A rash of hate crimes — including two sets of anti-Semitic messages found over the Labor Day weekend in Queens and two violent assaults in Brooklyn last week targeting identifiably Jewish men — greeted the city’s new hate crimes czar this week as she begins her new job.
“It’s absolutely disturbing, and that is why this office is more important than ever,” said Deborah Lauter, executive director of the city’s new Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes. “In the past, such actions were simply condemned. But the mayor and the City Council recognized that we need tangible action to prevent them.”
The anti-Semitic messages left at a beach club in Fort Tilden, near Rockaway Beach — including swastikas, the words “Heil Hitler,” “Gas Chamber” and anti-black slurs — and another two days later and about three miles away scrawled in the sand at a beach in Belle Harbor — caught the attention of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who put a national spin on it Monday by telling reporters that what happened is “part of this new national anger and anxiety and frustration where we are demonizing differences. I believe it’s the tone set by the president, who has unleashed the dogs of hatred.”
Asked if she believed President Trump’s rhetoric is responsible for the climate of intolerance today, Lauter, a former senior vice president at the Anti-Defamation League, told The Jewish Week, “Words have consequences.
“We are in a period of time where we see polarization and tensions in society, and it is incumbent upon elected officials at any level to set a tone of civility and speak out against hate crimes. That is why I’m excited about this new role because the mayor and the City Council are stepping up and doing something about it.”
The Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes is part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Office of Criminal Justice. In announcing in June that it would open this summer — months ahead of the November date established by the City Council — de Blasio said the city “rejects any attempt to hate or divide” and that the new office would “work to root out hate and make our streets safer.”
But when the office didn’t open by the end of last month, some members of the City Council complained that de Blasio was too busy campaigning for president and ignoring city business while hate crimes jumped more than 40 percent as of Aug. 25, compared with the same time period last year, according to police statistics.
Police said also that from 2017 until the first quarter of this year, there were a total of 405 hate crimes, of which 134 or 33.1 percent were anti-Jewish. Police arrested 134 people for anti-Jewish hate crimes, 54 percent of whom were white, 33 percent black and 8 percent Hispanic.
Asked her response to those who believe it is now open season on Jews in the city, Lauter said, “When you look at the most recent attack in the park and the quick response from city officials, you can’t take that for granted. I’m careful about engaging in hyperbole.”
She continued: “We need a very thoughtful approach and we need to take hate crimes and anti-Semitic incidents seriously and not raise fears unnecessarily. It is natural for the Jewish and LGBTQ communities to have that response. Hate crimes have a very different kind of impact, not only on the individual but the full community. That is why we are bringing resources to address it in a holistic approach.”
Among the city agencies the new office will work with to coordinate responses will be the New York Police Department, the City Commission on Human Rights, the Department of Education, the Department of Probation, the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and the District Attorney’s offices in each borough.
Lauter held a press conference on Tuesday at City Hall; de Blasio did not attend. In June, he had said anti-Semitism was a right-wing phenomenon, but Lauter said it comes from both the left and the right. And she said that because hate is something that is learned, it “can be unlearned.”
She told The Jewish Week that “education is the key to breaking down stereotypes against all people. The swastika has become the symbol of hate, and the more education the better. If you look at the hate crime statistics in New York, about 80 percent were swastika incidents. The swastika raises fear in our community, and [teaching about it] … should be incorporated into a general anti-bias education.”
Among the cases Lauter’s office is tackling are the separate attacks last week on two identifiably Jewish men in Crown Heights. Last Thursday, a group of men threw a rock through the driver’s side window of a delivery trunk that was sitting at the corner of Brooklyn Ave. and Prospect Place. The rock broke the window and struck the Jewish driver in the eye, cutting his face. He refused medical attention.
Two days earlier and about a dozen blocks away, authorities said, Rabbi Abraham Gopin, 63, told cops he was exercising in a park when someone approached him and began throwing punches. The rabbi said he fought back and then the assailant uttered an anti-Semitic slur and hurled a paving stone at him. It missed and the assailant fled, leaving the rabbi bloodied from head wounds, bruises, two broken teeth and a broken nose. He was treated at a hospital and released after receiving several stitches.
Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL’s CEO, said Gopin’s assault was the “latest in a really disturbing pattern of violence and harassment directed at Jews in Brooklyn. We need action before more people get hurt.”
Evan Bernstein, New York regional director of the ADL, said in a statement after the second attack, “This is not normal, and it is not acceptable. … No one is our city should have to live in fear simply because of who they are or how they worship.”
He later told The Jewish Week that hate crimes in the city “are becoming an epidemic. They are happening in the New York region on an almost daily basis. … The assaults are mostly in Brooklyn, and we have a lot in Rockland County, Lakewood, N.J., Staten Island and the Bronx. They are incredibly disconcerting to us. And we believe there is a tremendous amount of underreporting of incidents in Rockland and Lakewood.”
Asked if additional police patrols would be helpful, Lauter said she has not had an opportunity to meet with police and that she “would like to get their perspectives.”
“In the wake of a lot of incidents, the community is looking for answers — and assuring their safety is critical,” she added. “When I look at the challenges, it is going to take a multipronged approach. My experience is that the NYPD task force has done a good job. The community affairs unit, the Department of Education — all of these are stakeholders in the fight against hate, and this office will be a connector.”
Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer Amato, whose district includes the Rockaways, said in a Facebook post that there is a “systematic attempt to intimidate this community. We must continue to demonstrate that our love and commitment to our community is stronger than their attempt [to] instill fear and intimidation.”
Lauter, who is Jewish, said she has been “on the front lines dealing with hate crimes” for many years.
“I’m a Jewish communal professional and an attorney by training,” she said. “I was in Atlanta for 16 years and served as the community relations director for the Atlanta Jewish Federation. Then I went to the ADL and was the southeast regional director for the ADL. [Former ADL National Director Abraham] Foxman had me come to New York City to head the national civil rights division in 2006. When he retired, I became a senior vice president.”
It was while she was working in Atlanta that she experienced a hate crime herself. She said she went to her mailbox one day and found that someone had put pork and shellfish products inside.
“It’s such a horrible experience, being a victim of a hate crime,” she said.
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism, called Lauter a “gem” who has “extensive experience with regard to prejudice of all types. She has been a resource for people, not only in the ADL, but overall in our profession, relating to prejudice reduction and crimes.”