This story was updated on Dec. 18, 2019 with additional reporting.
The day after a deadly attack at a Jersey City kosher grocery, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the formation of a new unit of the New York Police Department that would focus on racially and ethnically motivated crimes, including anti-Semitic crimes.
“There is a crisis of anti-Semitism gripping this nation, there is a crisis of anti-Semitism in this city,” said the mayor at a press conference Dec. 11, one day after four people were killed in what authorities later characterized as an act of domestic terror aimed at Jews and law enforcement. “Now we have seen this extraordinarily extreme form of violence reach the doorstep of New York City and we have to take that as a warning sign.”
Local leaders appeared to appreciate the additional resources. But some privately wondered why it took an extreme act of violence in Jersey City when Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn have been complaining for months about street attacks there.
“We in the community have felt the undercurrent of anti-Semitism for a long time,” said Rabbi Niederman, president of the United Jewish Organization serving the Satmar Hasidic community in Williamsburg. “But especially in the last 13 months since the Pittsburgh shooting.”
“I think it’s another step in the right direction in accountability and prevention,” said Devorah Halberstam, a community leader in Crown Heights whose son was killed in 1994 in what was deemed a terrorist attack years later. “I actually do not think it’s related to Brooklyn. [The new unit] certainly will not hurt that. Will it prevent what’s happening on a day to day basis? Maybe yes, maybe not.”
Anti-Semitic incidents, ranging from graffitied swastikas to ripping off women’s wigs or hats to violent assaults on Orthodox men on the street, have become more commonplace in New York City in recent years. As of Dec. 15, according to NYPD figures, there were 213 anti-Semitic hate crimes this year, an increase of 20 percent over last year’s total of 177. According to the NYPD, anti-Semitic incidents in 2018 increased 22 percent over incidents in 2017.
The mayor did mention the rash of anti-Semitic incidents in Brooklyn at the press conference where he announced the new NYPD unit. “There has been an uptick in hate crimes in this city directed against the Jewish community, some acts of vandalism and hateful symbolism, but some physical assaults,” he acknowledged, before devoting most of his focus to the shooting in Jersey City and attacks motivated by white supremacy. (One of the Jersey City shooters, David Anderson, was allegedly involved in a Black Hebrew Israelite group, whose members believe that African-Americans are the true Jews. He and accomplice, Francine Graham, died in a shootout with police. At press time, their motivations remain murky.)
The mayor’s focus on right-wing anti-Semitism, which the Anti-Defamation League said was tied to all extremist-related murders in the United States in 2018, is at the core of the new NYPD unit. Named REME for “Racially and Ethnically Motivated Extremism,” the unit will bring together staff from several city agencies already working on hate crimes to share information and coordinate investigations and prevention. The unit will be housed in the intelligence unit, part of the NYPD, and will be staffed by about 25 people.
“It’s a compilation of bringing together some of the processes that were already in place within the Intelligence Bureau, adding manpower to it, and also bringing in partners…all under one roof to really look at groups that deal with hate and to get ahead of any potential further actions that take place,” said NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea of the new unit.
While Jewish community leaders were appreciative of the added resources, some were unsure of whether the new NYPD unit would help curb anti-Semitic incidents in Brooklyn. “Every additional resource is important,” said David Pollack, director of Public Policy and Security at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. “And the idea to deal with racially motivated crime is important although, thank God, we’re not seeing white extremism, hate crimes committed by white extremists here in the New York area. It could happen at any moment but right now we’re not seeing that.”
Pollack said the JCRC was not consulted on the new NYPD unit.
Declining to comment on the new NYPD unit, Rabbi Eli Cohen of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council said the most important piece of preventing anti-Semitic incidents was a strong police presence. “I feel that the most important thing is that we should have the maximum resources for prevention, for ongoing patrols on the streets,” said Rabbi Cohen. “It seems like the police department doesn’t have enough resources.”
At a press conference Thursday, in response to a reporter who noted that “a lot” of the assaults in Brooklyn were perpetrated by black suspects, de Blasio made clear that he viewed anti-Semitic attacks from right-wing extremists as the more imminent threat.
“In the last hundred years of human history, the greatest danger to the Jewish people has come from right-wing extremism,” said de Blasio. But he made clear that all anti-Semitic violence, no matter the source, was a problem. “Any hate, any anti-Semitism, I don’t care if it’s left, right, or center, is unacceptable…I don’t care what the race is, we’re going to attack it all.”
Unlike violence inspired by white supremacist ideology, the street attacks in Brooklyn have been harder to characterize, according to law enforcement and local community leaders. While some have blamed the uptick on tensions related to gentrification, changing neighborhoods or social media, others have blamed President Trump’s rhetoric and a partisan political dynamic.
“No one knows,” said Pollack. “Anyone who tells you they know, they don’t.”
At last Wednesday’s news conference, de Blasio spoke of restorative justice, often posed as an alternative to jail time where the victim and perpetrator of a crime will meet and often involves community service.
But he also raised the possibility of harsher sentences for perpetrators of hate crimes to deter offenders. “Now maybe there needs to be a harsher outcome,” said de Blasio.
Devorah Halberstam agreed. “There should be zero tolerance for hate crimes,” Halberstam told NJJN. “What’s lacking here is accountability.”
Some wondered if too much responsibility was being put on police to solve the problem in the first place. “When it comes to homelessness, we throw it on them, when it comes to mental health issues, we throw it on them,” said Rabbi Motti Seligson, director of media relations at Chabad.org. “I don’t think they’re the right agency or department in the city to be dealing with” anti-Semitism.
He called for educational initiatives in public schools to fight hateful stereotypes about Jews. “If there’s one department that we could make an impact on this issue with, it’s the department of education,” he said.
Halberstam echoed Seligson’s calls for others to be involved in fighting anti-Semitism. “They can’t be in all places at all times,” said Halberstam of the NYPD. “They’re doing the best they can.”
The new NYPD unit comes on the heels of the Office of Hate Crimes Prevention, a new division of the mayor’s office founded in September and headed by Deborah Lauter, a former senior vice president at the Anti-Defamation League. The new office brings together a number of city agencies, including the NYPD, City Commission on Human Rights, Department of Education, Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to “prevent and respond to hate crimes,” according to the mayor’s announcement at the time of its founding. Lauter has put a particular focus on education for children as a means of preventing anti-Semitic attitudes from taking hold in adults.
The news of the new unit was followed this week by the passage of a bill in the House that would increase funding for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which funds security improvements at nonprofits, houses of worship, and schools, to $90 million from $60 million last year.