HIGHLAND PARK, NJ – In the wake of the recent wave of anti-Semitic violence and a surge in hate crimes in the past year – state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced Monday that in 2019 New Jersey saw the largest year-over-year rise in bias crime since 1991 –residents and local leaders gathered in Highland Park last night to denounce hate and strengthen the bonds between the diverse communities of the area.
“How in the world did this country come to this low point here in the year 2020?” asked Highland Park Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler. “And many of us – Jews, Muslims, African-Americans and others – feel justifiably quite afraid.”
“Recent acts of anti-Semitism reminds us that we have a long way to go to eradicate the evil of hate,” said Alex Kharazi, president of the Franklin Township Interfaith Council. “Our goal has been and is to immunize our communities from any act of hate and bigotry and send the message of love and peace and justice to the world.”
According to preliminary data released by the state this week, 944 bias crimes were reported in 2019. That figure – which is likely to change as police reconcile their end-of-year reports – is the highest annual total of bias incidents reported since 1996 and the largest increase from one year to the next since the state began reporting bias crime in 1991.
“These preliminary numbers reinforce what we’ve suspected all year, and what too many New Jersey residents know all too well,” Grewal said in a statement. “Now more than ever, we need to come together as a community to confront this rising tide of hate.”
Local chapters of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, an international grassroots organization that seeks to bring together Jewish and Muslim women to combat hatred against Muslims and Jews, organized the event to coincide with similar events happening throughout the country.
Among the bias incidents reported by the state this week was the December shooting at a Kosher deli in Jersey City that took the lives of three civilians and a Jersey City police officer. Both attackers were killed in an hours-long shootout with police. The man and women behind the attack had extensive plans to instill violence and fear in the state’s Jewish community, state and federal authorities said on Monday after releasing new details about their ongoing investigation.
“The terrible attack in Jersey City was by far the most violent bias incident in New Jersey last year, but it was hardly the only one,” said Grewal.
Communities like Highland Park, with its prominent Jewish community, aren’t immune to such incidents.
People have been harassed on the street, there have been incidents in the schools and one woman was recently told to speak English after someone heard her speaking Spanish to her child at the town’s farmers market.
“I used to think that Highland Park was in its own little bubble and we were all so open and good to each other, but there’s something sour in this country right now and it gets everywhere,” Brill Mittler said.
Even though the times seem dire for many of the communities in the area, local religious leaders spoke last night about the importance of coming together and standing up for each other as the first step for building a more equitable nation.
“Contrary to what Cain claimed in the book of Genesis, we are most definitely our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper,” said Brill Mittler. “We cannot let the forces of hatred and evil isolate us and intimidate us.”
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