Jewish Organizations See Increase In Ethnic Intimidation Incidents

Jan 27, 2017

In the months following the election of President Donald Trump, the Southern Poverty Law Center documented more than 1,000 incidents of harassment and intimidation across the country. Of the cases, more than 140 targeted Jewish people.

In Pittsburgh, anti-Semitic crime can be difficult to track because the criminal code doesn't require specificity. But executive director of the city's Commission on Human Rights Carlos Torres said police told him incidents targeting Jewish people were the most common.

"According to the data from the police, people of the Jewish faith have been the ones that have received the most ethnic intimidation incidents, followed by anti-Muslim threats," Torres said.

Joshua Sayles, director of community relations for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, said he's noticed an uptick in aggression toward Jews in the region.

"Typically I have one, maybe two incidents at a time at my desk," Sayles said. "Over the past few months, it's gone up by four or five."

According to the Anti-Defamation League, cases of anti-Semitism increased by about 3 percent from 2014 to 2015 and more than doubled on college campuses. Hate crimes are also notoriously underreported, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

In the Pittsburgh region, Sayles said most incidents have occurred in schools. Last year, Mt. Lebanon police investigated several cases involving graffiti of swastikas and anti-Semitic messaging near elementary and middle schools.

Hate crime reporting is also new to University of Pittsburgh Religious Studies assistant professor Rachel Kranson. She said in the six years she's been with the school, no one had reported an anti-Semitic incident until recently, when one witness came forward.

Kranson said Pitt's Office of Diversity and Inclusion launched an investigation into the case. Soon afterward, she said she attended the annual meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies where she learned incidents were becoming more common.

"A number of my colleagues, including one from a college here in the Pittsburgh area, told me they too were dealing with their first reports of anti-Semitism," Kranson said. 

Anti-Semitism is not new, but Kranson said the election of President Trump and appointments of some of his cabinet members seem to have emboldened hate groups. Trump's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is associated with the alt right, a white supremacist movement that includes anti-Semitic ideology.

Kranson said the internet has also changed how hate is spread in the United States because it allows people to be anonymous and gives hate groups a way to organize and publish their message for free.

While the Jewish community is concerned with the rising reports, Sayles said he's asking people not to become disheartened. He said when he hears about an ethnic intimidation case, he tries to work with the workplace or school where it happened.

"They're as receptive as ever to rectifying the situation," Sayles said. "You don't judge a community by the bad things that happen there, you just a community by how it responds to those bad things."

Torres said the commission is planning several public meetings with police during which topics of ethnic intimidation will be discussed.

(Photo via Israeltourism/flickr)