Nassau County leads NY efforts to prosecute hate crimes

Congressional candidates on Long Island were targeted by anti-Semitic vandals in the immediate aftermath of the gun attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Some 50 election campaign signs for Democratic candidate Perry Gershon were defaced and riddled with anti-Semitic messages, swastikas and other hate messages last week. Gershon is running against Republican incumbent Lee Zeldin, who is also Jewish, in New York’s 1st Congressional District race.

The vandalism of Gershon’s signs came just days after a gunman entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh during Sabbath prayers, killing 11 and wounding six others in what is believed to be the deadliest shooting in U.S. history in which Jews were the main target.

Last year, there were 1,986 reported anti-Semitic incidents in the US, a 57 percent increase from the previous year’s total of 1,267, according to an annual report issued by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). That marked the largest single year increase since the organization began tracking the data in 1979. When the final numbers are tabulated for 2018, it is expected that anti-Semitic activity across the country will have increased even further.

“We saw a lot of swastikas and assaults,” said Evan Bernstein, the ADL’s regional director for New York and New Jersey.

Bernstein detailed 14 documented incidents of anti-Semitism in his region during this year’s Jewish High Holiday period alone, which began Sept. 7 and concluded Oct. 2. Such incidents included the vandalizing of a Sukkah on the Upper East Side and the defamation of a Holocaust memorial in Brooklyn.

Nassau County has been ahead of the curve when it comes to the prosecution of hate crimes. Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas established a Hate Crimes Unit last February with the goal of “aggressively prosecuting crimes motivated by hate and intolerance,” according to Singas.

“The fact that a DA is making a decision to put resources into a unit specifically for a hate crime is making a statement in the community that they are not going to be tolerated,” said Singas at an anti-Semitism conference held in early October at Long Island University.

The unit is headed by veteran prosecutor Caryn Stepner who previously spent 25 years as the Assistant District Attorney for Kings County in Brooklyn. “We have had a bunch of cases where arrests have been made,” said Stepner, “and in those cases, we have made an impact on educating the defendant on the ramifications of their hate speech or graffiti. If there’s a hate crime committed that we can properly charge in the DA’s office, we will.”

While prosecuting those who engage in anti-Semitic acts will continue to be a priority for the hate crime unit, Stepner maintains that educating individuals about intolerance and anti-Semitism is also critical.

“I think it’s very important…that people understand that the symbols they draw or things they say can have an impact on people in the community,” said Stepner. “If they don’t learn it before they commit the crime, they will certainly learn it after they get arrested.”

In Nassau County, all police recruits training to become officers must also visit the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center (HMTC) as part of their curriculum, according to Nassau County Executive Laura Curran.

Former Congressman Steve Israel speaks at the 2nd Annual State of Anti-Semitism conference at Long Island University in Brookville as Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, ADL New York/New Jersey Regional Director Evan Bernstein and Director of AJC Long Island Robert Socolof look on. Picture credit: Jordan Stoopler