In the search for solutions to a spike in anti-Semitic attacks around the city, some have begun challenging a new bail law that eliminates pretrial detention for misdemeanor and nonviolent felony suspects.
Following violent attacks on Jewish victims in Brooklyn and a bloody home invasion in Monsey, top officials, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, appear open to modifying the new law to allow for bail in cases of hate crimes.
The poster child for the backlash against the bail law — a reform championed by civil rights activists — is Tiffany Harris, a Brooklyn woman charged with attempted assault for striking three Orthodox Jewish women Dec. 29. She was released on her own recognizance in accordance with the new law, which bars judges from imposing bail for misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. She was arrested the next day for allegedly punching a woman on Eastern Parkway. She was released with supervision but rearrested days later after allegedly punching another woman. She was then ordered to be held for a psychiatric evaluation.
U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Suffolk County) cited Harris’ case in tweeting that the bail reforms are “a disaster.”
“A bigger, stronger example should have been made of this violent anti-Semitic criminal, not the opposite,” he tweeted. “Neither weakness, ignorance or pandering are going to help here to stop the rise in violent anti-Semitic attacks.”
Dov Hikind, the former assemblyman and founder of Americans Against Anti-Semitism, said he believes that “to make an impression on people who hate, we have to be tough. If there is no consequence, they will do it again.”
Cuomo, Stewart-Cousins and other Democratic lawmakers appear to agree that the new bail law needs modification, at least when dealing with hate crimes. Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein, who represents Borough Park and Midwood, said his proposed legislation would include hate crimes as a qualifying offense for which a judge would have the discretion to set bail because those who “harbor irrational and harmful hate are more likely to be repeat offenders.”
Assemblywoman Amy Paulin of Scarsdale has proposed similar legislation.
Proponents of bail reform say the need to post cash bail places a burden on the poor, and that people who haven’t been found guilty of any crime are regularly detained. The new law replaces cash bail with “supervised release,” in which eligible, lower-risk defendants can remain at home and continue working while waiting for trial.
Several progressive Jewish organizations on Monday released a statement in support of bail reform, saying the law shouldn’t be changed on account of the anti-Semitic attacks.
“As Jews, we are called to support bail reform because our values tell us that we must not accept a justice system that criminalizes poverty or that perpetuates racial injustice,” said the statement, from Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, Avodah and Kolot Chayeinu.
“We are dismayed by elected and law enforcement officials who are preying on tragedies for political gain. We refuse to let them weaponize Jewish people’s pain in the wake of anti-semitic violence to try and undo bail reform.”
Bail reform isn’t the only response to the anti-Semitic attacks that has some worried about unintended effects. As police have increased patrols in Jewish communities to try to stem the sudden upsurge in anti-Semitic attacks in the city, some worry about the impact on the Hispanic and African-American communities.
“I don’t know if it’s a problem that cops can solve,” Jumaane Williams, the city’s public advocate, told JTA. “I think cops should be used for acute situations and we have to work with our police officers. But anytime we directly go there and we have to have more cops for everything, that means the rest of us are failing.”
MaNishtana, a Jew of color who is a writer, lecturer and rabbi, agreed, telling The Jewish Week: “If anything, extra policing is not going to relieve tensions but only create more tension. … I see it as only creating more of a powder keg.”
Asked what he believed was behind the recent spike in anti-Semitic attacks in the city, MaNishtana replied: “There is no particular rhyme or reason for it. It is simply an outgrowth of the anti-Semitic rhetoric being heard in the country, rhetoric that has escalated since the election of President [Donald] Trump, the dual loyalty trope that is being leveled and after the attack on the Pittsburgh synagogue.”
But others praise the police for adding patrols.
Devorah Halberstam, who became a prominent Brooklyn community activist after her son Ari, 16, was shot dead in an anti-Jewish terrorist attack on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1994, said: “We are at a crisis point and we absolutely need the police. Nobody loves the idea of police standing outside their door — they want freedom and privacy — but at a time like this we absolutely need to have the coverage. There is a lot of fear around. People are afraid for real reasons; the police absolutely have to be here.”
Ken Belkin, a prominent criminal defense attorney in Manhattan, said he too believes the extra police are needed because of what he described as “an insidious anti-Semitism in the city.”
He said as he walks through neighborhoods he sees “anti-Semitic literature from the Nation of Islam at neighborhood book stands. They offer a new spin on what was once Nazi propaganda — about how Jews heavily participated in the intercontinental slave trade — claims that are not rooted in truth. … I think it’s a good thing the NYPD is deploying its resources in this manner. … This shouldn’t be happening in New York City, home of the largest Jewish population, but it is important we don’t ignore it.”
Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, said he has begun speaking regularly with Rev. Al Sharpton to try to figure out what has caused an outbreak of anti-Semitic attacks by mostly African-American suspects.
“I have been involved in black-Jewish relations for over 30 years and have worked with Al Sharpton for the last 15 years to bring about reconciliation and to strengthen black-Jewish relations,” he said. “We are baffled as to what is triggering this reaction in the African-American community. Why now? And it is not coming from African-American youth. These attacks are being committed by grown adult men and women in the African-American community.”
In a letter to senior national security officials, five New York members of Congress requested an investigation to see whether foreign adversaries are using social media and taking other steps “to foment hate and civil unrest across America.”
Between Dec. 13 and Dec. 20 there were 16 suspected anti-Semitic hate crimes committed in the city — an average of more than one per day, according to Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino.
New York City now has the highest level of anti-Semitic hate crimes going back to 1992, he noted, adding that through the third quarter of last year, 53 percent of the perpetrators were white and 42 percent were committed by blacks. But in the last quarter, the majority of the perpetrators were black and “we’re seeing more assaults and personal threats.”
Most of the anti-Semitic attacks last month were committed in Brooklyn. A spokesman for Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said he is troubled by the increase and is committed to punishing the most violent perpetrators.
Cuomo has also announced that the state will be spending $45 million this year on increased security grants to religious institutions and schools.
Meanwhile, UJA-Federation has given a $250,000 grant to the Community Security Service (CSS) as part of its efforts to help Jewish institutions “ensure the safety and security of their members,” according to Hindy Poupko, the group’s deputy chief planning officer.