New York’s New anti-Semitism Czar Warns: No Short Fix for the Longest Hatred

Deborah Lauter tells Haaretz about the challenges facing her as the city's Jewish community experiences a wave of hate crimes

Deborah Lauter, executive director of the new Office for the Prevention of Hate Crime in New York City.
Courtesy of Deborah Lauter

NEW YORK — It has only been a few weeks since Deborah Lauter was announced as executive director of the new Office for the Prevention of Hate Crime, a unit so new that it still doesn’t have its own space or staff.

“I’m excited,” the 62-year-old tells Haaretz as she sits in the conference room of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (which her new bureau is part of). “Everyone wants this to be cured tomorrow, but there are systems. It takes a little bit of time.”

New York City Mayor (and Democratic presidential candidate) Bill de Blasio announced the creation of the office earlier this year. While it was originally scheduled to open in November, the deadline was moved up with the number of hate crimes in the city on the rise.

In the first five months of 2019, New York City Police Department recorded a 64 percent increase in hate crimes compared to the same period last year.

Anti-Semitic incidents represent the majority of such hate crimes, and attacks on Jews nearly doubled during this time — from 58 to 110.

This was on top of the previous year in which the NYPD’s Hate Crimes Task Force recorded a 23 percent increase in incidents against the Jewish community. Most of them took place in Brooklyn — which is home to a large Orthodox Jewish community.

Lauter says she applied for the role after reading about it in a local Jewish newspaper and thinking she was a good fit.

“I thought it was a really good signal from the mayor and the city council that they wanted to invest in a holistic approach to fighting hate,” says Lauter, hunched over a table and wearing a terra-cotta-colored ensemble that matches her red-brown lipstick.

She has decades of experience working in the Jewish community, including an 18-year run at the Anti-Defamation League from 1999 to 2017. During this time she led a push for the ultimately successful passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009. The new legislation expanded the hate crimes law to cover discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation and disability.

“There is no short fix to the longest hatred,” admits Lauter. “There is not one way to do it, and that’s why this office is focused on working on education, working with law enforcement and working with community groups. Those for me are the three main buckets and each one is going to take a different approach, but each one needs to interact with the other in order to do it right.”

An Orthodox Jewish man walking in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights, February 27, 2019.
ANGELA WEISS / AFP

With a budget of $1.7 million for the coming year, Lauter’s office will use prevention methods like investing in public education campaigns, community safety and preventative best practices, as well as community outreach — which Lauter believes is key to her mission.

“I think there are things that particularly faith leaders can do or talk about, and there are programs to educate the community about stereotypes,” she says.

Her office will also support training for police officers and promote the reporting of hate crimes, which is still a challenge for affected communities.

“The Jewish community is pretty comfortable reporting crimes and hate crimes to the police,” Lauter notes. “That trust relationship has been established with a lot of work by the ADL and other groups making the connections. But it’s not so much within other vulnerable populations — particularly the LGBTQ community, the Muslim community and immigrants who don’t have as much trust in the system.”

To help establish this trust, Lauter envisions partnering with existing community organizations to “find ways to educate the communities about what are hate crimes and how we can help.”

Most essential factor

Now in her third week on the job, Lauter says she has been learning about the different agencies she will “bring to the table” to find solutions against biases. These include the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH) and the City Commission of Human Rights (CCHR). “Someone told me: You thought there were a lot of acronyms in the Jewish world — well, welcome to city life!” she smiles. “City government is a whole different kind of entity.”

Lauter believes education is the most essential factor in prevention.

Perpetrators who draw swastikas, for example, “tend to be youth who don’t always really understand the significance of the swastika,” says Lauter. “At the ADL, we did a lot of anti-bias training, and at its core it was teaching kids to respect themselves and how you respect the other.”

While she is optimistic that empathy can be instilled in people from a young age, Lauter also acknowledges that there is no tangible way of measuring the impact of anti-bias training. “You won’t really know that those kids who have had that training never went on to commit a hate crime,” she says. “But you can’t not do it, you can’t do nothing. So it’s better to do something and do it well.

Local residents surveying the damage to a vandalized gravestone at Waad Hakolel Cemetery, Rochester, New York, in  2017.
GRETCHEN STUMME / AFP

“You’re never going to completely eliminate incidents, but the big hope is to do as much as you can to mitigate it, and to make sure the systems are in place to respond and to support victims,” she adds.

For Orthodox Jews living in Brooklyn, anti-Semitic incidents have become a daily reality in recent times. According to the ADL’s last annual audit, violent assaults against Jews in New York state rose by 55 percent last year, representing nearly half of all such recorded attacks nationally.

Earlier this month, three Orthodox Jewish men suffered separate physical assaults. One of them was attacked with a brick, knocking out teeth and leaving him with a head wound.

In the wake of these attacks, many have called on Mayor de Blasio to take stronger action.

“Everybody wants something done — but I hope they realize that a lot is being done,” says Lauter. “They may not know it from the press, but I’ve actually been impressed with how much has been done by the mayor’s staff and him being in the loop.

“We sort of take for granted that these hate crime laws are here,” she continues. “Sometimes, these incidents against Jews happen in another country and the official response is a shrug. The response for those in positions of power is incredibly important to send a message about democracy and about pluralism and respect for others.”

‘Calming the fear’

Michael S. Miller, executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, welcomes Lauter’s appointment. “The opening of this new office led by Deborah tangibly conveys the message that the time is now to confront the rise in anti-Semitic incidents and other bias-motivated crime,” he says, adding that he looks forward to partnering with Lauter, a “seasoned community relations professional.”

For her part, Lauter tells Haaretz she has been “heartened” by how many in the Orthodox Jewish community have welcomed her appointment, and says she hopes to “calm some of the fear” they may be experiencing.

She says that working to “cure” biases, stereotypes and hate defines her “not just as a Jew, but as an American.” Warming to her theme, she notes: “As a Jewish parent, I want my children to be safe and all children to be safe. At the same time, I care really deeply about all the other vulnerable groups — and I think that’s why I am well suited for this.”

Lauter is planning to hire six staff members in the coming weeks and says she has “no shortage of candidates” who want to be “part of the solution.”

In addition to her own budget for the next year, Lauter says the city council has also allocated some $1 million for community organizations to engage in the prevention of hate crimes, which her office will oversee.

Lauter’s former colleague at the ADL, Evan Bernstein, praises her appointment, stating that she has had a “long and distinguished professional career fighting anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry.”

He adds: “I cannot think of anyone more suited and qualified to lead the new and much-needed OPHC.”