Torched Israeli flag spurs debate on definition of hate crime
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Torched Israeli flag spurs debate on definition of hate crime

The state released its annual Unified Crime Report Tuesday as local police continued an investigation of a desecrated Israeli flag found in Tenafly last week, raising questions about whether the action should be considered a bias crime or protected speech.

New Jersey police reported 426 bias crimes from January through June last year, an 11 percent increase from the same period in 2007 according to the report.

At approximately 4 p.m. on Wednesday, April 29, a student walking home from Tenafly High School along Columbus Drive found the remains of a burned Israeli flag, one of many Israeli flags that had been used at a school program earlier that day.

“Generally speaking, flag-burning is considered to be protected speech,” said Etzion Neuer, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey office. “But because of [religious and local concerns] this looks like a provocative gesture that may be targeting the Jewish community.”

Officials have not yet ruled the incident a hate crime, also known in legal circles as a bias crime. A bias crime needs to have two elements, said Peter Aseltine, a spokesman for the state’s attorney general’s office. Its purpose must be to cause intimidation based on race, color, religion, nationality, and the like. And there must be a criminal offense, which may include arson, murder, or harassment.

Law enforcement officials may use the broader term “bias incident” to describe an event while an investigation continues. Aseltine attributed the rise in bias incidents during the first half of 2008 to better reporting methods among police and not necessarily a rise in incidents.

“We are always concerned when we see an increase in bias crimes,” he said. “All crimes are harmful to the individual victims and to society but bias crimes are particularly harmful because of their potential to cause fear within the targeted group and tension within our communities.”

When an incident takes place in a town like Tenafly, which has a considerable Israeli population, concern about whether it is a hate crime rises. The most recent ADL Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents, which came out in March 2008 for the year 2007, reported 247 incidents in New Jersey, up from 244 in 2006.

While the flag-burning is classified as a bias incident, it may not be a bias crime. Neuer cited derogatory and racist slurs that are found on the Internet.

“They are absolutely offensive and filled with bigotry and bias, but protected speech,” Neuer said. “That’s a necessary cost of living in a democracy.”

Targeting somebody because of national origin is included under the New Jersey statute that defines bias intimidation, and the list of bias offenses includes desecration of venerable objects. Whether burning a flag would fit this definition, however, depends on the perpetrator’s motivation.

Tenafly Police Chief Michael P. Bruno said Monday that the investigation was continuing. For now, the department believes the flag-burning was an isolated incident.

“All we know right now is someone found a burned flag of Israel on a sidewalk on a residential side street,” he said. “We’re not sure it was meant as a hate crime.”

Nevertheless, he added, the department has been in touch with the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office and the Israeli consulate. New Jersey police are required to track bias incidents, even if they do not fit the definition of bias crimes.

“We know that when there is hate speech it can sometimes lead to hateful action,” Neuer said. “If there appears to be a rash of incidents of hate in a particular area, even if it is all legal, it’s something we want to know about.”

Police in Union City this week were continuing an arson investigation at the Bnos Sanz Girls School last month. Two vandals broke through the school’s fence on April 22 and set fire to a desk outside the building. Police had not ruled the incident a bias crime as of Wednesday.

The two events highlight the dilemma authorities face when investigating bias incidents.

“We have a fire at a school and we wonder if it’s bias-related,” Neuer said. “In the incident [in Tenafly] we certainly have a bias incident and wonder if it’s a crime.”

Once a suspect is questioned, motivation plays a large role in determining the nature of the crime. Neuer said, “Context is critical.”

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