A young man walked out of Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, Maryland, on Rosh Hashanah 5778. He wore a yarmulke on his head, as did many celebrating the Jewish New Year across the District of Columbia, Virginia, and other parts of Maryland. Marking the holiday connected him with Jews around the world, but this man’s sense of joy was abruptly disrupted when a passing vehicle slowed down so the passengers could deliver their own holiday greetings. Through an opened window, they screamed two words:
This young man was verbally assaulted for no other reason than being Jewish in public — and not in Europe during the 1930s, but in Maryland in 2017.
“Yes, this was in Maryland. In Potomac. On a major road,” Maryland State Sen. Cheryl Kagan wrote online after hearing about this incident. “The driver clearly had no fear of sanction or consequence as he left behind him a terrified and depressed neighbor who had just been celebrating the New Year.”
Earlier in the month and over the summer, anti-Semitic pamphlets were found in multiple locations in Montgomery County, Maryland. Georgetown University experienced three incidents of anti-Semitism on campus, including a swastika painted in a women’s bathroom, also discovered on Rosh Hashanah. American University is currently investigating an incident near its Hillel office.
The Georgetown and Congregation Har Shalom incidents on Rosh Hashanah
were reminiscent of the incidents during Passover of this year at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia in Fairfax and at Little River United Church of Christ in Annandale. Swastikas and other symbols of hate speech were found on the buildings and surrounding the properties. What is different about the Virginia events, however, is that an individual was already arrested and charged for these crimes.
The Uniform Crime Reports Program, part of the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division, tracks hate crimes across the United States. According to the most recent publicly available federal data (numbers for 2016 won’t be available until next month), U.S. law enforcement agencies reported 1,402 hate crimes based on a religious bias in 2015. Of those, 52.1 percent of crimes were motivated by “anti-Jewish bias,” the highest proportion for any religious group. For comparison, anti-Muslim bias accounted for 21.9 percent and anti-Catholic bias accounted for 4.3 percent of all hate crimes motivated by religion.
Looking locally, the 2016 Annual Report on Bias Incidents published by the Montgomery County Department of Police found a 42.4 percent increase of hate incidents compared to 2015 (94 versus 66, no specification for religious bias), “with most of the increase coming at the end of the year” following the presidential election.
In 2017, all indications show that the events in Charlottesville in August did not occur in a vacuum.
In Rockville, Maryland, local police identified four separate incidents between July and September 2017 when pamphlets — which featured white nationalist propaganda and were anti-Semitic in nature — were posted on street signs, telephone poles, and elsewhere. These occurred on Great Falls Road and West Montgomery Avenue. In Chevy Chase in September, a Jewish family found a pamphlet containing conspiracy theories and other anti-Semitic screeds at the front door of their home.
Sen. Kagan wants to attribute these incidents to ignorance, she said, but “with Montgomery County having such a large Jewish population, these perpetrators surely have friends, classmates, and neighbors who are Jewish.”
This personal connection makes it a “bigger offense,” she said.
She attributed the uptick in public incidents of hate in word and action to the current state of political rhetoric in the U.S. The hate doesn’t simply start and end with the Jewish people either, she said, sharing that she has heard from constituents who were told to “go back to where you were born” by strangers on the street just because of the color of their skin.
In June 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs released a special report on “Hate Crime Victimization.” It found that about 54 percent of hate crime victimizations were not reported to police from 2011-2015.
Andrew Friedson, who is running for the Montgomery County Council, spoke of the need to report bias incidents.
“Every act is not always a hate crime necessarily, but bias incidents are investigated and tracked and taken very seriously by our police,” said Friedson. He continued by saying that “information is power, and therefore, reporting all threats and acts of bigotry are an important part of preventing it.”
Friedson pointed to the reaction to the Chevy Chase incident as a case study and model of how to respond to such acts as a community. He recommended:
1.) Contacting your local police department to document the incident for them to investigate;
2.) Reporting it to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) at www.adl.org/report-an-incident and to the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Washington; and
3.) Hosting a community conversation with all directly and indirectly impacted parties.
“It is vitally important that when these incidents occur, every sector of the community needs to respond by repudiating and speaking out but also by educating about anti-Semitism and intolerance,” said Daniel S. Mariaschin, CEO of B’nai B’rith International (which, incidentally, established the ADL). “That means educators, churches, and public officials, among others, need — every time — to rise to that occasion.”
The conversation must also address the online world in addition to the real one: According to a 2016 press release, over the course of last year the ADL tracked 2.6 million anti-Semitic tweets that were seen an estimated 10 billion times, which the organization believes “contributed to reinforcing and normalizing anti-Semitic language — particularly racial slurs and anti-Israel statements — on a massive scale.”
The Greater Washington community — Jewish and beyond — is rising to the occasion. After the anti-Semitic flyer was found in Chevy Chase, town council member Joel Rubin contacted Friedson, who connected the victim and town officials to leaders at the Jewish Community Relations Council, the ADL, and local police. That prompted a community forum organized by Rubin that included representatives of the Montgomery County police and the State Attorney’s Office, the ADL, and Communities United Against Hate. Each spoke about the issue, what can be done as concerned citizens, and what can be learned from it to respond to all forms of hate as a community pro-actively.
The Virginia Attorney General has launched the “No Hate VA” program, Maryland's Attorney General addressed an interfaith gathering on hate crimes convened by the Baltimore Jewish Council, and the 23rd Annual ADL in Concert Against Hate will be hosted at The Kennedy Center on Oct. 30. All of these efforts are integral to a meaningful dialogue that can serve to unite our communities in the face of forces that would divide them.
By Jason Langsner
Jason Langsner is the volunteer chair for Israel Bonds Young Investors Society in Washington, D.C., and the vice-chair for Israel Bonds New Leadership Council.