From left, Reps. Al Green (D-Texas), Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.), and Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) in Teaneck at a House Committee on Homeland Security hearing on violent extremism, terrorism, and antisemitic threats in New Jersey. (Courtesy of Rep. Gottheimer’s office)
Last week, Scott Richman did something unusual as he prepared for Rosh Hashana services at his synagogue. He draped a device with a panic button around his neck to alert authorities in case the unimaginable happened.
“Like so many worshippers, I spent the service distracted by the fear that our synagogue could be next — the next Colleyville, the next Jersey City, the next Tree of Life,” said Richman, referring to violent antisemitic attacks that killed 17 people and terrorized countless others in Texas, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
Richman, the Anti-Defamation League’s regional director for New Jersey and New York, joined a handful of Jewish leaders, security officials, and anti-hate experts who spoke Monday during a two-hour Congressional hearing in Teaneck on violent extremism, terrorism, and antisemitic threats in New Jersey.
“As Yom Kippur begins tomorrow, I urge you to remember the way that these threats tear at the fabric of our communities, our democracy, and our country,” Richman said. “Now! Now is the time for action.”
The House Committee on Homeland Security convened the hearing to raise awareness of rising extremism and brainstorm solutions after antisemitism hit record highs last year, in both New Jersey and the U.S.
Last year, the Anti-Defamation League fielded 2,717 reports of antisemitism nationally, the most since it began tracking such incidents in 1979, according to its annual audit. In New Jersey, 370 antisemitic incidents were reported.
U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a committee member whose district includes Teaneck, said the surge in hate incidents has impacted both his constituents and himself — he is a member of the Rutgers University fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Psi, that someone egged last week in an act of antisemitism.
“I hear stories of residents having to carry pepper spray around town and fear letting their children go out to play,” Gottheimer said. “This shouldn’t be the new normal.”
Rising rates of antisemitism affect more than the Jewish community, because they’re rooted in conspiratorial thinking that separates everyone into “us and them,” warned Kenneth Stern, director of the Center for the Study of Hate at Bard College.
“Antisemitism gets more traction when democratic norms are threatened, endangering more than just Jews,” Stern said.
White supremacists’ “great replacement” narrative, pushed by conservative commentators like Tucker Carlson, originated in antisemitism, said Susan Corke, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project.
“This racist conspiracy, which says there’s a systematic, global effort to replace white European people with nonwhite foreign populations, provides a central framework rooted in antisemitic ideology for the white supremacist movement,” Corke said. “The theory has motivated many deadly terror attacks.”
Corke said her center has identified 26 hate and anti-government groups in New Jersey, many with antisemitic ideologies such as the Nation of Islam.
Testimony during the hearing covered a lot of ground, with debate on everything from whether anti-Zionism is the same thing as antisemitism, if politicians have a duty to call out hate speech within their party, and whether academic freedom protects professors who weigh in on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Stern suggested policymakers mandate national service for high schoolers — bringing kids of different backgrounds together — to increase understanding.
He also recommended following the dollar.
“As a society, we calculate the cost of many things — potholes even. But what does hate cost us?” he said.
His center is now working on an economic analysis of what hate crime costs. He urged policymakers to include financial impact in regular reporting of hate crime statistics.
Antisemitism gets more traction when democratic norms are threatened, endangering more than just Jews. – Kenneth Stern, Center for the Study of Hate, Bard College
Antisemitism gets more traction when democratic norms are threatened, endangering more than just Jews.
– Kenneth Stern, Center for the Study of Hate, Bard College
Corke agreed that expanding anti-racism education would help “inoculate young people against radicalization.”
She also urged lawmakers to fund digital literacy education and enact reforms to hold technology and social media companies accountable for misinformation and hate that spreads on their platforms.
Rabbi Esther Reed, interim executive director of Rutgers Hillel, called on committee members to invest more in security for religious institutions.
Rutgers Hillel has used federal funds to install bollards in front of their building to prevent cars from ramming the building and rear fencing to prevent intruders.
“We don’t want our institutions and facilities to be ringed with security devices, but sadly, they have to be,” Reed said. “The Jewish community needs more funding to keep us safe.”
She also asked lawmakers to require the U.S. Department of Education to better protect the rights of Jewish students, saying “dozens” of cases of antisemitism remain open, including one filed in 2011.
“Many of the other pending complaints are also over a year old and have yet to be investigated,” she said. “Every week that goes by is another example of Jewish students’ rights to equal opportunity not being protected.”
Holly Huffnagle, the American Jewish Committee’s U.S. director for combating antisemitism, said because antisemitism occurs most often during election cycles, Jewish holidays, and flareups in the Middle East, authorities should be on alert and prepared to provide support to the Jewish community at those times.
She also urged policymakers to publicly condemn antisemitism and avoid grouping it “with other hatreds and bigotry when it was only the Jewish community attacked.”
Failing to call out antisemitism specifically, she said, is “unhelpful and even hurtful.”
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