State Officials Talk Hate Crimes, Hate Speech at Forum

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh

In a passionate speech delivered to more than 150 people at the Weinberg Park Heights JCC on May 17, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh warned that the state is not immune to hate crimes, whether aimed at Jews, Muslims, immigrants or other minorities.

That’s why Frosh, a Democrat, said he has taken steps to reassure targeted groups that he will support them.

“These have been the most difficult and divisive times I have seen in many years,” said Frosh, 70, the state’s top lawmaker at a forum on combating hate, which was sponsored by the Baltimore Jewish Council. “There is concern about the climate in the United States for folks who don’t quite fit into the category that Donald Trump would like them to. So, my office is committed to doing whatever it takes to fight for the justice of all Marylanders.”

In Baltimore, anti-Semitism has skyrocketed in the first months of 2017. Nationally, the Anti-Defamation League counted 541 anti-Semitic attacks and threats against Jewish Americans in the first quarter of the year, an 86 percent increase over the same period last year.

“We want to create a culture in Baltimore that is warm, welcoming and inclusive,” JCC of Greater Baltimore CEO Barak Hermann said. “We have zero tolerance against hate, not just against Jews, but against every group.”

Shelly Hettleman (D-District 11), a state delegate who represents Baltimore County, told the crowd she wishes no one would threaten violence to the community. But, she said, such actions have provided a benefit perpetrators likely never anticipated.

“I think places like the Jewish Community Center can make that link between Jewish people and other groups and members of the community to let them know we are here for them,” Hettleman said. “We can certainly empathize with what the [immigrant community] is feeling right now.”

More than 161 bomb threats were phoned in or emailed to Jewish Community Centers and days schools in 38 states and three Canadian provinces, according to the ADL, between January and March. A combined seven bomb threats were phoned in or emailed to the Park Heights and Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCCs as part of a national wave of threats during that time. All were determined to be hoaxes after the facilities were swept by law enforcement and cleared by bomb-sniffing dogs.

The late-March arrest of a suspect linked to the majority of the bomb threats, a 19-year-old male with dual U.S.-Israeli dual citizenship, have calmed some of those fears, Frosh told the JT.

“It’s a positive we haven’t seen further threats made, but I still think more action is needed to send a strong message that these types of incidents will not be tolerated,” Frosh said.

In the General Assembly in February, lawmakers agreed to give Frosh blanket authorization to sue the federal government, sidestepping Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and giving the state attorney general’s office unprecedented power. He used that power for the first time in March to challenge the constitutionality of the administration’s second travel ban in court, which barred travel from six countries instead of the original seven and scaled back other provisions.

For months, Frosh said, his office has made monitoring hate speech and crime one of its top priorities. For example, after receiving a dozen calls in the wake of imploring people to report such incidents, Frosh’s office launched a hate-speech hotline (1-866-481-8361). Since then, he estimated “hundreds, probably thousands” of calls from Maryland residents have been made reporting hate crime and speech.

Doron Ezickson, director of the ADL’s Washington, D.C., regional office, told the JT that the ADL is doing its part to help coordinate faster response times to threats. Advances in technology, he said, aid in that effort, citing last year’s founding of the ADL Center on Cyberhate, Technology and Society.

“We can’t address hate if we don’t know what’s going on, so I think this new initiative will help us cut down on that in many ways,” Ezickson said. “It’s vital that we protect all communities in addition to the Jews.”

For her part, Hettleman said she has received a number of frantic calls and emails from members of various groups, including the Hispanic community.

To listen to their concerns, in February she gathered in the basement of an undisclosed office building with 65 immigrants and representatives from CASA de Maryland, an immigrant advocacy group.

What she heard at the meeting was partly why she co-sponsored the Maryland Law Enforcement Trust Act, which aimed to curtail how much state law enforcement officials cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

Although the bill failed to make it out of the Senate, Hettleman said she believes putting proper safeguards in place for the immigrant community is essential. She drew parallels between the current state of immigrants seeking refuge in the U.S. and her grandparents fleeing Nazi Germany.

“I have heard stories from my family about how my grandfather went to tell his boss that he was getting married, and [his boss] said, ‘Congratulations, you’re fired,’” Hettleman said. “[My grandfather] was very fortunate to have a family member in the United States who sponsored him, and he came in like so many families of the people in this room. Unfortunately, not everyone is as fortunate.”

Many of those in the audience came away from the forum with an upbeat sense of optimism.

Cynthia Karmann, 67, of Anne Arundel County, said it’s encouraging to see so many elected officials and community activists and advocates working together for a common cause.

“This speaks to the hearts of people,” Karmann said. “We need more of these joint efforts to help increase the awareness of the issues every community faces in terms of hate speech.”

Sue Patz, a retired Baltimore City Public Schools teacher, said she believes addressing the problem starts in the classroom.

“When people come together, it humanizes who we are,” Patz said. “It deters the hate rhetoric that is so common when people aren’t together and are by themselves.”

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