In the 10 months since the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, there has been a second deadly synagogue shooting in California and a record upsurge in hate crimes. Now, as schools reopen, community leaders and lawmakers are examining ways school curriculums can be improved to address what has been called a “crisis” in the moral fabric of society.
Among the most recent bias crimes was the attack Tuesday in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, on an identifiably Jewish man in his mid-60s. He was attacked by a person who threw a rock at him as he exercised in a park. The victim fought back and had two of his teeth knocked out and his nose broken before his attacker fled without saying a word. The police Hate Crimes division is investigating.
The Anti-Defamation League is offering a reward of up to $5,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible, and noted that violent assaults against Jews increased by 55 percent last year.
Another recent bias crime was the scrawling of seven swastikas on a pavilion at the Theodore Roosevelt Park in Oyster Bay, L.I. Nassau County officials have offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the case but so far no arrests have been made.
“Without video, it is very hard to find who did this,” said Miriam Sholder, a spokesperson for Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas.
Hate crimes were up 67 percent in the first quarter of this year in the city — 145 incidents compared to 87 in the first four months of 2018 – and 82 of the incidents were anti-Semitic, more than an 80 percent increase. In Nassau County, there have been 44 bias crimes to date this year, compared with 20 at this time last year.
Sholder pointed out that many teenagers who get arrested for scrawling swastikas and the hangman’s noose on structures in the county “don’t know” what they mean.
“They think they are being cool, or they might know generally what it means but they do not understand how hurtful it is,” she said. “If they were taught about it [in school], we think the incidents would not happen as frequently as they do.”
Steve Markowitz, chairman of the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County, noted that each year police cadets and nursing students visit the center to learn how Nazi Germany systematically murdered 6 million Jews — including 1 million Jewish children — during World War II.
“You can’t believe how many of them come in and say, ‘They did what?’” he said.
Markowitz noted that for the last three years the museum has presented a program called Deconstructing Symbols of Hate to about 5,000 children in schools throughout the area. He said it could be used as a template for those developing the state curriculum.
For State Assemblyman Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove, L.I.), the realization that these subjects are not being taught in school “almost defies reason,” he said.
As a result, he and State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach, L.I.) are sponsoring bills mandating that all public and private schools throughout the state incorporate into the curriculum of grades 6 through 12 discussions about the history of the Nazi swastika and the noose, a symbol of racism, lynching and intimidation against African Americans. If adopted when the Legislature returns to session in January, the measure would take effect no earlier than September 2020.
“For the last 20 or 25 years, teachers have been forced to teach to the [standardized] test to make sure their students pass rigorous tests,” Lavine told The Jewish Week. Despite the fact that New York is one of eight states to mandate Holocaust education, he noted that social studies teacher have told him they are left with “one hour to cover the entire Second World War.”
“We have to do something more,” he said. “We are in the midst of a real crisis.”
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said in a statement that she was “appalled by the symbols of hate” found at the park and supported the proposed legislation.
“It is important to educate our youth and ensure they fully understand the damage and repercussions of such heinous acts,” she said.
The proposed bills were crafted by the two lawmakers and Singas, whom Kaminsky said “used her experience in dealing with youngsters who do not understand the gravity, fear and intimidation the symbols instill.”
In a statement, Singas said “this important legislation will ensure that every New York middle and high school student will learn the history of violence associated with these symbols [the swastika and the noose].”
In March, New York State Regent Roger Tilles announced the convening of an advisory task force to review how World War II is taught in classrooms throughout the state. Gary Lewi, a spokesman for the task force, said “teaching about the symbols is a start in the right direction, but [it is insufficient] without devoting time to the dynamics of World War II. … White nationalism and anti-Semitism cannot be adequately fought until you expand the curriculum, and the task force is seeking a pathway that allows us to have a discussion among academic professionals.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan) earlier this year reintroduced a bipartisan bill to create a new grant program that would give teachers the resources and training necessary to teach the lessons of the Holocaust and the consequences of hate and intolerance.
And a Long Island-based group, Voices for Truth and Humanity, which was initially begun to fight the lies of the BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel] movement, has expanded its work to “address the extreme lack of Holocaust education in our middle and high schools,” according to one of its founders, Glen Landow.
He noted that a survey earlier this year commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found that “22 percent of millennials said they haven’t heard of the Holocaust or aren’t sure whether they’ve heard of it, and 66 percent of millennials cannot say what Auschwitz is. This vacuum was created by relegating the lessons of the Holocaust to a footnote, and it leaves many young people unable to recognize when a distinct people are the target of delegitimization through manufactured outrage.”
The announcement of the new state legislation came just days after Nassau County lawmakers held a press conference to denounce the swastika graffiti at the Theodore Roosevelt Park. During the press conference, Nassau Legislator Howard Kopel mentioned recent mass shootings but said they were “not the fault of white supremacists” and that “it’s time to stop blaming” groups that were supported by the shooters.
Those comments prompted letters of complaint to Kopel from area clergy, one of whom said his rhetoric was “dangerous.”
Kopel did not respond to phone messages left at his office.
Federal prosecutors on Monday said they would seek the death penalty for the alleged Pittsburgh synagogue gunman, Robert Bowers.
Meanwhile, Chabad rabbis on Long Island are taking a more spiritual approach – distributing mezuzahs that, according to Jewish tradition, protect one from harm and brings blessings to a house.
“In the wake of anti-Semitic attacks, time and again the Rebbe urged that Jews increase their security, both physical and spiritual,” said Rabbi Tuvia Teldon, director of Chabad of Long Island. “As tensions rise following the recent anti-Semitic shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway, Chabad of Long Island is ensuring their congregants’ safety.”