'Hate Has Been Unleashed'

New York's AG Lays Out Her Plan to Solve the State's anti-Semitism Crisis

New York Attorney General Letitia James tells Haaretz how she plans to enact a combination of tougher legal action, educational work and a crack down on online hate speech

New York State Attorney General Letitia James pictured at a press conference, November 19, 2019
LUCAS JACKSON/ REUTERS

Any attack on the Jewish community in New York is “an attack on our entire state,” says New York State Attorney General Letitia James in an interview with Haaretz.

Following the recent wave of anti-Semitic attacks in different parts of the state, James says the problem needs to be tackled with a strategy that involves legal action, security measures, educational work and improvements in the mental health field.

“It’s definitely a crisis, nobody can deny that,” says James, speaking to Haaretz in a phone interview. “When over a short period of time you have so many attacks against the Jewish community, we have to take action,” she adds.

The conversation with the state attorney general, commonly referred to as Tish James, took place 48 hours before she participated in Sunday’s “No Hate. No Fear” march against anti-Semitism, which drew about 25,000 protesters to the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

James spent Friday morning at a joint gathering of black clergy leaders in Brooklyn, which also included several Jewish participants and was focused on the anti-Semitic incidents of the past two weeks. “It was a wonderful meeting, with a powerful message that all of us are standing in solidarity with the Jewish community,” she recounts. “But we also had discussions that weren’t easy.”

James tells Haaretz the data in New York shows that a majority of the recent attacks against Jewish residents were committed by “young people of color,” a fact she says she finds disturbing. “We can’t shy away from obstacles and we can’t shy away from the facts,” she says. “We talked about these stats during the meeting. We have to face this challenge.”

Letitia James takes part in a solidarity march against anti-Semitism in New York, January 5, 2019.
Twitter / Letitia James

Last week, following the stabbing attack in Monsey that left five Jewish people injured, one critically, James visited the community and met with Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg, who lives in the house where the December 28 attack took place. During the visit to Rockland County, James announced the creation of a new Hate Crimes Unit in her office, which, per a press release, is “specifically designed to investigate and prosecute hate crimes.” She also launched a new hotline at the Attorney General’s Office for the public to report hate crimes.

Early last month, James joined a lawsuit against the town of Chester, Orange County, N.Y., where local officials are accused of anti-Semitic discrimination for “a concerted and systematic effort to prevent Hasidic Jewish families” from moving into the town. “Blocking the construction of homes to prevent a religious group from living in a community is flat out discriminatory,” James said in a statement at the time. “As we have seen an alarming rise in the rates of anti-Semitic incidents in New York and across the country, this type of intolerance and discriminatory behavior, especially at the hands of local government, is truly despicable,” the statement added.

‘Jewish blood’

In conversation with Haaretz, James calls attempts to keep Hasidic families off the new development, called The Greens at Chester, “blatant anti-Semitism.” She warns that “some people find it easy to present Orthodox Jews as the source of all their problems. That’s just wrong.”

The state’s answer to the rise in anti-Semitic attacks, James says, needs to include efforts on multiple fronts – from greater police presence and more criminal prosecutions, to education and “bridge-building” between communities – especially between Jews and African Americans.

“Young people need to understand that Jewish blood was shed for the freedom of our community,” she says, referring to the Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movement. “There is so much history there. We need to teach people how Martin Luther King Jr. stood with the Jewish community.”

People participating in a Jewish solidarity march against anti-Semitism on January 5, 2020, in New York City.
AFP

James believes it is crucial to “fill the gaps in the mental health system. We have individuals who aren’t taking their medications and are not getting support services – and they’re falling between the cracks. Some of them, unfortunately, turn violent. We need to identify them before that happens, and prevent it.”

Her office, James adds, is also planning to “focus on social media companies” and their failure to address hate speech, including anti-Semitism. “We are going to strengthen oversight, because we see how much hate is being fueled by content on the internet. We’re calling on these companies to regulate hate speech and strengthen their policies. They can do more to fight these things – racism, the spread of disinformation and hate.”

James was elected New York state attorney general in November 2018, becoming the first woman and first African American to ever hold the position. She is considered to have strong ties to the Jewish community throughout the state. Last November, she spoke about the challenge of fighting anti-Semitism at an event in the home of Israel’s consul general in New York, Dani Dayan. She has also visited Israel in the past with leaders from the Jewish community.

“Tish James, as the attorney general of New York, is standing strongly with the Orthodox Jewish community,” says Yossi Gestetner, co-founder of the Orthodox Jewish Political Action Committee. He specifically mentions her hotline initiative, which could handle cases “that local police can’t really prosecute – such as if someone yells anti-Semitic words” without harassing someone up close.

New York State Attorney General Letitia James speaking to reporters outside the U.S. Supreme Court after a hearing on the Trump administration’s bid to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, Washington, November 12, 2019.
JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS

Evan Bernstein, the New York/New Jersey regional director at the Anti-Defamation League, tells Haaretz that “ADL’s policy guidance is well aligned with James’ proposed measures to combat bias, anti-Semitism and hate. We hope that other officials take a similar approach, so that together we can be successful in implementing overarching policies that not only address the security situation, but also address the roots of hate through communal bridge-building, educational programs, as well as mental health issues and sentencing.”

James admits she was not surprised by the wave of anti-Semitic incidents in her state and other parts of the country. “Hate has been unleashed in our country, and it’s our responsibility now to forcefully stand up against it,” she says. “We need to bring different communities together in order to fight back against this hate. We’ve had periods like this before in our history. We need to get back to our moral values.”