Graffiti attacks at a Holocaust museum in Glen Cove, L.I., have led Nassau and Suffolk counties to form a joint task force on anti-Semitism.
More than 40 elected officials, religious and community leaders gathered at the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center on Monday to announce the creation of the Island-Wide Task Force Against Anti-Semitism and Symbols of Hate.
The center was targeted by two separate graffiti attacks in recent weeks — one of which included swastikas.
In making the announcement, Nassau Country Executive Laura Curran said the acts of vandalism at the center “are unacceptable forms of bigotry. We may have been able to wash away the graffiti, but we cannot wash away the feelings that these symbols leave.”
Representatives of both Curran and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone are expected to meet in the coming days to appoint representatives to do initial planning for the task force. Bellone said it would “provide a platform to bring together people from all communities and actually implement proposals that will have a positive impact on our daily lives.”
The outpouring of public support for the museum was clearly gratifying to Steven Markowitz, chairman of the center.
“We are so encouraged and heartened by the outpouring of support from all segments of the community,” he told The Jewish Week. “It’s nice to know we are not alone.”
In his remarks at a press conference at the museum, Markowitz pointed out that the center teaches the history and lessons of the Holocaust and warns “against the evils and dangers of anti-Semitism and all other forms of hate and discrimination.
“We teach that the Holocaust did not start with concentration camps and gas chambers. In the beginning it was bullying, name-calling, discrimination in schools and the workplace, and, yes, graffiti,” he said. “Graffiti may seem innocuous and harmless, but history has taught us that such innocuous and harmless expressions of hate can lead to much worse.”
As he spoke on the second floor of the building, more than 100 middle school students were touring the exhibits on the first floor. Last year, more than 23,000 students attended its educational programs, in addition to thousands of adults, Markowitz noted.
The formation of the task force comes three months after New York City announced the launch of the Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes. In the first nine months of this year, the number of hate crimes against Jews totaled 311, compared with 250 through the same period last year.
The New York area has one of the largest concentration of Jews in the United States. The 2011 New York Jewish Community Study — the latest one available — estimated that 1,538,000 Jewish persons live in 694,000 Jewish households in the eight-county area served by UJA-Federation of New York (New York City, Long Island and Westchester).
Deborah Lauter, executive director of the city’s Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes, told The Jewish Week that she was “sorry to see there is a need” for such a task force on Long Island but is “pleased to see the community take proactive measures.”
She said the “three pillars” of her office’s approach are law enforcement, community relations and education. “Education has to be a key factor because of what we are seeing,” she said. “The kids [who commit the crimes] know they are doing something wrong but they have no understanding of what is behind the hate symbol itself. And the further we get from the Holocaust, the more people are forgetting or not paying attention to the consequences of hate. Focusing on the kids is important.”
Between Jan. 1 and Dec. 1, she said, there were 210 anti-Semitic hate crimes in the city, and more than 80 percent of them involved the scrawling of swastikas. Although those arrested for hate crimes are almost invariably male, from different ethnic groups and ranging in age from 11 to 51, Lauter said “a lot are in their 20s.”
Asked the best way to handle perpetrators who are caught, Lauter said she is looking at a “restorative justice” model.
“The Brooklyn district attorney last summer took some middle school students who had been caught doing [anti-Semitic] vandalism and took them to the Auschwitz exhibit [at the Museum of Jewish Heritage]. The kids admitted that they had no context for what the swastika was and what Nazism was. I saw it as a hopeful model of how we can handle these things because the kids come away with some empathy and understanding of the consequences of their acts on others.”
In addition, she said that hearing from survivors themselves proved to be equally powerful.
“I have heard reports from others about how impactful it was for survivors to talk to kids — it opened their eyes to the consequences of hate,” Lauter said.
Eye On Security
Among the first things the new task force is expected to look at is security at the museum, which is housed in the former Welwyn mansion that was built in 1913 as part of the estate of the oil industrialist Harold Irving Pratt. His widow left the estate to Nassau County after her death in 1969. At the request of Boris Chartan, the museum’s founder and then the county’s Commissioner of Services, Nassau County gave the mansion to a group called the Holocaust Commission in 1992. The mansion sits on the 204-acre Welwyn Preserve County Park.
Although the museum has its own security, the county is responsible for the park. Markowitz said “security on the grounds is inadequate. The park is supposed to be closed at night but the gate at the exit is open and there are holes in the gate that surrounds the park.”
Nassau County is “currently working to address” the fencing issue, according to Deputy County Executive for Parks and Public Works Brian Schneider.
Abandoned buildings on the estate, including former green houses, must also be addressed said Det. Lt. John Nagle of the Glen Cove Police Department.
“These buildings are a magnet for graffiti,” he told The Jewish Week, saying the tags have spread to nearby rocks, trees and bridges. “It’s almost like a disease, it just keeps spreading. Those who run the museum would like those abandoned buildings to be knocked down, believing that if you take away the magnet they will not come here.”
Schneider, the Nassau County official, said there are plans to knock down all of the abandoned buildings but that first there must be an evaluation of the asbestos and lead in the buildings.
Graffiti with unidentified words and symbols appeared on museum signs in blue spray paint on Nov. 24. Video cameras captured the images of four young men walking by the museum. During the overnight hours of Dec. 2-3, intruders scrawled swastikas on rocks and trees near the museum.
Nagle believes that the two incidents were perpetrated by different people. A 16-year-old boy has been arrested in connection with the first incident. Nagle said the investigation is continuing.
Meanwhile, philanthropist Ronald Lauder, who also serves as president of the World Jewish Congress, announced that he was creating the Anti-Semitism Accountability Project to defeat federal, state and local candidates who support or seek to normalize anti-Semitism. He is committing $25 million to the effort.