The shared fight against religious discrimination, hate crimes

By Michael Lieberman

Baptists and Jews share a history of religious discrimination and persecution. Our communities understand the danger of government coercion, of restrictions on our religious practices, and what it feels like to be targets of bias-motivated violence.

Over the past year, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has documented a significant uptick in incidents of racist, xenophobic and religious harassment, and threats and violence across the country. The Jewish community has faced a disturbing increase in bomb threats, cemetery desecration, assault and vandalism at our synagogues. In April, a suspect (disturbingly, an Israeli Jew) was arrested and now faces federal charges for the vast majority of bomb threats. We cannot know the intent or motivation of this individual. However, we do know, clearly, the tremendous impact on the daily lives of people at each of more than 150 selected targets, including my own workplace — ADL’s Washington office.

Of course, there’s a context for these incidents; anti-Semitism is an ancient hatred. We have seen prejudice lead to discrimination and violence.

ADL has been tracking anti-Semitic incidents in America since 1979. In 2016, our “Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents documented a 34 percent increase — 1,266 incidents of assault, vandalism and harassment against Jews and Jewish institutions. Nearly 30 percent of these incidents, or 369, occurred after the election in November and December. The surge continued during the first three months of 2017, with preliminary reports of another 541 incidents.

There is no doubt that the 2016 presidential election and the contentious political atmosphere played a role in the increase. The extraordinarily polarizing and divisive campaign — which featured harshly anti-Muslim rhetoric and anti-Semitic dog whistles — has coarsened the public discourse and emboldened white supremacists and other anti-Semites and bigots to believe that their views are becoming more acceptable, even mainstream.

The FBI has been tracking hate crimes in America since the enactment of the Hate Crime Statistics Act (HCSA) in 1990. According to the FBI’s 2015 report (the most recent available), more than 1,200 religion-based crimes were committed — a 23 percent increase over 2014. Overall, more than 21 percent of all reported hate crimes were motivated by religious bias — the highest proportion of total hate crimes in the 25-year history of the HCSA.

Fully 664 crimes of violence or vandalism were directed against Jews — a 9 percent increase and a disturbingly high and disproportionate percentage of the total number of reported religion-based crimes. In fact, every year since 1990, anti-Jewish hate crimes have been between 50 and 85 percent of the religious-based hate crimes — an especially troubling fact, considering that Jews are less than 3 percent of Americans. Also deeply distressing is the fact that reported crimes against Muslims increased 67 percent, to a total of 257 incidents, the second highest figures reported against Muslims ever — second only to the series of backlash crimes in 2001, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Hate crimes are designed to intimidate the victim and members of the victim’s community, leaving them feeling fearful, isolated, vulnerable and unprotected by the law. By making members of minority communities fearful, angry and suspicious of other groups and of the power structure that is supposed to protect them, these incidents can damage the fabric of our society and fragment communities.

But the too-frequent incidents of religious intolerance have also provided extraordinary opportunities for interfaith support rallies and coalition networking. In many communities, people of many faiths have come together to speak out against vandalism, cemetery desecrations and violence. These statements of solidarity are heartening and encouraging, and they show that it is the bigots — not the religious minorities — who are marginalized.

A number of concrete steps can be taken to make our world safer and more welcoming for all. The following are among them:

  • Speak up and speak out against bigotry and hate wherever it arises.
  • Become an “upstander” in situations where particular minorities are being unfairly attacked and discriminated against.
  • In the aftermath of a hate incident, contact elected officials, police and community leaders to urge action and to register opposition to bigotry in your communities.

All Americans have a role in preventing hate crimes. Eliminating prejudice and discrimination will require us to teach respect and acceptance of cultural and religious differences. We can work together to build an America as good as its ideals.

Michael Lieberman is Washington counsel for ADL. Since 1913, ADL’s mission has been to “stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment for all.” Dedicated to combating anti-Semitism, prejudice and bigotry of all kinds, as well as defending democratic ideals and promoting civil rights, ADL has played a leadership role in developing innovative materials, programs and services that build bridges of communication, understanding and respect among diverse racial, religious and ethnic groups.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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