America’s Jewish communities are under attack — Here are 3 things Congress can do

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This weekend, the New York Police Department arrested 29-year-old Jordan Burnette, accused of perpetrating a three-day spree of attacks against four synagogues in New York City’s Riverdale neighborhood. He was charged with 42 criminal counts including several hate crimes.

For three straight days last month, Burnette is alleged to have smashed doors and windows at these houses of prayer and invaded their sacred spaces, leaving behind a wake of strewn prayer books.

The violence against these pillars of Jewish life came days before a new report documenting that — despite almost an entire year of lockdowns and stay-at-home orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic — anti-Semitism remains at near historically high levels in the United States. In fact, 2020 marked the third-highest year for incidents against America’s Jews in more than 40 years.

In the face of this, Congress must do more to protect America’s Jewish communities.

While Jews have faced discrimination in this country since its founding, it wasn’t typically of a violent nature. However, during the past year alone, 2,024 anti-Semitic incidents ranging from harassment to vandalism and assault were recorded — a mere 4 percent decrease from the all-time high of 2019. During COVID-19, far from dissipating, the assaults often shifted online: 114 schools, synagogues and other Jewish institutions were the targets of anti-Semitic “Zoom bombing,” with perpetrators using Nazi symbols, other anti-Semitic messages and verbal assaults to disrupt live video conferences and intimidate participants.

The FBI’s most recent hate crimes report affirms these findings and notes that Jews remain by far the religious group most targeted for hate crimes, comprising 60 percent of them. Muslims, the second-most targeted group, faced 13 percent of such crimes.

Just two-and-a-half years ago, we witnessed the deadliest attack ever on Jews in American history, when a gunman massacred 11 people at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. Six months later, a woman was shot to death at a synagogue in Poway, Calif. The following year, two Jews were murdered at a kosher market in Jersey City; days later, five were stabbed at a Chanukah celebration in Rockland County, N.Y. And the list goes on.

In recent days, the country’s top law enforcement officials have pledged to crack down on domestic terrorism: Attorney General Merrick Garland, during his first major speech since taking office, said he would treat it as a top priority; Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced an internal review to address the threat of domestic violent extremism within the department, including identifying, addressing, and preventing domestic violent extremism across the country. Members of Congress have properly shown their willingness to take new steps to protect threatened minorities: Last month, following a rash of attacks against Asian-American Pacific Islanders (AAPI) and thousands of COVID-19-related incidents of AAPI discrimination, Congress passed legislation that would create a position at the Department of Justice to track and expedite the review of COVID-19 hate crimes.

Here are three ways Congress can act immediately to protect American Jews and other communities of faith:

1) Increase funding for the federal Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP).Administered by the Department of Homeland Security, the NSGP provides grants of up to $150,000 apiece for houses of worship, parochial schools and other nonprofits at risk of terror attacks so they may pay for security equipment such ranging from fences, lighting and video surveillance to metal detectors and blast-resistant doors, locks and windows. Funding may also be used to train staff and volunteers and pay for contracted security personnel.

During the past 16 years, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (“Orthodox Union”) has worked with bipartisan allies in Congress to secure $599 million for the program, and individual grants have been disbursed to more than 4,000 organizations nationwide. Despite this increase, NSGP funding hasn’t kept pace with the alarming rate of anti-Jewish attacks, and isn’t nearly enough to help all of the organizations that have applied in recent years. Now, more than 145 members of the House, led by Reps. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) and John Katko (R-N.Y.) have written to appropriators asking to double existing funding to $360 million for 2022, and we urge this be done right away.

2) Pass the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2021 (H.R.350 and S.964). This important bipartisan legislation, introduced in the House by Reps. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) in January, and in the Senate by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), would enhance the federal government’s efforts to prevent domestic terrorism by establishing offices in the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the Department of Justice dedicated to combating this threat; requiring federal law enforcement agencies to regularly assess this threat; and providing training and resources to assist state, local, and tribal law enforcement in addressing it. Law enforcement leaders have said the lack of such a statute has hampered their work. Congress must pass this pending legislation.

3) Expand local law enforcement capacity. Most local police departments lack sufficient resources to sufficiently patrol our communities in the face of current threats, leaving too many synagogues — as well as mosques, churches and other houses of worship — to scrape together the money to hire off-duty police or private security guards to protect their congregations. If government’s first obligation is to keep its citizens safe, this is absurd. Congress must direct some of the millions of dollars in grants distributed by the Department of Justice to police departments to support increased patrols at houses of worship — particularly during times of heavy attendance such as the Sabbath and other holidays.

Religious freedom can only be enjoyed when people of faith have freedom from fear. Congress can, and must, do much more to protect America’s Jews and all communities of faith.

Nathan J. Diament is executive director for public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (the “Orthodox Union”)

Tags Alejandro Mayorkas Antisemitism Bill Pascrell Brad Schneider Brian Fitzpatrick Dick Durbin Hate crime John Katko Merrick Garland Religious discrimination

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