‘Everyone says it could never happen here’
Community ‘shocked,’ perplexed by anti-Semitic graffiti on Wantage diner
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Kill the Jews,” “Heil Hitler,” SS lightning bolts, swastikas, and other epithets were found by employees spray-painted all over the outside of the Airport Diner in Wantage early Sunday morning.
The graffiti also included the acronym “WPWW,” which stands for White Power World Wide and “14/88” — well-known in white supremacist circles as a reference to the 14-word skinhead slogan, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children,” and 88 is a representation for “Heil Hitler” because H is the eighth letter in the alphabet.
A refrigerator inside the diner was also vandalized.
Local and regional Jewish leaders reacted with surprise, in part because, as one rabbi put it, “There’s not even a shul in that area.”
“I was blown away,” said Harvey Wasserman, a past president and long-time trustee at B’nai Shalom of Sussex, NJ, which has locations in Newton and Franklin. He lives in Vernon, about eight miles east of the diner, and has eaten there.
“This is Sussex County. The land of birds and bees and cows. Everyone says it could never happen here. And here it is, in our backyard, right before the High Holy Days.” He added, “I’ve lived here since 1968 and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
The vandalism marked the latest in a growing number of anti-Semitic incidents in New Jersey. Although figures for 2017 have yet to be released, the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the state rose by 14 percent in 2016 compared to the previous year, according to the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) New Jersey regional director Joshua Cohen. New Jersey suffered a total of 157 anti-Semitic incidents in 2016 compared with 137 incidents in 2015.
In the first quarter of 2017, the ADL tallied 24 incidents, including nine acts of vandalism and 15 in the category of harassment, threats, and events.
“This incident is yet another painful reminder that New Jersey is not immune to anti-Semitism,” Cohen said. “Incidents like these have the potential to make individuals in the community feel isolated and unprotected. As such they warrant a priority response from everyone. We encourage elected leaders, religious clergy, and members of the community to offer a full-throated condemnation of anti-Semitism and all acts of hate and bigotry.”
Police responded early Sunday morning and an investigation is under way. By Tuesday morning, according to Lieutenant Ted Schafer of the New Jersey State Police, they had processed the crime scene, were following leads, and otherwise “working on the case,” but had nothing to report.
In a statement Cohen praised the New Jersey State Police for “taking this matter seriously.” He added, “We encourage anyone with tips or information to contact the State Police at 973-383-1515.”
“We were disgusted, we were horrified, we were shocked. We never thought something like that would happen here,” said diner manager Robin Nargiso.
One bright spot: Local volunteers helped Francisco Blanco, the owner of the diner, quickly paint over the graffiti. Nargiso said she wasn’t surprised. “That’s how it is here. Everyone gets along.” Blanco declined to speak with media.
Despite the incident, the diner opened as usual on Sunday, and Nargiso said that many people came out “just to show support and say kind words.”
In the immediate aftermath, Mayor Jonathan Morris issued a statement, saying, “On behalf of the Township of Wantage I want to provide my heartfelt sadness to the owners and employees of the Airport Diner. This type of hatred is not tolerated and I have faith that the NJ State Police will find the individuals responsible for this heinous act. Wantage is a close-knit community and I ask that we come together to not allow these types of views [to] shape our community.”
The statement did not mention anti-Semitism and the mayor has not responded to outreach from the ADL, according to Cohen. In an email to NJJN, Morris added, “I am very sad and find it very disturbing that this happened in my community.”
Wasserman said he hopes other clergy will express their dismay and condemn anti-Semitism. “We’re in this together,” he said.
Both B’nai Shalom and the Chabad of Sussex County in Sparta, led by Rabbi Mendel Dubov, have requested increased police presence for the High Holy Days. The congregations issued a joint statement condemning the incident.
“Obviously it’s upsetting. It’s very upsetting,” Dubov said. “But to be honest, it’s surprising. There are not an awful lot of Jews up there.”
Still, he acknowledged that “Regardless of how infrequent or ‘light’ such a thing is…it’s something we have to condemn in the strongest of terms so that it cannot fester in our community.”
U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-Dist. 5), said in a statement, “I was shocked and horrified to learn about the anti-Semitic, white supremacist graffiti left on the Airport Diner in Wantage. Hate and intolerance have no place in our community and country, a nation founded on the core value that all religious and ethnic backgrounds are welcomed.”
In the aftermath of August’s Unite the Right rally and subsequent violence in Charlottesville, Va., the ADL partnered with the U.S. Conference of Mayors to develop a Mayors Compact Against Hate and Extremism. More than 300 mayors nationally and 16 in New Jersey have signed up so far. The compact was developed to provide a framework for communities “to stand up and take action against hate,” according to Cohen. Morris has yet to sign on and did not respond to inquiries asking if he planned to.
When asked if the incident left him fearful, Wasserman replied, “Afraid? No. A bit concerned? Yes. We will prevail.” He said that a congregant reminded him recently that the Persian Empire, the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Crusaders, the Pharaohs, Hitler, and other enemies of the Jews “came and went.”
“We’re still here and will be forever, and they are not.”