The painting of a swastika — that dark, ubiquitous signature of hateful vandals everywhere — is no longer automatically considered an act of anti-Semitism under new guidelines for recording attacks against Jews announced this week by the Anti-Defamation League.
The most prominent Jewish defense agency in the country, perhaps in the world, announced on Tuesday that it has revamped its guidelines for recording anti-Semitic incidents in its annual survey for the first time in 30 years, taking a more conservative approach.
“We know that the swastika has, for some, lost its meaning as the primary symbol of Nazism and instead become a more generalized symbol of hate,” said Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, who was a hidden child during the Holocaust in a statement. “So we are being more careful to include graffiti incidents that specifically target Jews or Jewish institutions as we continue the process of re-evaluating and redefining how we measure anti-Jewish incidents.”
Another major change in the survey is that data are being collected in real time throughout the year, rather than compiled at year’s end from police reports and complaints to ADL’s regional offices. As a result, incidents can be more thoroughly investigated as they unfold, said Deborah Lauter, director of ADL’s civil rights division, who is in charge of the audit.
As an example, she said that police in Salem County, N.J., recorded an incident last year of swastikas on park benches as an anti-Semitic vandalism. An ADL investigation surmised that because there was no significant Jewish community in the area it was more likely an act of general hate and therefore wasn’t included in the audit.
“If it appeared on a bench in Lakewood, that would be a different thing,” said Lauter, referring to the heavily haredi town in New Jersey that is home to a prominent yeshiva. She said it has become increasingly clear to ADL as it conducts education programs across the country that young people don’t know the significance of the swastika and its relation to the Holocaust, and that often it is being used to intimidate non-Jews, including African Americans.
There were 1,211 anti-Semitic incidents across the United States in 2009, including 209 in New York State, according to the latest audit. Lauter said that, had the criteria been unchanged, this year’s statistics would show a 10 percent increase over 2008’s 1,352 incidents. Instead, the new system shows a 10 percent decrease. But comparing the two surveys would be akin to comparing apples to oranges because of the varying qualifiers.
William Helmreich, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, said he understood the reasons for differentiating between swastikas directly targeting Jews and those painted in general locations.
But Helmreich said he had “reservations” about omitting the latter category completely from the report. “I don’t feel they should stop taking note of swastikas in general because they do represent a symbol of hatred. Why not just differentiate it in the report, as we do in sociology? Rather than yes or no, there is agree, agree strongly or disagree.”
Lauter said information on swastikas not directed at Jews was being preserved, even if excluded from the audit. “We may take a look to see if it warrants a separate report. This [system] does enable us to look at these kinds of trends.”
Michael Berenbaum, former project director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and currently a consultant, said he agrees with ADL’s decision.
“The presence of swastikas in certain contexts is not sufficient to prove anti-Semitism,” he said. “Individual judgments should be made and ADL has done as good a job as anyone over the years in quantifying anti-Semitism. They have reported declines when it is in their self-interest to have it on the rise [because of fundraising].”
A March, 2007 Jewish Week story noted that the ADL’s presentation of numbers that year was misleading, because while the overall number of incidents — including e-mails and verbal harassment — was down, violent attacks on Jews, particularly in New York was on the rise. In stressing the aggregate decrease in incidents, the organization was presenting a picture of greater tolerance and safety when the rising assaults told a different story.
At the time, Foxman said the agency was considering changing the way it tracks and documents incidents.
The three primary categories of incidents have not changed. They are: assaults, of which there were 29 last year; acts of vandalism, of which there were 422 and harassment, of which there were 760 incidents reported in the audit.
California and New York saw the most incidents, 275 and 209, respectively, followed by New Jersey, with 132 and Florida, with 90.
To better keep track of the incidents, Lauter said the agency uses modified sales-tracking software that allows the regional offices to input incidents that are then analyzed by the New York headquarters. As a result of incorporating the new system, the report, which is generally released in the first half of the year, was released later than usual this year.
The most serious incident was the deadly attack on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington by a white supremacist who fatally shot a museum guard in June. The 88-year-old suspect, James Von Brunn, was hit by return fire and later died of his wounds.
In New York, the audit notes the May arrests of four Muslim men who plotted to bomb two Riverdale synagogues in what turned out to be an FBI sting operation, as well as a spree of “Kill the Jews” leaflets dropped throughout New York City and the suburbs. A livery cab driver was charged last week with one count of aggravated harassment connected to that spree, and police say he confessed to the other incidents. Only the leaflets left near the Jewish Institute for the Blind in Manhattan constituted a crime, authorities said.
The audit also noted the arrest of a white supremacist in Brockton, Mass., who killed two people, raped a third and was allegedly planning to kill Jews.
The activities of members of the Westboro Baptist Church, of Topeka, Kan., which included protesting at Jewish institutions across the country with anti-Semitic signs were also noted in the audit, as was a “severe intensification” of online hate directed at Jews. That included anti-Israel Facebook groups and comments in online forums in response to the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme scandal that espoused Jewish conspiracy theories.
In New York, the audit noted 79 incidents of harassment, 10 of physical assault and 120 of vandalism.
Brooklyn led the state in incidents, with 51, followed by 49 in Manhattan, 47 in Nassau County, 17 in Queens, 16 in Westchester and upstate, 14 in Suffolk, eight in the Bronx and seven on Staten Island.
In addition to the Riverdale bomb plot, incidents cited included the August assault of an 11-year-old girl who was taunted with anti-Semitic comments in Brooklyn; the assault of a Brooklyn man who was hit with a brick in September; the mailing of swastika-bearing letters to three Jewish teachers at Columbia University’s Teachers College in April and the desecration of mausoleums and headstones at a Jewish cemetery in Queens in July.
In December, two menorahs in public places were destroyed in separate incidents in Ronkonkoma and Stony Brook, L.I.
“Overall, New York provides a very good environment for Jews,” said Jeffrey M. Parker, chair of ADL’s New York region in a statement. “Yet there are still incidents of Jews being attacked simply because they are Jewish. Every one such incident is one too many and has a ripple effect on the community.”
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