As a congregational rabbi, as a Jew and as a Commissioner and the Chair of the Orange County Human Relations Commission, I sit at a curious place with respect to hate crime in Orange County. The commission has, as its main purpose, the tracking of and prevention against hate crime in the County of Orange. This is easier said than done. A recent PBS documentary entitled, “Documenting Hate: Charlottesville,” details (https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/documenting-hate-charlottesville/) much of what happened in Charlottesville in 2017 and is tied right back to people and organizations here in Orange County. For decades, Orange County was known as the white supremacist capital of the world. I am not sure much has changed. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) nationally and the OC Human Relations Commission reports locally more than a 50 percent increase in hate incidents and hate crimes.
What is a Hate Crime?
In California, hate crime is defined as: a criminal act committed, in whole or in part, because of one or more of the following actual or perceived characteristics of the victim: Disability, Gender, Nationality, Race or Ethnicity, Religion, Sexual Orientation, or association with a person or group of persons with one or more of the preceding actual or perceived characteristics.
Examples of hate crimes can be:
• Painting racist, homophobic, and/or anti-religious graffiti on private property.
• Burning a cross on an individual’s lawn.
• An assault.
• A criminal threat of violence against an individual or a group.
• Attempted murder or murder.
What is a Hate Incident?
A hate incident is behavior that is motivated by hate or bias towards a person’s actual or perceived disability, gender, nationality, race or ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation but is not criminal in nature. Typically, these behaviors are protected by the First Amendment right to freedom of expression.
If this type of behavior escalates to threats being made or carried out against a person or property, or becomes an incitement to commit violence, it would be classified as a hate crime.
Examples of a hate incident are:
• Distribution of non-threatening racist flyers in a public place.
• Anti-gay or lesbian placards at a parade or a funeral.
• Writing a letter to the editor ridiculing people with disabilities.
• Painting racist graffiti on a freeway overpass.
These can be tough “incidents” to swallow when they go against the very nature of goodness and righteousness that is part of our Judaism tradition.
What our Jewish history teaches us, and it is why our Torah is so insistent on its anti-hate campaign, is that hate speech (or “incidents”) will inevitably lead to hate action/crimes. That is why we must do everything to stop hate speech for it is the beginning of hate.
Every Jewish teenager I know in Orange County has experienced a hate incident or even a crime and they may not even realize it. The throw-away one-liner “Hey-Jew” that they might hear in the hallway is hate. The penny rolling past them in the school yard is hate. And, of course, Congregation Beth Jacob in Irvine was recently defaced with anti-Semitic words. Our Jewish community is too well acquainted with hate. Earlier this year, the murder of the beloved college student Blaze Bernstein had its roots in hate. Hate speech inevitably turns into hate crime. This, I can assure you.
In 1941, Rabbi Isserman of Temple Israel of St. Louis prophetically rang the bell for all Jews to wake up and hear the news.
He wrote, “In all human history, the anti-Semites have been the war-makers, never the peace makers; the foes, never the friends of religion; the apostles of tyranny; never the champions of liberty; the spokesmen of reaction; never the leaders of progress; the voices of tribalism, never the teachers of brotherhood; the destroyers and never the creators. Name an anti-Semite of any land, of any age, and you will name not merely a foe of the Jew, but a foe of the finest values in civilization and the noblest standards of human life. The enemy of the Jew has always been the enemy of humanity. What history teaches the present eloquently verifies.”
We are in the present—so what shall we do?
When it comes to hate—we must put a spotlight on it until the purveyor of that hate is blinded. This requires reporting to either the ADL or the OC Human Relations Commission and of course calling local law enforcement. Knowledge is power. Orange County has a program entitled, www.knowhateoc.com in order to engage all citizens in this work.
As Jews, we must be vigilant in securing our persons and our facilities, but let us not change one iota of our practice or our mitzvah work. That is what the haters want… for us to change. Rather, we would do very well to double-down on our mitzvah work. Individually, congregationally, organizationally and communally, we need to continue to do the good we do and do it even more.
Our tradition is quite clear – Leviticus tells us in two verses in Chapter 19— “Don’t hate… rather love your neighbor as yourself.” We must love each other more. We must not hate.
But if love is too hard to achieve, particularly towards people who are not deserving of our love, then do as Rabbi Hillel, the Talmudic sage, instructs “What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else. (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 31a).”
Hate will never succeed. It will hurt and destroy, but it will never be the answer for anyone. Only love will prevail. Only kindness will bring people a sense of wholeness. War and hate leave us empty. Love and kindness bring us shalom.
RABBI RICHARD STEINBERG is the Senior rabbi at Congregation shir Ha’malot and a contributing writer to jlife magazine.