First published in The Asbury Park Press on November 17, 2019.
Hate crimes in New Jersey rose for the third straight year in 2018, according to a new report from the FBI. That should come as no surprise to anyone, certainly not anyone living in Ocean and Monmouth counties, where much of that hate has been directed toward the Orthodox Jewish community.
The hate must stop. It’s the job of every decent citizen, public official and parent to do their part to stop it. That is the goal of APP’s Unity Project, primarily through education and facilitating face-to-face contact between Orthodox Jews and the non-Orthodox. (See information about our next meeting below.)
According to the FBI report, more than a third of the hate crime incidents — nearly 200 — involved people who were targeted because of their religion. Worse, the total number of hate crimes, as well as those related to religion, have nearly doubled over the past two years.
It also should be understood that the reported incidents of hate crime mask the true number. Reporting by law enforcement agencies is voluntary, and many choose not to do so, including those in some of New Jersey’s largest cities. Also, many incidents are never reported to police. Some people fear it may lead to further harassment; others don’t bother because they don’t believe it will lead to arrests or changed behavior.
Incidents of anti-Semitic behavior in the Lakewood area this year have been especially disturbing.
In September, two Jewish residents were standing near the curb in front of a home in Jackson when a vehicle swerved at them, forcing them to jump onto the curb to safety. Passengers in the vehicle yelled obscenities and insults about their religion. The vehicle drove around a second time, swerving at the residents again.
In August, a man caught on video — but not yet by police — slashed the tires of more than 100 vehicles in Lakewood. Police said all the vehicles were owned or operated by members of the Jewish community. A week earlier, tires had been slashed on the vehicles of about a dozen vehicles in Lakewood. Again, the vehicles all belonged to Jews.
In April, Brick Mayor John G. Ducey received a death threat on Twitter in response to his reply to an anti-Semitic tweet. Ducey, who had been criticized for not acting quickly enough to denounce an anti-Semitic remark that the township’s parks and beaches were being “invaded” by Hasidic and Orthodox Jews and being “ruined.” Ducey responded that “Our parks security has started already. Just call police with any problems and they will send them out.” He later said his remarks were taken out of context and tweeted that “This twitter feed (and the world in general) is no place for bigotry or hateful comments.”
Earlier this month, the state Attorney General’s Office determined there was probable cause to find the Marine Academy of Science and Technology at Sandy Hook failed to respond properly to anti-Semitic harassment of a Jewish student, including fellow students scrawling “I H8 JEWS” at a high school event and drawing swastikas on a cafeteria table.
All of those incidents ran parallel to disturbing actions that continue to be taken by public officials in Jackson and Toms River, in particular. They have failed to quell fears in their communities that they will be transformed into clones of Lakewood. They have failed to lash out against anti-Semitic remarks that have permeated local social media sites. And largely through zoning and other ordinances, they have sought to keep the Orthodox out. Decisions overtly targeting the Orthodox are sure to be overturned in the courts. Some already have been. Effort expended at trying to isolate the Orthodox and discourage them from relocating to their communities should be directed instead at working to ensure that they are welcomed and treated civilly when they do inevitably arrive.
To a large degree, negative attitudes toward the Orthodox are driven by fear and ignorance. Municipal leaders have an obligation to counter both.
In the meantime, Lakewood and neighboring towns are filled with organizations and individuals dedicated to civility, tolerance and improving relations between people of all faiths, races and ethnicities. Join with them in helping to combat hate and bigotry.
We will be holding our next Unity Project meeting of volunteers on Wednesday, Nov. 20, at 7:30 p.m. at the Asbury Park Press building, at 3600 Route 66, Neptune. We will be meeting in the 2nd floor conference room.
At the meeting, we will provide an update on Steering Committee plans for the next few months and seek input from everyone on our main goals: educating our communities about the Orthodox religion and customs, and improving relations between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox and seeking ways to facilitate more contact between them. We also will be looking for people to help disseminate our content via social media, and assist with our events and outreach efforts.
Please join us. And bring a friend. If you can’t make the meeting but want to help with the Unity Project, email us at UnityProject@gannettnj.com.
Randy Bergmann, a Westfield native and lifelong resident of New Jersey, has been covering the state as a reporter, editor and opinion page editor for four decades. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 732-643-4034.