Fighting hate in New Jersey

Fighting hate in New Jersey

The Anti-Defamation League’s audit of anti-Semitism reveals that college campuses are today’s battleground

Joshua Cohen
Joshua Cohen


Sometimes we have to look beyond the numbers.

For example — the recent       Anti-Defamation League audit of anti-Semitic events in New Jersey shows 137 instances of bias in 2015, compared with 107 in 2014. The number of assaults, the report tells us, actually went down. On the other hand, anti-Semitic incidents on campuses went up, nearly doubling the previous year’s figure.

Some 90 incidents were reported on 60 college campuses in 2015, compared with 47 incidents on 43 campuses in 2014, Joshua Cohen, the ADL’s New Jersey regional director, said. Indeed, campus anti-Semitic incidents accounted for 10 percent of the total incidents reported in the United States in 2015.

New Jersey ranked third in the nation for anti-Semitic incidents reported in 2015, behind New York, with 198, and California, with 175. The New Jersey counties with the highest totals were Ocean (23), Middlesex (15), and Monmouth (15).

“Our numbers are what’s reported,” Mr. Cohen said. “For every reported incident, there are those that go unreported. We have to remember that the audit is a snapshot of one specific aspect of a nationwide problem, identifying possible trends and changes in the activities reported. That helps us develop programs to prevent that.”

Seeing an increase of incidents on campus — “not just related to BDS but ‘traditional’ things like swastikas and graffiti like ‘Heil Hitler’” — Mr. Cohen said that the ADL takes note of the fact that such incidents are increasing across the country. To counter this, the group does proactive training, running such programs as Words to Action, responding to anti-Israel animus on campus.

“It’s not just talking points,” he said. “It’s a holistic approach. There is an entire cadre of Jews on campus trained to respond.” Special facilitators help students gain skills, “giving them a framework for how to respond, for example, if there’s a bias comment from a friend or a professor, or if there’s a swastika on their locker. We look at incidents across the spectrum.”

Words to Action is not yet offered on New Jersey campuses, “but we are reaching out through Hillels and Chabad to provide the responses,” Mr. Cohen said.

Noting the current political climate, “We have seen a number of candidates use charged language, treading into the area of bias and bigotry,” he continued. “It’s emboldened a number of individuals and groups — white supremacists, neo-Nazis, the fringe of the fringe have been given a national platform. More disturbing, journalists covering the election are being targeted with anti-Semitic [messages] on social media.”

The ADL has convened a task force to address this situation, he said, bringing together a group of experts from various fields. The group “will put out a report to assess the scope of anti-Semitism on social media to see if it is having an impact on free speech, and propose solutions.

“While it is deeply troubling that two incidents of anti-Semitism are reported every week, this doesn’t account for the online harassment seen every hour,” Mr. Cohen continued. “It’s so widespread that it’s difficult to quantify. And it’s not just Jewish journalists. The ADL itself receives all sorts of harassment.”

“It’s a new platform to disseminate hate. Years ago you had to do it in public. Now you can write vile and hateful things in 144 characters and it goes global.” Another troubling trend, he said, is that “young people four generations removed from the Holocaust think it’s funny to make jokes about it.”

He cited the case of a high school girl in Ocean County who dressed up as Hitler because she thought it would be funny. And in a “horribly offensive anti-Semitic drinking game” at a Princeton high school, students have been playing “Jews versus Nazi” for a number of years.

“When teens are doing this — in a state with a Holocaust mandate — it says something about the type of education they’re receiving,” he said. There are ways the ADL can help — it can work with a school district, and schools can respond by distancing themselves from such incidents and providing programs that offer healing for the student body.

One such program, Mr. Cohen continued, is ADL’s Echoes and Reflections, a Holocaust education program developed with Yad Vashem for middle and high school teachers. “It gives educators a way to teach about the Holocaust in a way that stimulates critical thinking,” he said, noting that the program was offered in Ridgewood during the past year.

Mr. Cohen added that the increased number of anti-Semitic incidents is a sobering reminder that New Jersey is not immune to anti-Jewish animus. “The way to fight hate speech is to counter with good speech. It has to be cut out at the root,” requiring education at an early age.

He said that his organization has been combating cyberhate since 1985 with a best practices toolkit, and it offers a way for people to register their concerns when they see something offensive online. “People’s voices are the most powerful tool for fighting hate online,” Mr. Cohen said. “Companies rely on users to bring problems to their attention.”

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