Jews in New York—especially those living in Orthodox communities—are on edge.
Repeatedly during the eight nights of Hanukkah, while most American Jews celebrated religious freedom by proudly placing our candlelit menorahs in the window, visibly Orthodox Jews living in Haredi and Hasidic communities in New York were under attack. While some of us can “pass,” all of us are targets. Eight anti-Semitic incidents were reported in New York City during Hanukkah. Then, on Saturday evening, an intruder wielding a machete entered the home of a rabbi lighting candles on the seventh night with his community. The attacker severely injured four people, one of whom still remains hospitalized in critical condition.
This succession of anti-Semitic attacks is both terrible and terrifying, and this is a moment when all Jews must stand in solidarity with Hasidic and Haredi Jews, in opposition to rising anti-Semitism generally and the anti-Semitic attacks that have been targeting them specifically. Despite our differences, we must remain united and undivided in our resolve to combat anti-Semitism, wherever and however it originates.
We welcome the support that has been forthcoming from African American, Muslim American and immigrant community leaders who are eager to work with the Jewish community to develop effective approaches to addressing the anti-Semitism that motivated these attacks.
That is why Liel Leibovitz’s column, “Sitting Ducks,” was so troubling.
At a time that calls for unity and finding common ground to develop real solutions to a serious problem, he is pinning blame for the attacks squarely upon the city’s “Democratic political establishment,” “progressive politicians,” and “left-leaning Jewish organizations,” accusing them of “no longer working to protect us.” Rather, Leibovitz accuses them of “encouraging more attacks, and escalating the violence against our community.”
Leibovitz’s example-in-chief is “criminal justice reform,” which he derisively refers to in quotation marks. In particular, he focuses his disdain on New York City’s implementation of the new bail reform law. Leibovitz suggests that the city’s implementation of bail reform has resulted in the release of dangerous criminals onto the streets who have in turn targeted Jews in anti-Semitic attacks.
Suggesting that bail reform and criminal justice reform are at the root of these anti-Semitic attacks is irresponsible and inaccurate. Leibovitz appears to be oblivious to the fact that the new law does nothing to alter New York’s existing statutes, prohibiting judges from factoring into the decision on bail whether someone poses a danger to the community. He also betrays what is either bias or ignorance by describing bail reform as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “new sentencing guidelines.”
In so doing, Leibovitz overlooks the fact that in this nation one is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Bail is what a court requires an individual who has been arrested and charged with a crime to pay in order to be released until their trial. A sentence is what the court imposes only after that individual has been convicted.
Undoing bail reform will do nothing to help address the increase in anti-Semitic attacks or increase the safety and security in Orthodox communities.
Moreover, bail reform was supported by the mayor, but it was enacted by the State Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in order to address a serious, systemic, racist dysfunction in the criminal justice system that caused many individuals charged with nonviolent crimes, but not yet convicted, to remain behind bars because they could not afford to post bail. They became the targets of bondsmen who charged predatory interest rates and their inability to post the high bail amounts left them behind bars for months, sometimes years, even though they had not been convicted of any crime. The regressive and discriminatory bail system has played a central role in helping to perpetuate the catastrophic racial disparities that have decimated confidence in the fairness in our criminal justice system.
New York’s overdue bail reform law, which tracks similar legislation already enacted in New Jersey and California, eliminates cash bail in an estimated 90% of cases, but this applies only to misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. In cases involving the most serious crimes, including nonviolent felonies, judges retain the discretion to impose cash bail requirements. Moreover, the new law does nothing to hinder the ability of judges to impose non-monetary conditions, such as pretrial supervised release.
Undoing bail reform will do nothing to help address the increase in anti-Semitic attacks or increase the safety and security in Orthodox communities. What it will do is perpetuate the racial injustice that inheres in criminal justice system and deepen divisions among the various communities that need, more than ever, to be finding ways to work together to address anti-Semitism.
Rather than making incendiary arguments about bail reform, we need to be taking a serious look at strategies that will actually reduce hate and prevent anti-Semitic attacks against Orthodox Jews from recurring.
These include constructive approaches being advocated by key elected officials in New York that have the potential to be far more effective, because they focus on community building and on bringing together diverse stakeholders.
Gov. Cuomo released a powerful statement of solidarity
He signed this statement along with an inclusive, diverse and interfaith array of more than 130 faith leaders (the authors of this op-ed are among them), recognizing that we have a shared responsibility to combat anti-Semitism, bigotry and hatred in all of its ugly manifestations because, as the statement makes clear, “an attack against one of us is an attack against all of us.”
Mayor de Blasio has deployed an increased security presence at sensitive religious locations and high-density Orthodox areas.
This is part of a broader strategy that also includes new Neighborhood Safety Coalitions that will bring together diverse stakeholders, creating an entity that maintains a physical presence in the community with neighborhood safety walks and corner watches. When hate crimes occur, the Neighborhood Safety Coalitions will mobilize a community response and conduct ongoing programming that promotes tolerance and breaks down stereotypes.
In addition, recognizing the crucial role education can play in preventing hate crimes from occurring, the mayor also announced that the city’s Department of Education will implement neighborhood-specific hate crimes curriculum for middle and high school students, as well as a citywide program that will discuss discrimination and religious intolerance and identify ways to promote acceptance, inclusion and diversity. Such programs must be broadly inclusive of all stakeholders and address other forms of bigotry and hatred, not just limited to antisemitism.
Physical security at religious institutions
To increase physical security at religious institutions, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer proposed quadrupling $90 million in funding that has already been allocated for the federal Not-for-Profit Security Grants Program. This program provides grants to nonprofits at risk of being targeted, including synagogues, mosques, churches and other faith-based community centers, enabling them to improve the security of their facilities.
Finally, we need to address the significant role that mental health plays in hate crimes. At least one third of the anti-Semitic attacks in New York have been committed by seriously mentally ill individuals. As a society, we have virtually abandoned treatment of those suffering from serious mental illness, and treatment programs must be strengthened.
Diverse Community Coalitions
Much more work needs to be done to build on these measures, including building coalitions and channels of communication within the Jewish community, as well as with leaders in the African American community and other allied communities, all of which have offered their active support. These proposals represent a more promising beginning to the development of more thoughtful and effective responses to the anti-Semitic attacks in Orthodox communities. It is critical that we avoid divisive approaches, like advocating for rolling back bail reform, which will hurt innocent people and only serve to amplify divisions and perpetuate cycles of violence.