The Anti-Defamation League is looking to strengthen hate-crimes laws in New Jersey and across the country in an initiative it is calling “50 States Against Hate.”
Prompted by the June murder of nine African-Americans at a historic church in Charleston, SC, the ADL is partnering with civil rights groups and labor unions to press for stronger laws, better training for law enforcement personnel, improved data collection, and increased reporting.
In New Jersey, the organization will focus on underreporting, on-line bullying, and discrimination against transgender people.
“New Jersey has very good laws on the books, but we would like to up our game in terms of law enforcement,” said Deborah Lauter, the ADL’s national civil rights director, in an interview at NJ Jewish News offices in Whippany.
“We are concerned not only about having laws on the books, but making sure communities know about them and law enforcement is taking them seriously,” she added.
In 2014, the ADL logged 107 anti-Semitic incidents in New Jersey — a 27 percent increase from the 78 incidents reported in 2013.
“We have some cities that are underreporting hate crime,” including incidents occurring on line, said Joshua Cohen, ADL’s NJ director, who joined Lauter for the interview.
“The Jewish community is very comfortable in the United States. We trust law enforcement and are more likely to report hate crimes than others,” Lauter acknowledged; however, “the Muslim community may not have the same comfort level in dealing with the police.”
Cohen cited a June incident when a Muslim student came to class at Colonia High School wearing a head scarf. She felt intimidated after a photograph of her was posted on Facebook and Snapchat along with the word “ISIS.”
“It flew through social media, and it took the school four months to investigate,” said Cohen, whose office dealt with her complaint. “The administration’s first response was to deny it was an incident of bullying.”
In late October, Colonia’s schools superintendent told a WPIX-TV reporter, “Not only is it harassment and bullying and intimidating, but it’s hateful. It’s biased and it’s ignorant.”
Lauter said the ADL has been working with private Internet companies to focus attention on hate issues. “We have developed a set of best practices for what we would like the Internet companies to do to define what is and is not allowed on the Internet as offensive material and making sure the companies are taking down offensive material when it is reported,” she said.
Another growing area of concern is discrimination against transgender people.
“We were very disappointed when Gov. Chris Christie vetoed legislation in August that would have allowed transgender individuals to change their sex designation on their birth certificates,” said Cohen. “We will continue to advocate for those changes, and we continue to provide anti-LGBT bias resources to our schools.”
Lauter said the ADL is sometimes caught in a struggle between religious freedom and civil rights, especially when women’s and gay rights issues conflict with conservative Christianity.
“When I look at LGBT challenges and challenges to women’s reproductive rights, they come from the conservative Right that wants to impose its religious values on the rest of us,” Lauter said. “Many of them believe this is a Christian nation, but while most people are Christians, our founding fathers never conceived of it as a Christian nation.
“We need to talk to them in terms of respect for differences and respect for others,” she continued. “They have an absolute constitutional right to their religious values, but they may not impose them on the rest of us.”
The ADL leaders said the group’s broader civil rights activities are inseparable from its defense of Jewish interests.
“Our priority is to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment for all,” said Lauter. “If we want the Jewish community to be safe, we will fight on behalf of making this country more equitable because it serves us all. It is in our self-interest to make sure democracy is strong.”