A virtual town hall hosted by Council Member Julie Menin on Wednesday evening drew a crowd of over 200 attendees to confront a topic of growing concern: incidents of antisemitism on the Upper East Side, citywide and across the nation.
“This is a deeply personal issue,” said Menin, whose mother and grandmother survived the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of other family members. It was the first town hall hosted by Menin since she joined the City Council at the start of the year.
From 2020 to 2021, there were nearly 100 antisemitic incidents in Manhattan, plus a similar figure just across the East River in Brooklyn, according to Menin. This year is already off to a more troubling start; the NYPD reported a 275% increase in hate crimes against the Jewish community this year compared to last, from four cases in January 2021 to 15 last month. In Menin’s Upper East Side district — District 5 — a woman received bills marked with Nazi imagery from an ATM at East 86th Street and York Avenue on January 8, one day before comedy club Comic Strip Live shared a video on Instagram that included tags comparing COVID-19 guidelines with the Holocaust.
Speakers at the February 9 town hall ranged from co-host Michael Cohen, eastern director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a human rights organization, to Commanding Officer of the NYPD Hate Crimes Task Force Inspector Jessica Corey and New York State Senator Chuck Schumer. The most resounding message of the evening was the importance of reporting suspected hate crimes to the police by dialing 911. “Every day, we are out there relentlessly following up on these crimes and looking to make arrests,” Corey said.
Witnesses can play a vital role in reporting suspected hate crimes, according to Commanding Officer of the 19th Precinct, Inspector Melissa Eger, especially because those targeted may be scared or overwhelmed. Officers are trained to notify a supervisor if those reporting an incident indicate that bias or hate is involved in a crime, so that special attention can be devoted to the case.
“You don’t have to know whether or not it’s a hate crime — we’ll assess that,” Corey said. “You just have to know that you have to call 911.” Video footage is also helpful for police investigations, she explained.
Civil lawsuits are another tool for combating hate, according to panelist Rick Sawyer, special counsel on hate crimes at the New York State Attorney General’s office. “We will continue to use the law to fight hate and intolerance,” he said.
And then there’s education about antisemitism and the Holocaust, which should begin in earnest for children entering middle school, according to Eastern Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center Michael Cohen and Alexander Rosemberg, deputy director of the Anti-Defamation League in the New York and New Jersey region. “They don’t recognize, sometimes, what a swastika is; they don’t understand the taboo,” Cohen said.
The NYC Commission on Human Rights provides training for the public on the communities and identities protected by law, in addition to bystander intervention training, according to panelist Jonah Boyarin, the Commission’s Jewish community liaison. Mitch Silber, executive director of the Community Security Initiative at UJA-Federation of New York, added that his group also provides “active threat training” for institutions.
At its core, antisemitism is “driven by two central false ideas,” according to Boyarin; first, the “conspiracy theory” that Jewish people control overarching systems like banks, the government or media, and second, the belief that Jewish people are other, different racially or religiously from the majority.
Times of turbulence — like that of our current moment, owing to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and other political and social stressors — contribute to hate crimes against the Jewish community, Boyarin explained. “Antisemitism will teach people to blame the problems, or their perceived problems, on Jews,” he said.
The panel acknowledged the sheer size of the crowd in attendance, though, as an indication of the community’s investment in fighting back against hate. “Together, we can make a difference,” Cohen said, “and we will make a difference.”
“You don’t have to know whether or not it’s a hate crime — we’ll assess that. You just have to know that you have to call 911.” Commanding Officer of the NYPD Hate Crimes Task Force Inspector Jessica Corey