Man charged in drawing swastikas in Monsey synagogue as questions remain

Man charged in drawing swastikas in Monsey synagogue as questions remain

Rockland Jewish Federation preparing to announce major security initiative

Scott Richman, left, and Ari Rosenblum
Scott Richman, left, and Ari Rosenblum

Ramapo police have arrested and charged a man with scrawling swastikas inside a Monsey synagogue last month.

On Friday night, June 17, worshippers at the Sanzer Shul in Monsey discovered swastikas and Nazi messages in their synagogue.

Rolando DeJesus Gomez-Velazquez, 32, who lives in nearby Hillcrest, was arrested and charged with those crimes. He reportedly had worked occasionally for the synagogue.

He was charged with two felonies: Criminal mischief for property damage with a hate crime enhancement, and aggravated harassment for drawing swastikas.

Ari Rosenblum, that chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation & Foundation of Rockland County, said that a member of the organization’s board has been working “directly with the Ramapo police. I’ve been liaising with the sheriff at the county level.”

While the actual damage to the synagogue was relatively minor, “We look at this in a larger context,” Mr. Rosenblum said. “We are very concerned with security for the entire community, and we are taking action to raise the level of security of every institution in the community, for every Jew in Rockland.”

Details of how this happens will be in “a major security initiative” that Mr. Rosenblum said the federation has been preparing and he hopes to be able to announce later this month.

Meanwhile, he urges more and quicker reporting of antisemitic incidents. Police were not summoned to the chasidic synagogue until Sunday morning, although the crime was discovered on Friday night. “Working closely with law enforcement is key to fighting hate,” Mr. Rosenblum said.

Mr. Rosenblum said he recently was in Washington, lobbying with the Jewish Federations of North America for the Khalid Jabara and Heather Heyer National Opposition to Hate, Assault, and Threats to Equality Act. The bill would encourage local police departments to report hate crimes properly to the federal government. It is now in congressional committees. The bill has 90 Democratic and 15 Republican cosponsors in the House; in the Senate, only two of its 24 cosponsors are Republican. Under Senate rules, bills must be approved by at least 60 of the 100 senators, meaning that a bill supported by all the Democratic senators requires at least 10 more Republican votes to become a law.

The bill is important, Mr. Rosenblum said, because “at the end of the day, you need data.” Nonetheless, in the long run, “Nobody can eliminate this. Realistically, antisemitism and the violence and harassment and vandalism that come with it are not disappearing.”

Scott Richman, the ADL’s regional director for New York and New Jersey, agreed on the need for better hate-crime reporting.

“There are many, many agencies across the country that do not report hate crimes,” he said. “It’s not as big an issue in New York City or in the surrounding areas. And in New Jersey, former Attorney General Gurbir Grewal made a big push for his agencies to report, and that led to significantly increased reporting. But there were several communities that had populations of a hundred thousand or more that were reporting zero hate crimes. I think Syracuse was one of them.

“Statistically, that doesn’t make sense to have a large urban area like that report zero hate crimes over the course of the year.”

Mr. Richman said the alleged Monsey synagogue attacker’s motives were unknown. “Maybe it’s an individual who has mental health problems,” he said. “Maybe it’s an individual who has been wronged by one member of the Jewish community and therefore takes it out on the entire Jewish community, or maybe it’s something about that building this person doesn’t like — it could be many reasons.

“This sort of lone wolf phenomenon, an individual who doesn’t appear to be connected to any extremist organizations but lashes out, is hard to fight against. You can fight against a group, you can call out a group’s activities, but a lone wolf, you never know quite where they’re going to pop up. You fight that by building a better society.”

He said that after an arrest is made, the question of motivation is a matter for law enforcement to determine. “We hope there’ll be some sort of answer, some sort of closure that helps us understand why this person did it, and how it can possibly be prevented in the future,” Mr. Richman said.

Whatever the motivation in this case, the fact remains that the number of antisemitic incidents reported to ADL have quadrupled since 2013. “In 2013, our audit showed 751 incidents across the country,” Mr. Richman said. “And in 2021, it was 2,717. That’s a very, very significant statistic.”

