Wave of Anti-Semitic Hate Crimes Shocks Diverse Maryland Community

A 2,200 word final feature story for my journalism class.

There’s a painting outside of the Montgomery County Executive’s office in Rockville, Maryland of a beloved local landmark. The average visitor to the county seat would pass it by without giving it a second glance. But a closer look reveals a glimpse into the heart and soul of Montgomery County.

“This painting is a symbol of how Montgomery County should be,” Isiah “Ike” Leggett said as he proudly pointed to the artwork he had commissioned. The painting depicts a band playing outside of the Strathmore in Bethesda. An Asian woman plays the flute; a black man plays the trombone; a white man plays the violin.

“The players come from diverse backgrounds and play different instruments, each with different abilities, all contributing in some way,” Leggett continued. “They come together to play a single song.”

Montgomery County has garnered a reputation as one of the most diverse counties in the nation. Here, in this county located just outside of central Maryland, residents see diversity as a source of local pride. Neighborhoods line their yards with signs welcoming immigrants and refugees in multiple languages. Houses of worship fly rainbow-colored flags and banners with ‘Black Lives Matter.’

Yet, Jewish communities in the county have become the target of religiously motivated hate crimes. Just two days after the election, on November 11, swastikas were found spray-painted in the boys’ bathroom at Westland Middle School in Bethesda. An anti-semitic note was left for a Jewish family in Rockville after they hung a ‘Black Lives Matter’ banner on their property in January. Bomb threats were reported at two Jewish community centers in Rockville. The anti-semitic incidents continue with no end in sight with messages and drawings found across Montgomery County, from Gaithersburg to Bethesda.

An alarming trend

Jews represent only 3.1 percent of the population in Montgomery County, but the Jewish community still finds themselves one of the main targets of hate crimes.

The nation’s leading Jewish advocacy group, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), has been tracking the increase in bomb threats against Jewish institutions in 2017. They found there has been a total of 167 bomb threats against Jewish institutions spanning across 38 states this year to date.

Seven of the bomb threats occurred in Maryland, including the JCC of Greater Washington and Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville in Montgomery County.

Data from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hate Map project shows that there are currently 18 active hate groups in Maryland, including Neo-Nazi groups the National Socialist Movement and the Daily Stormer in Baltimore and the Barnes Review, a Holocaust denialist group in Upper Marlboro.

A recent report from the Anti-Defamation League found a 35% increase in anti-semitic hate crimes and bias incidents in the Washington, D.C. metro area between the first quarter of 2016 and 2017. Maryland made the list of the top 10 states with the largest percentage of reported incidents, the ADL’s Assistant Regional Director, Heather Gillies, said.

According to the most recent report from the Montgomery County Police Department, there were over 30 bias incidents between January 1 and March 16, which marked a drastic 130.8% increase compared to the same time in 2016. Police identified most incidents as motivated by religious bias: 23 were religiously motivated with 17 of them being anti-Jewish. Of the 13 incidents involving vandalism, 10 were anti-semitic writings and drawings.

Defining hate crimes

Hate crimes are not separate crimes, but traditional criminal offenses motivated by the offender’s bias against actual or perceived characteristics of the victim. These characteristics can include race, national or ethnic origin, religion, sex, age, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity and expression.

Hate crimes apply to violent offenses such as homicide, rape or robbery, as well as property offenses, such as destruction, damage, and vandalism of property.

Bias-related incidents, however, are non-criminal acts that are motivated by prejudice against a person or group but do not rise to the level of a criminal offense.

Nearly all 50 states have their own hate crime laws with the exception of only five states: South Carolina, Arkansas, Wyoming, Indiana and Georgia. Maryland’s law covers hate crimes motivated by the victim’s race, color, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, gender, disability, national origin, and homeless status.

In addition to the state’s hate crime law, Maryland also has a separate law prohibiting the defacing, damaging, or destruction of property used for religious purposes, such as places of worship, religiously-affiliated schools and community centers.

Montgomery County operates a fund that provides partial financial compensation for property damage to help victims cover the costs of repairing or replacing the property.

A community calls for action

Montgomery County has the distinction of being one of the most diverse counties in the nation. A 2017 survey from WalletHub placed Gaithersburg, Silver Spring, Rockville and Germantown in the top ten list of most “ethno-racially diverse” cities in the United States.

The demographic breakdown of the county’s population is 49.3 percent white, 16.6 percent black, 0.2 percent Native American, 13.9 percent Asian, 17 percent Latino, and 3.1 percent “other.” Nearly a majority of the population — 40 percent — were born outside of the United States.

Like the general population, the student population in the county’s public schools is incredibly diverse. Students come from more than 157 countries and speak over 138 languages.

Residents of Montgomery County were quick to respond to the hate incidents following the presidential election. On November 20, more than a thousand gathered at the Veterans Plaza in downtown Silver Spring to support the communities targeted by hate-based vandalism.

The rally, ‘Stand Up for the Montgomery Way,’ was organized by county officials to “reaffirm the county’s values of diversity, inclusion, and respect for all.”

“A hate crime is a crime against every single one of us,” Montgomery County Police Chief Tom Manger told the crowd. “And for those cowards that in the dark of night think they can send some message, spray paint something on the side of a wall, destroy some property, I would tell them, ‘Look around, this is Montgomery County. And we will not tolerate that kind of action.’”

Other speakers at the rally included public educators, clergy members and newly-elected Democratic Congressman Jamie Raskin representing Maryland’s 8th congressional district, himself from a Jewish background.

