Hank Greenberg: A Cancer In The Body Politic

Jan 8, 2020

The holiday season is a time of joy and goodwill.  We join in celebration with friends and family in the presumably safe havens of our homes and houses of worship.

That sanctuary was upended in horrific fashion in late December when a man wielding an 18-inch machete burst into a Rabbi’s home in the Rockland County town of Monsey.  He attacked a group of Orthodox Jews who had gathered to mark the seventh night of Hanukkah — a celebration of religious freedom.

Five people were injured.  The victims included a 72-year-old man who lays near death in a coma.

Prosecutors allege the attacker, who has been charged with federal hate crimes, kept handwritten journals that contained anti-Semitic writings, and conducted internet searches on Adolph Hitler and the location of local synagogues. 

This incident would be frightening enough if it was an isolated event.  But it wasn’t.  It was just one of a string of attacks on Jews in New York State — 13 of which took place in December alone. 

Over the past year, in New York City, anti-Semitic crimes jumped 21 percent over the previous 12 months. 

According to data compiled by the Anti-Defamation League, there were 1,879 recorded attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions across the country in 2018. 

These are near-historic levels, with a sharp increase in violent assaults.

Such attacks are not limited to people of the Jewish faith.  Only 14 hours after the Hanukkah assault in Monsey, a gunman fired on worshippers at a Texas church.  He killed two people before being shot and killed by a parishioner who headed the church’s security team.

Just think of that — an armed security team, in a church.

You might ask: What is this country coming to? 

Here’s what we have come to: hate crime incidents in churches, synagogues, temples and mosques increased 34 percent between 2014 and 2018.

While these statistics are alarming, the situation may be worse than the numbers suggest.  State and local police are not required to report hate crimes.  More than half of all victims never file a complaint.

We live in a time of increasing intolerance.  In the minds of many — too many — it is a time of “us” against “them.”  Anger and hatred are mutating into a cancer in the body politic.

America’s foundational principles abhor intolerance.  Pluralism and diversity are our national heritage: the source of our strength.  But now, chillingly, our differences are used by hate-filled individuals to tear us apart. 

We cannot stand idly by amidst this crisis.  Martin Luther King, Jr. famously observed, quote: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” 

That is why the New York State Bar Association, the nation’s oldest and largest voluntary group of lawyers, has formed an emergency Task Force on Domestic Terrorism and Hate Crimes.

The task force is made up of top attorneys and judges.  It will consider ways to improve the federal and state legal systems’ response to hate crimes and develop strategies to educate the public on the value of diversity and inclusion.

This vital work comes as thousands of lawyers converge later this month in New York City at the State Bar’s Annual Meeting. The capstone of this week-long event will be the Presidential Summit, the focus of which - white nationalism and domestic terrorism in America - was set months ago, but, unfortunately, is all too pertinent today. 

Renowned experts will address the growing threat of mass violence perpetrated by extremist groups and the legal implications of combatting it.

Challenging times lay ahead for us.  Not only are hate crimes on the rise, but attacks on the very rule of law and our constitutional norms and traditions are now commonplace.  The public is more polarized and divided than at any time since the Vietnam War. 

No less an authority than the Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts, in his annual end-of year report, warned that Americans have quote “come to take democracy for granted.”

The first step in solving a problem is recognizing that it exists.

We have a problem — a grave and serious one that threatens the very fabric of the country.  Let us all do our part to solve it.

Henry ‘Hank’ Greenberg is president of the New York State Bar Association.

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