Saturday, September 25, 2021

In the wake of an alarming rise in bias incidents and terrorism directed at the Jewish community and others, Governor Phil Murphy on January 15 signed into law a bill that broadens and adds teeth to the current terrorism laws.

The bill, A-3087, which was passed two days earlier by the state Assembly 74-0 and the Senate 31-0, was introduced by Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Bergen/Passaic) and co-sponsored by Assemblywomen Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) and Annette Quijano (D-Union). Senate co-sponsors were James Beach (D-Camden) and Joseph Lagana (D-Bergen).

In signing the bill, Murphy said in a statement, “This legislation is crucial to making it clear that hatred will not be tolerated in our state.”

Vainieri Huttle said that the bill will broaden the definition of terrorism to include crimes committed “to influence or incite an act of terror against a person or group of people based on their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender or creed.”

Vainieri Huttle told a group of Teaneck residents in early January that she would also be re-introducing a bill she had promoted in the previous legislative session, which would expand the state’s bias crime statute. This bill, A-682, was introduced on January 14 and so far has no cosponsors.

Previously, a person was guilty of terrorism if he or she “committed, attempted, conspired or threatened to commit certain crimes to promote an act of terror, terrorize five or more people, influence the policy or conduct of government or cause by an act of terror the impairment or interruption of public communications, public transportation, public or private buildings, common carriers, public utilities or other public services.”

Vainieri Huttle said the expanded definition will allow law enforcement to prosecute more hate crimes as acts of terrorism and enforce harsher penalties.

According to state attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal, preliminary data shows there were 944 bias incidents reported to law enforcement in New Jersey in 2019, a 65% increase over the previous year, the most egregious of which was the December 10 attack at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City in which six people, including the two gunmen, were killed. It also marks the fourth straight year hate crimes have increased in the state.

The state police reported 172 anti-Jewish bias incidents in 2018, accounting for 30% of the total. During that same year, 86.4% of bias incidents were motivated by the victim’s religion, with Jews the most frequently targeted group.

The new legislation was welcomed by Simon Wiesenthal Center Eastern Director Michael Cohen.

“It is clear that with the spiking of anti-Semitic hate crimes in our region that we must provide law enforcement with additional tools so that they can successfully protect local communities,” he told The Jewish Link. “We need to have a zero-tolerance policy for any person or entity that has a role in perpetrating a hate crime, and this policy helps amplify that clear message.”

Susan Tuchman, director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Law and Justice, called the rise in anti-Semitism “alarming.”

“We know how serious the problem is in New Jersey,” she said in an email to The Jewish Link. “Of all 50 states in the U.S., New Jersey ranks among the very highest in the number of reported anti-Semitic incidents. We were horrified and devastated when a brave police officer was killed, and three innocent people were massacred in a kosher market in Jersey City in December.”

She praised the state for taking action, adding, “The bill that expands the definition of domestic terrorism will send the message that those who terrorize Jews and other targeted groups will face more severe punishment. Gov. Murphy and New Jersey lawmakers have sent the right and necessary message: that New Jersey is committed to fighting bigotry and violence against Jews and other targeted groups and making sure that all of us can feel more safe and secure.”

Legislators said they were motivated by the shooting at the JC Kosher Supermarket shooting by David Anderson and Francine Graham, two members of the Black Hebrew Israelites—listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group—who deliberately targeted the store as well as the uptick in anti-Semitic incidents in nearby New York, including the stabbing of five people celebrating Chanukah at a rabbi’s home in Monsey.

“Unfortunately, the number of bias incidents keeps going up and there are 18 active hate groups operating in New Jersey and they need to be held accountable,” said Vainieri Huttle.

She said bias is taking many forms, from swastikas scrawled on high school lockers to incidents like Jersey City.

“We’re seeing these heinous acts we thought were things of the past and not just against the Jewish religion, although unfortunately the Jewish religion has been the highlight,” said Vainieri Huttle. “This kind of hate cannot be tolerated nor will we allow it to be tolerated in New Jersey.”

Schaer, in a prepared statement, also stressed the need for stricter enforcement and penalties in light of the rise of anti-Semitic incidents in both New Jersey and across the nation.

“Each of these acts was done to sow fear within communities and to inspire more acts of violence,” he said. “There is only one word for all of these acts: terrorism.”

Quijano also said in a prepared statement: “We cannot ignore the facts: Crimes committed toward a certain group because of how they look or their way of life is indeed an act of terror. Our state laws should reflect this so that we may prosecute terrorists to the fullest extent of the law.”

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said anti-bias laws have continually evolved in the decades since the first such legislation was passed by the state.

As she looked to the future, the next step will be determining how to handle individuals whose racism, misogyny, homophobia or anti-Semitism is a product of mental illness rather than hatred.

“That is the question,” said Weinberg. “Is somebody doing this because they are mentally unbalanced? Sorting that out may be difficult, and if mental illness is involved, does it mean it’s not a bias crime?”

By Debra Rubin

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