BY Alex Hubbard
Despite a July report of increased anti-Semitic incidents in New York, and a subsequent report from a state senator asking for changes in hate-crime legislation, reaction among Jewish religious and academic leaders was muted following a peaceful September holiday period.
The Anti-Defamation League announced in July that anti-Semitic incidents rose in New York and New Jersey during 2012 while declining 14 percent nationwide in 2012, to 927. The audit also found a 33-percent rise across the country in vandalism against Jewish property or property considered to be part of Jewish life.
Incidents rose to 248 in 2012 in New York state, from 195 in 2011, driven by New York City, which increased from 172 incidents from 127. New Jersey saw an increase to 173 from 144 incidents.
New York state also tracks hate crimes and the motivations that spark them, but numbers for 2012 have not yet been released. In 2011, anti-Jewish hate crimes made up 73 percent of hate crimes motivated by religion—197 out of 254 such crimes against religion reported to authorities, according to state numbers.
The increase that the ADL noted caught the attention of state Sen. Brad Hoylman, a Democrat representing much of Midtown West, who cited the ADL numbers in a report that recommended changes to New York’s hate crime statute. Hoylman asked for measures to ensure the statute’s effectiveness, as well as mandating training for law-enforcement officials in how to handle hate crimes.
Hoylman’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The ADL audit found that other states with large Jewish populations, such as California, Florida and Massachusetts, all posted declines in reported incidents. Still, reaction in more than a half dozen interviews and conversations with local Jewish academics, rabbis and members of the Jewish community indicated most were unconcerned, and some were outright dismissive.
“I don’t know if that’s completely surprising, considering how well populated New York City is and how densely populated it is with people who identify as Jewish,” said Yonah Hain, who serves as the rabbi at Columbia University’s Hillel chapter. “You have more people; you have more prevalence of most types of life phenomena.”
Dan Smokler, a rabbi at New York University’s Hillel chapter who was contacted via email for this story, declined to be interviewed, saying, “We don’t really face a great deal of anti-Semitism here, thank Gd.”
But for Helen Shere, a student at the Icahn School of Medicine, who experienced anti-Semitism while in high school in Ohio, two incidents had real consequences. Shere, 21, never reported the first time someone painted a swastika on her school locker, in September of 2008, nor did she report a second incident the following January.
She opted not to report what had happened, despite the fact that she felt strongly that she knew the culprit — a boy who had verbally taunted her a year earlier. Shere, who was raised in a reform Jewish home and decided to become Orthodox at age 15, had reported that incident but was reluctant to report the swastikas, after the school told the boy that it was Shere herself who reported the taunting.
“There’s no way to keep my anonymity in this kind of case,” Shere said. “I remember they didn’t even try to keep it anonymous.”
For reasons as simple as this, and as complicated as the difficulty of prosecuting crimes of hate, a Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that only 35 percent of hate crimes were reported to authorities from 2007-2011. More than 250,000 hate crimes happen each year, according to the BJS report, higher than previously thought and much higher than government statistics suggest. Additionally, only 4 percent resulted in arrests during 2007-2011.
There are many reasons for underreporting, including different reporting standards from state to state and long-standing impressions that police are either not helpful or enemies of certain populations, said Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University, who analyzed the BJS report for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website.
Additionally, “motivation is a central element” and “motives are often difficult to prove,” Levin told SPLC.
The BJS based its findings largely on the National Crime Victimization Survey, which allows victims to disclose crimes that were previously unreported to authorities. The ADL’s audit is made up of numbers from reported incidents in 35 states and Washington, D.C., and like the BJS, includes both law-enforcement reports and incidents not given to authorities but reported to ADL offices.
Deborah Lauter, ADL civil rights director, said that the organization’s audit serves as a non-scientific snapshot of anti-Semitic incidents, but “an average of two to three incidents a day in 2012 is still far too many,” she said, referring to the most recent estimate of 927 nationwide incidents.
But Hasia Diner, the director of the Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History at New York University, questioned both the significance of the numbers and the motivation behind them.
“The level of Anti-Semitism in New York, as well as any place else is extremely low,” Diner said. “It doesn’t mean that there aren’t deranged individuals who engage in such acts, but they don’t represent any kind of groundswell.”
In her opinion, there are “many people within the organized Jewish world who want to make it seem like there’s a lot of anti-Semitism.” She feels that organizations like the ADL can be driven by a desire to be seen as the group that speaks for all Jews.
Ari Goldman, a journalism professor at Columbia who attends synagogue and has written widely about religion, disagreed, saying that if the ADL really intended to raise alarm,the numbers would have gone up across the country, not only in New York. He also stressed the ADL’s extensive track record—since 1979—of delivering credible analysis of anti-Jewish incidents.
Goldman found little reason to be concerned over the rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the city and state.
“I would tend to believe the numbers,” he said. “But they don’t alarm me until there is a trend over several years. If this is one year where it spikes, I would hope that it’s not a trend and it levels off.”
Interviews indicated an almost unanimous agreement that anti-Semitic expression and hate crimes tend to increase during Jewish holidays and during especially fractious periods in the Middle East, when Israel is typically mentioned in news reports.
“Such slurs were particularly present during Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel’s November 2012 military campaign against the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza,” an ADL report stated, referring to an Israeli offensive against Hamas, the Palestinian group that the U.S. government considers a terrorist organization.
While September’s Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur passed without major notice in the city, Hain, the rabbi at Columbia, said synagogues typically take proper action.
“We rely heavily on the campus security, and they invest in our unique population,” he said. “I think local synagogues invest a little more based on the different times of the year and based on what kind of events they’re having.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that there were 980 anti-Semitic incidents nationwide in 2012, according to the Anti-Defamation League. The story has been revised to reflect the accurate figure of 927 such incidents.