A new community-based organization, Communities United Against Hate, launched on April 22 at a high school in Bethesda. The organization seeks to build a broad coalition of religious organizations, civic groups, businesses and nonprofits to come up with solutions to counter hate and promote tolerance in Montgomery County.

On its website, the organization outlined a five-point plan: to strengthen law enforcement response to hate crimes; push for programming within the school system; to disseminate resource materials addressing hate and bigotry; support rapid response actions to hate incidents, such as government engagement, victim assistance, rallies and vigils; and advocate for public policy to address hate and bigotry at the federal, state and local levels.

Government responds

The Montgomery Police Department has responded to community calls for action by offering cash rewards to anyone who has information that could lead to an arrest of a suspect. In the case of the swastikas graffiti at Westland Middle School in Bethesda, police offered a $10,000 reward.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frost (D) set up a hotline allowing residents of Maryland to report hate crimes anonymously. This legislative session Maryland State Senator Will Smith, a Democrat representing District 20, sponsored a bill which would have allowed any victim of a hate crime to sue their offender and seek monetary damages.

Montgomery County’s chief executive, Isiah “Ike” Leggett, is skeptical about whether public policy is the answer. Instead, his office seeks to educate and engage the community to promote cultural understanding.

“Montgomery County has a number of rules and regulations on acts of hate and bullying, which we passed earlier than most counties in the country,” Leggett said in an interview.

“But it’s better to educate the community to prevent these hate crimes in the first place. MLK said, ‘No law can change a heart.’ You can pass a law but the law is not enough. You can punish the heartless but not change their heart,” Leggett said.

One way Leggett’s office is trying to change hearts is through working with communities to organize events celebrating the cultural traditions of the county’s large and diverse population. Residents are encouraged to check the county calendar for weekly events, where they can try food, hear music, or buy arts and crafts from cultures all around the world.

His sentiment was echoed by Maryland Delegate Jheanelle Wilkins, representing Montgomery County, who added that the annual county Friendship Picnic brings together thousands of people from different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds every year.

Barriers to reporting hate crimes

The Montgomery County Police Department sees fostering trust between communities and the police as the key to finding long term solutions to combating hate.

“Better understanding on both sides, police and community, is crucial to our success as a community,” Police Captain Marc Yamada said in an email interview. “We only have 1,300 officers serving over [a million] residents, so we need the help from our communities to aid us in detecting, reporting and preventing crime.”

However, many minority communities have a complicated relationship with the police which discourages them from assisting police investigations, even in cases involving their own community. For example, undocumented immigrants may be reluctant to report anti-immigrant bias incidents out of fear of detainment or deportation.

Although Montgomery County is not officially a sanctuary city, county officials assure victims and witnesses of hate crimes they can come forward without fear.

“The Montgomery County Police Department do not, and will not, serve as immigration enforcement officers,” Montgomery County President Roger Berliner said in an email interview. “No one should fear our police department — they will not ask for your immigration status, and will investigate any issue that is reported.”

Maryland State Senator Smith (D-District 20) has put his support behind the Maryland TRUST Act which would prohibit law enforcement officers from cooperating with federal immigration authorities. The Act would also prohibit the creation of religious or ethnic registries, an idea that has been proposed by President Trump.

“Though no one policy prescription can alleviate all the fears the immigrant community harbor these days; [this act] would have instilled in the immigrant community a sense of trust and ease with their interactions with law enforcement,” Smith explained in an email interview.

A divisive presidential election and its consequences

The sudden uptick in hate crimes after November 8 has led to questions about whether the outcome of the election played a role.

2016 saw a 42 percent increase in reported hate crimes and bias incidents in Montgomery County with 94 incidents total, compared to 66 incidents in 2015. 36 percent of the incidents in 2016 occurred between November and December immediately following the election. Religious bias was identified by police as the primary motivation in 40 percent of the incidents in 2016.

Roger Berliner, president of the Montgomery County Council, went on record saying that he believed President Trump’s rhetoric and his administration’s policies were to blame for the rise in hate crimes in Montgomery County and across the nation.

“The spike in hate crimes was a direct correlation to the kind of campaign that was run by the president of the United States. It unleashed an energy that is very destructive,” Berliner said following a February meeting between county officials and police on how to address hate crimes.

However, the Montgomery County Police Department has been reluctant to link the incidents to any one party or candidate.

“Rather, [we] feel that some people have felt emboldened to act out in a hateful manner as a result of the very contentious and heated election process and the vitriol that was sent forth by both sides of the debate,” Police Captain Marc Yamada said in an email interview.

Even if Trump’s campaign may not have been directly responsible, all agree that President Trump has an obligation to condemn anti-semitic hate crimes and reaffirm his commitment to serving the Jewish community.

On May 2, the head of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Jonathan Greenblatt, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to urge the federal government to take action.

“The federal government has an essential leadership role to play in confronting hate crimes and in alleviating intolerance. And we need to make sure that we call out bigotry whenever it happens,” Greenblatt said.

ADL’s policy recommendations to the Trump administration include: establishing a White House Task Force on hate crime; helping law enforcement agencies improve data collection and training on how to handle hate crimes and help victims; strengthening existing hate crimes laws; exploring approaches to address cyber bullying, and making sure to call out bigotry whenever it happens.

“There is a lot that this administration needs to atone for in regards to the divisive rhetoric of its campaign and the dangerous policies they have implemented,” Roger Berliner, president of the Montgomery County Council, added in an email interview.

“Unfortunately the genie is out of the bottle, and you can’t put it back in. We must endeavor to reverse what this administration has done and stand up for tolerance and equality.”