By David Brand
In recent weeks, racists have scrawled swastikas on boulders in College Point and a kiosk in Flushing. Two weeks ago, a white supremacist group unfurled a banner in Washington Heights and posted stickers throughout the city. Meanwhile, anti-semitism routinely seeps into or masquerades as debate about Israeli policy.
Amid the rise of such brazen anti-semitism in Queens and the rest of the U.S., the Brandeis Association continues to confront hatred and stand up for the Jewish community through advocacy and education initiatives.
“After the election in 2016 and then the [white supremacist rally] in Charlottesville last year, we began to take more notice of anti-semitism,” said Neda Melamed, co-chair of the Brandeis Association’s Committee on Anti-Semitism and a former association president. “As judges, lawyers and members of the legal community we felt it was our responsibility to continue this education.”
The Brandeis Association was founded in 1969 by a group of Jewish attorneys and judges committed to encouraging community and preserving culture among members. Brandeis founders also aimed to “foster respect for law and legal institutions and to vigorously assert its interest in justice and fair play in the County of Queens and in the City and State of New York,” the association’s website states.
Nearly 50 years after the association’s founding, the issue of “justice and fair play” remains a vital concern for members.
Melamed pointed to the recent primary election victory of a Missouri Republican running for Congress who, in 2017, said that “Hitler was right about what was taking place in Germany. And who was behind it.”
In addition to such explicit examples of prejudice, Melamed and committee co-chair Joseph Nivin said bigots frequently disguise their anti-semitism as policy debates about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Such instances of anti-semitism are common on college campuses, Nivin said.
“There is a difference between legitimate policy conversations and the demonization and delegitimization of Israel,” Nivin said.
Nivin said the Brandeis Association has prepared a letter that they plan to send to every member of Congress calling on lawmakers to pass a bill that defines anti-semitism in a manner that includes some anti-Israel expression. The bill would define anti-semitism in accordance with State Department policies.
“We’re educating elected representatives and others in the community about the types of hatred that Jewish college students are facing,” Nivin said.
For example, Melamed and Nivin said, a professor was called a “Zionist” simply for wearing a yarmulke.
“That is an example of anti-semitism on campus that had nothing to do with policy debates about Israel because clearly the student had no idea what that person’s political leanings were,” Nivin said.
They also explained that pro-Palestinian protesters often carry signs that are explicitly anti-semitic.
“Israel and the debate in that country are used as a pretext to engage in anti-semitic behavior,” Melamed said. “Jewish students feel bullied, intimidated and outnumbered.”
Incidents of anti-semitic assault and harassment increased by 90 percent across New York state last year to a total of 380, according to a February report by Anti-Defamation League.
In Queens, there were at least 39 reported incidents of anti-Semitism in 2017 compared to 11 in 2016, the ADL reported.
“The dramatic increase in harassment, school-related incidents and against religious institutions cannot be accepted as a ‘new normal,’” ADL New York Regional Director Evan R. Bernstein said in a statement. “This kind of hate hurts the victim and deeply impacts the Jewish community; we must remain vigilant in denouncing and exposing hate wherever it emerges. We know that when anti-Semitism is on the rise, so too are other forms of hate.”
Judge Jodi Orlow, the chair of the Brandeis Association, said the Brandeis Association has partnered with the Jewish Lawyers Guild, the Brandeis Associations of Brooklyn and the Westchester and Nassau County Jewish Bar Associations to combat surge of hate.
“Anti-semitism is on the rise — even in New York City,” Orlow said. “We are working with other Jewish bar associations to address it and forming a coalition to combat anti-semitism.”
One element of the initiative includes educating people of various faiths and backgrounds, especially children, about the Holocaust and the persecution of Jews throughout history.
The association also connects anti-semitism to the broader rise of racist speech and hate-fueled violence across the U.S.
In April, Brandeis Association partnered with the Macon B. Allen Black Bar Association for the Holocaust Memorial, Melamed said.
“We showed what hate ultimately does,” Melamed said. “It wasn’t just for lawyers or for Jews. it was open to everyone.”
That same month, visitors to Powell’s Cove Park in College Point encountered a swastika painted on a boulder. The story was first reported by the Queens Daily Eagle after a College Point resident shared photos of the dangerous conditions and racist graffiti evident in the waterfront park.
“Racism and bigotry has no place in our community,” Council Member Paul Vallone told the Eagle.
Last week, Council Member Peter Koo condemned a swastika drawn on a Flushing Business Improvement District booth located on Main Street and Kissena Boulevard.
“While this is not the first time our community has had to denounce the ideologies of hatred, ignorance and intolerance, we remain vigilant and determined to condemn such disturbing bigotry each and every time it rears its ugly head,” Koo said. “Flushing is the birthplace of religious freedom. We embrace diversity, equality and multiculturalism. We have no place for hate here. Thank you to our constituents who pointed this out, and to the Flushing BID for immediately removing it.”