What’s the reason for that increase?

“It’s not going to be just one factor,” he said. “There are short-term and long-term factors.”

The short-term factors included the Israel-Hamas conflict in May of 2021, which caused a spike in antisemitic incidents, “especially here in the New York area, some of them particularly violent, really Jews being blamed for what was happening in Israel.

“The second reason that I would point to is sort of stress on society. So you know, when there’s stress on society, people look for scapegoats. And we have a lot of stress, covid being one of them.”

That led to attacks on the Jewish community, as well as the Asian community — Asians were being blamed for covid. “It’s not just about a rise in antisemitism,” Mr. Richman said. “There has been a general rise in hate across this country. Social media has been a huge driver of hate.

“You know, in the old days, if somebody wanted to get their hateful ideas out, they needed to convince a newspaper or television station or radio station, and invariably those media outlets would say, ‘No, the message that you want to convey is hateful. And we are not allowing it to be broadcast.’

“But with social media, you don’t need to ask anybody’s permission. You can put whatever you want on there. And people have done that. And not only that, but they can find others who share their view, which in the past was much harder, and they can radicalize others to share their view, like what happened in Buffalo. So social media has been a huge driver of hate.

“We’ve made a lot of strides in the past few years in pressing social media companies to put in place policies where they won’t allow this hate on their site. And that’s helped, but not enough. The policies are not necessarily strong enough, and also their enforcement of the policies is not great enough. They’re not catching many of the posts.”

Take, for example, the problem of Holocaust denial on Facebook, Mr. Richman said. After initially defending Holocaust denial posts in the name of free speech, Mark Zuckerberg said in 2022 that he would no longer allow Holocaust denial. But “the problem is that if you go to Facebook today, you can still find pages that are clearly labeled as dedicated to Holocaust denial.”

He said the ADL has been pressing Facebook to change its policies. It has supported a California bill that would require social media companies to report their policies and how they are applied publicly and is advocating for similar measures in New York and New Jersey.

He said that another factor in the rise in hate is “an increase in polarization. Our country is much, much more divided than it has been. And that division leads to a proliferation of hate.”

That, he said, is because when it is divided, civil society no longer is effective in pushing hate to the margins. “People say what’s on my side is good and what’s on that side is bad,” he said. “And maybe what’s on your side is good, but also there’s some bad, but you know, if you’re on the left, you need to be the one to call out hate on the left. And if you’re on the right, you need to be the one to call out hate on the right. And if the sides are not willing to play that role, then hate begins to move to the center, and not stay at the extremes. So that’s the situation that we’re in.

“And that really leads me to the third and final factor, a general rise in extremism which we’ve seen since 2016 or 17. We’ve seen extremists become emboldened and much more visible.

“Since 2017, we’ve been tracking something called white supremacist propaganda: stickering, flyering, and banner drops. These are ways that white supremacists get messages out and ways that they recruit people. So they may come into a town and put up a series of fliers that have some sort of message about white power. It terrorizes the local community, and it has a website I can go to, and it’s a recruitment tool.

“In 2017, we counted 12 such incidents of this in New Jersey. In 2021, there were 179 incidents. In New York, the number was 20 versus over 200. In 2021, there were nearly 5,000 such incidents of this.”

Another matter of concern is “making sure that there’s not people who are avowed extremists within law enforcement or within the military. For example, the Oath Keepers are a far-right nationalist group, and many of their ranks come from the military or law enforcement.”

The ADL has supported the Domestic Terrorism and Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which among other things, to quote the bill, gives resources to “law enforcement agencies in understanding, detecting, deterring, and investigating acts of domestic terrorism and White supremacist and neo-Nazi infiltration of law enforcement and corrections agencies.”

The bill passed the House of Representatives in May, 222 to 203, with only one Republican supporting it. In its initial consideration in the Senate, it received 47 votes in favor, all from Democrats, and 47 against, all from Republicans.

“We’re hoping that it will be passed,” Mr. Richman said. “It’s a very important step that needs to be taken.”

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