WASHINGTON — As America grapples with an uptick in anti-Semitic incidents throughout the country, experts say targeted communities are especially vulnerable in several states that don’t have hate crimes laws to address the problem.
While 45 states and the District of Columbia have state-level statutes to prosecute attacks directed at a victim based on race, ethnicity, religion or national origin, five states — Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Wyoming — do not.
“The hate crime itself has an impact that extends beyond the individual target,” Steven Freeman, deputy director of policy and programs at the Anti-Defamation League, told The Times of Israel Wednesday.
“It affects communities, and we’ve certainly see that: the impact of anxiety it has spurred in the Jewish community and the sense of disruption that these threats have had,” he added. “For those states that don’t have laws, I think that just magnifies and exaggerates the sense of vulnerability and isolation.”
That dynamic has become more pressing in the last several months. Since January, more than 100 Jewish centers and other institutions have received bomb threats, prompting some parents to pull their kids from JCC programs. In addition, several Jewish cemeteries have been vandalized.
At least six JCC bomb threats have taken place in three of the five states without hate crimes laws — specifically Georgia, Indiana and South Carolina. There was also another incident this month in which a gunshot was fired in a synagogue, Adath B’Nai Israel Temple, in Evansville, Indiana.
Indiana state legislators recently tried to push through a measure that would create a hate crimes law and allow judges to consider tougher sentences on crimes motivated by the victims’ actual or perceived race, religion, disability, gender identity or sexual orientation.
The bill was proposed amid ongoing concerns that the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act — which was signed into law by then-governor Mike Pence in 2015 — would lead to increased discrimination of the LGBTQ community.
The measure, which lawmakers sought to advance for the second year in a row, died in the State Senate last month, as its proponents failed to muster enough support from members of the chamber.
The announcement of the bill’s fate came on the same day the Indianapolis Jewish Community Center received a bomb threat to its facility.
‘People feel as if there’s an unwillingness on the part of the leaders in the legislature to recognize the scope of the problem and the impact that it has’
“When it’s a state that has tried several times to pass a law unsuccessfully, it just exacerbates the problem, because people feel as if there’s an unwillingness on the part of the leaders in the legislature to recognize the scope of the problem and the impact that it has,” Freeman said. “It’s not just a void, it’s a failure.”
But with the latest spike in hate crimes directed at Jews, Muslims and other minorities, federal lawmakers have been directing their attention to the matter.
Members of the House of Representative’s Bipartisan Task Force for Combatting Anti-Semitism recently told The Times of Israel they will consider the issue and ways Congress can address it.
“I think that will be a next step we take up at our meeting,” New York Rep. Nita Lowey, a Democrat, said during a press conference at which that group unveiled a letter to President Donald Trump urging more action be taken in countering anti-Semitic attacks nationwide.
While there have been repeated waves of bomb threats to Jewish centers in recent months, hate crimes against American Jewish communities are anything but new.
According to the FBI’s hate crimes statistics for 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, Jews were the targets of more hate crimes than any other religious group, as 52.1 percent of reported hate crimes were motivated by anti-Jewish sentiment.
The ADL’s Freeman, however, claimed those numbers didn’t reflect the true scope of the issue — which, he argued, also contributed to its exacerbation.
“There is a real inadequacy in terms of state police agencies reporting to the FBI on how many hate crimes they have in their jurisdictions, which has a real impact on how many resources are allocated and how seriously the problem is treated,” he said.
Several jurisdictions, according to the FBI, didn’t report any hate crimes in 2015, including Tulsa, Oklahoma, which has a population of more than 400,000.
There were also more than 60 cities with a population exceeding 100,000 that reported zero hate crimes to the FBI that year.
“When a city with a 100,000-plus population says it has zero hate crimes, something in that does not ring true,” Freeman said.