Over the past year and a half, the incidence of hate crimes has skyrocketed across the nation, and Long Island. Just a few weeks ago, swastikas were scrawled on sidewalks outside homes in Oceanside and Wantagh. A few months ago, while playing with our toddler in a Baldwin park, my wife found the same hateful epithet etched into a playground slide. Before that there was an incident in Oceanside in which a Jewish Community Center was a target of bomb threat.
Sadly, these vile messages, and worse, have become far too common, and it seems that perpetrators feel emboldened by the national discourse. We have no choice as a community but to take a strong stand against such intolerance.
According to a report last month by the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents in New York state soared by an unprecedented 90 percent last year. That is remarkable, and highly disturbing. Marked by bomb threats to community centers and swastika graffiti, nearly 2,000 cases of hate-fueled vandalism, assault and harassment were reported, the most since the ADL started tracking this data in 1979. More anti-Semitic incidents occurred in New York than in any other state in the nation. This trend is alarming, but we can do something about it.
As Long Islanders, we take pride in our small communities, which make the Island one of the most special regions of the nation. Our neighbors — regardless of color, creed or faith — are like family; we sink or swim together. And a bias assault on one should be seen as an affront to our larger community.
Here are some steps we can take to fight back:
First, we need to embrace our neighbors’ differences and the diversity of our communities. By doing this, we can strengthen the neighborhoods that make our Island, state and country so special. Through mutual respect, we can achieve a society that we can all be proud of — one in which all our children and grandchildren can live, work and play together in harmony and prosperity. After all, that’s the essence of the American dream. Respecting others in our everyday lives is something each of us can practice on a daily basis. It sounds simple, but we have to start somewhere.
Albany can do more, too. We must educate our children about the importance of tolerance. By understanding the horrors of the Holocaust and the pernicious effects of hatred and bigotry against any minority, we can build a solid foundation of mutual respect in the next generation. To that end, I sponsored legislation to ensure that schools across the state instruct students about the atrocities of the Holocaust. Can you believe that wasn’t happening in some schools in our state?
We must raise the consequences for perpetrators of hateful acts to provide a strong deterrent for those who would terrorize others. I cosponsored legislation to increase criminal penalties for bias-motivated graffiti, and it should be passed into law. We must also train our law enforcement officers to identify and stamp out vile messages in our communities, which is the objective of a new bill that legislators in Albany are currently working on. It would require police academies to train officers in recognizing and responding to hate crimes. I also strongly support a new initiative by Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas in which hate crime offenders are counseled by Holocaust survivors.
Securing funding to bolster security at potential targets in our communities is also key. To that end, I worked hard to advance Governor Cuomo’s grant program, Securing Communities Against Hate Crimes, throughout the state, which will bring money back to our community institutions and houses of worship to protect them from anyone seeking to do harm. It will fund additional security, training, door-hardening, cameras and other related upgrades to help keep our neighborhoods safe.
And in the event that a community is subjected to a hate crime, we need to come together and send a clear message that an attack on one group is an attack on us all. I witnessed this unity when I joined hundreds at a rally on the South Shore following the neo-Nazis’ march in Charlottesville, Va. Our community stood together against hatred and bigotry, and I was proud to be part of it.
Regardless of the color of our skin, the nations from which we originate or our religious practices, we’re all Americans, New Yorkers and Long Islanders. Our shared destiny depends on our ability to co-exist — and the quicker we understand that and our laws reflect that, the better off we’ll be.
State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a former federal prosecutor, represents New York’s 9th District.