legislator Ellen Birnbaum as well as the rabbis of all the Nassau County towns, and his department is ready to cover that area and all county temples.
Shihata said the Eastern District covers Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and Long Island, a very diverse district with residents of many different faiths and backgrounds.
“I think it’s fair to say anyone who’s watching the news can see there has been a spike in biased-based crimes and general rhetoric in the country and unfortunately in our district as well,” Shihata said. “I want to be clear, on behalf of my office, that we are committed to being available to the community and pursuing these types of crimes to the fullest extent possible.”
When prosecuting anyone for a hate crime, Shihata said she aims to try people in state court before federal court because of New York’s double jeopardy laws.
“We like to get involved early,” Shihata said. “What we often do is wait until a state proceeding has run its course before a federal charge is brought. If the federal government were to proceed first, it could prevent the local DA’s office from bringing charges if we were unsuccessful in our case.”
Bivona said his office has been especially busy this year, dealing with a number of bomb threats nationwide allegedly aimed at Jewish community centers.
“Its been a traumatic year for the Jewish community throughout the country, not just here in New York,” Bivona said. “The most important thing is reporting crime, no matter how insignificant you think it might be. We’ve seen a number of cases where people have come in to talk about what they think is a hate crime, and sometimes we’d take a look at it and we couldn’t really prove a hate crime, but we could be able to prove some other kind of charge like cyberstalking.
“Don’t be afraid to report anything. Let us look at it, and let us make the determination if it’s a violation of law.”
Keynote speaker Deborah Lipstadt, one of the most respected Holocaust historians who was recently portrayed in the 2016 film “Denial,” closed the conference, outlining the underpinnings of the anti-Semitic world-view and its rhetoric.
“One of the first things to understand about anti-Semitism is that it is a delusion,” Lipstadt said. “It is delusional. Think of some of the charges that an anti-Semite makes: the Jews are all rich capitalists; the Jews are all communists. The Jews are pushy, they like to be in places where people don’t want them. Or Jews are insular, they live in the ghetto, they only want to deal with one another. Well how can that be?
“To the anti-Semite, it makes complete sense because the prism through which their view is refracted is coated with an anti-Semitic veneer. On top of that, it is a conspiracy theory. It’s not just a prejudice.”