By Matt Hadro
Civic and religious leaders this week addressed a disturbing rise in religious hate crimes in recent years, especially harassment and violence perpetrated against Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs.
“While it is clear that Sikh Americans are not alone in experiencing a rise in hate crimes, the experience of our community is important to understand how dangerous this current era of inflammatory rhetoric promises to be if action is not taken,” Dr. Prabhjot Singh, a Sikh physician, said in his May 2 written testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from representatives of the Anti-Defamation League, a Sikh doctor, and the civil rights division at the Justice Department on “responses to the increase in religious hate crimes” in the U.S.
“Crimes against Jews are the most common religious hate crimes and they have increased,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), chair of the committee, noted, but Islamophobic incidents rose the sharpest amongst all religious groups with a 67 percent spike from 2014 to 2015 according to FBI statistics.
Although overall hate crimes, including crimes based on race, sexual orientation, religion and ethnicity, went down in number from 2000 to 2015, religion-based hate crimes went up 23 percent from 2014 to 2015, Eric Treene, special counsel for religious discrimination at the Justice Department’s civil rights division, pointed to FBI statistics.
Dr. Singh, in his written testimony, told of how Sikhs are only one of many religious groups in the U.S., yet violence against them is representative of a worsening in religious bigotry.
Singh was violently beaten by a mob on the streets of New York City in 2013. As he lay awaiting treatment for his injuries in the hospital, he learned that the Muslim woman lying next to him in the emergency room wearing a hijab, or a religious headscarf, was attacked by the same group of young men.
“They threw a bottle of urine at her face, cutting her nose,” he said. Yet reporters who documented Singh’s attack in a story did not mention the assault on the Muslim woman because, in Singh’s words, “they said it would complicate the story, which was about a professor and doctor who was ‘mistakenly’ attacked in his own neighborhood.”
“We cannot accept this premise,” he insisted in his Tuesday testimony. “There is no such thing as a ‘mistaken’ hate crime. No one should ever be targeted. The only mistake is thinking otherwise.”
The attack, he continued, was only the latest incident in a rash of harassment and violence against Sikhs in the U.S. since the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
“Some of our fellow Americans,” Singh said, “call us ‘ragheads and towelheads,’ or ‘ISIS and Al Qaeda.’”
“Ominously, the Sikh Coalition has consistently found that a majority of Sikh students in our nation’s public schools experience bias-based bullying and harassment,” he added. “Some of our children are accused of being ‘terrorists.’ Others have had their turbans ripped off.”
Sadly, these attacks are part of a larger landscape of “threats, arson, assault, and murder” against Muslims, Jews, Hindus, African-Americans, and LGBTQ persons, he said.
“We seem to be backsliding into a new nativist era. This endangers us all,” he said.
Anti-Semitic and Islamophobic acts rose in 2016 in the presidential election and have continued in 2017, Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, explained in his testimony.
Anti-Semitic incidents rose by over one-third in 2016 with “1,266 acts targeting Jews and Jewish institutions,” according to the ADL 2016 audit of incidents.
The campaign only intensified tensions that had already been aggravated, he added.
“And anti-Semitic abuse has soared on social media,” he noted, as “hateful, anti-Semitic invective” flourished on the mediums during the election season as well as harassment of Jewish journalists by white supremacists including the use of “triple parentheses, to publicly ‘tag’ Jews online.”
The election “featured harshly anti-Muslim rhetoric and anti-Semitic dog whistles,” he said, “and fostered an atmosphere in which white supremacists and other anti-Semites and bigots feel emboldened and believe that their views are becoming more broadly acceptable.”
President Trump’s “initial reluctance to address rising anti-Semitism” has helped normalize this bigotry, Greenblatt said, and some of his supporters played a direct role in it.
“Much of the vandalism and harassment used slogans sourced from the Trump campaign such as ‘Make America Great Again,’” he said. Incidents during and after the election – anti-Semitic graffiti and assault – were perpetrated with expressed support for Trump.
In addition, in the election there were “stereotyping of many groups, including women and immigrants, threats to ban Muslims from entering or living in the country, pronouncements that Islam ‘hates’ America, mocking of disabled people, and political candidates attacking one another based on their physical appearance,” he said.
Dr. Singh said he “was horrified to hear our President last weekend telling thousands of people at a rally that immigrants are snakes waiting to bite America,” he referred to Trump’s words at a recent rally in Harrisburg, Pa.
“Words matter, and when political leaders divide and dehumanize us, this lays the groundwork for hate to infect our society,” he stated.
All this has not only continued in 2017, but the number of incidents has spiked sharply, Greenblatt said.
He noted 161 bomb threats against Jewish synagogues or buildings so far and three reported desecrations of Jewish cemeteries.
“The bomb threats against JCCs, schools, ADL offices, and other community institutions in dozens of states across the country attracted very considerable attention,” he said, “causing evacuations, significant service disruptions, program cancellations, and deep community anxiety.”
Some of the threats were graphic in nature, warning of a “bloodbath” or the decapitations of Jews in explosions.
Action must be taken to stem these incidents, witnesses insisted. Preventative measures could include mandatory reporting laws for hate crimes, a federal inter-agency task force on hate crimes, and public officials speaking out against bigotry.
Dr. Singh shared how his son will soon enter Kindergarten, yet according to statistics, will probably be the victim of bigotry.
“These young years are formative, and how children are treated tells us so much about who we are as a nation, and who we aspire to be,” he said.