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After a disturbing season of bias incidents, New York City on Thursday will hold a "Day Out Against Hate."
"The one way to drown out hate," says City Council speaker Christine Quinn, "is to have a loud and consistent drum beat for tolerance."
It seems, though, that despite the hand-wringing and headline-grabbing incidents, there are not serious anti-Semitic or racial problems in metropolitan New York and its environs. The recent appearance of nooses and swastikas, and some violent beatings are part of an unfortunate constellation of copycat events, opportunistic vandalism and a lot of conclusion-jumping.
A little context is in order.
Let's not forget that this is New York, whose mayor is named Bloomberg, whose governor is Spitzer, and whose most famous Orthodox day school graduate is a former federal judge who just became the US attorney-general, Michael Mukasey.
This is not Germany in the 1930s. Most of the recent anti-Semitic incidents were unpleasant, but they were not assaults or other crimes against individuals. Some anti-Semitic flyers were distributed and properties were defaced with swastikas. One was spray-painted last month on the office door of Elizabeth Midlarsky, a professor at Columbia University Teachers College. Weeks earlier, a noose was hung on the door of a black professor, Madonna Constantine, also at Teachers College.
The swastika and the noose are two of the most frightening symbols of anti-Semitism and racism. The noose is usually associated with the lynching of blacks, but it also had a role in the formation of the Anti-Defamation League.
In 1915, Leo Frank, the Jewish manager of an Atlanta pencil factory, was lynched by a mob after he was convicted of murdering a 13-year-old girl. That sensational trial exposed anti-Semitism in the US.
The noose at Teachers College was especially disturbing because its appearance marked the first time in recent memory that one was used in a menacing way. The noose is so rare that it was not included in the same New York State law that bans the depiction of a swastika on someone's property with the intent to threaten or harass.
HOWEVER distressing they are, some of these incidents do not count as crimes. Others are acts of vandalism that are treated as minor property offenses.
These pale against events in Lakewood, NJ, a city east of Philadelphia, near the Atlantic Ocean. Last week, a 14-year-old Orthodox boy was beaten by a group of youths, both black and white. A haredi heder teacher, Rabbi Mordechai Moskowitz, was critically injured last month when he was beaten with an aluminum baseball bat.
Were these anti-Semitic attacks? Are Lakewood Jews at risk because they are Jews? The man arrested for Moskowitz's assault reportedly has a history of mental illness; he was not charged with a hate crime. The attacks are possibly part of something much larger - a cycle of violence in which Jews may be victims or perpetrators. Lakewood has become a volatile city of some 75,000 in which more than half the population is haredi. Last summer, a haredi teacher was acquitted on charges of assaulting a black teenager a year earlier, in an alley in a predominately Orthodox neighborhood. The judge in that case nevertheless said the teacher had unfairly targeted the teenager because of the color of his skin. The assault led the US Justice Department's Community Relations Service to step in as "peacemaker" for community conflicts.
There also are ethnic and racial tensions in Lakewood that have nothing to do with Jews, including a riot at the public high school last month.
There are those who will say that Jews should not ignore any signs of anti-Semitism. But nor should we overreact. In one incident, at George Washington University in Washington, DC, after the appearance of some swastikas, a Jewish freshman drew more of them on her own dorm door. She reportedly said she simply wanted the university to acknowledge that "someone drew a swastika on the door."
Hate crimes are contagious, said Michael Miller, director of the New York Jewish Community Relations Council. "Racial slurs beget more racial slurs, swastikas beget additional swastikas, and nooses beget other nooses," he said.
That is true. It is also the case, according to the JCRC, that most perpetrators of hate crimes are teenagers. We need to be wise enough to distinguish between those that are based on ignorance, stupidity, high jinks or malice. Otherwise, we run the risk of either crying wolf or exposing ourselves as tense and timid even though there are no serious, imminent threats.
CHRISTINE Quinn knows a fair amount about prejudice. She is the first openly lesbian City Council speaker. "In the most diverse city in the world, a city where diversity is viewed as a strength, we have zero tolerance for any who would single someone out simply because of who they are, or who they may be perceived to be," she said. "Be it swastikas in Brooklyn, nooses in Manhattan, or terrorizing someone because of their sexual orientation, New Yorkers will not stand idly by while threats are made against someone based upon their identity. Our 'Day Out Against Hate' will be a chance to bring this message directly to communities in all five boroughs."
This is a catchy slogan, but an absurd idea. Anyone who has ridden the No. 7 subway between Flushing and Times Square, to get to the US Open or to Shea Stadium, knows that (most days) it is New York's rolling testament to tolerance. New York does not need a "Day Out Against Hate."
The metro area preaches tolerance; Holocaust education is taught in public and private schools; the Holocaust is commemorated annually in a variety of public events.
We need less insecurity and more thought, an ability to recognize a tinderbox and the will to defuse a combustible situation. No doubt the Jews of Lakewood are uneasy, but apparently the blacks are, too.
Everyone else, take a deep breath and relax.
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