(Washington Post) – With reported antisemitic incidents nearly doubling in Maryland last year, state legislators are proposing a package of bills aimed at preventing and addressing hate crimes.
State Sen. Benjamin F. Kramer, a Democrat, introduced five bills that he said target root causes of the increase in bias incidents in Maryland, which rose from 55 in 2021 to 109 in 2022, according to a report published this week by the Anti-Defamation League.
“It was imperative we do more than just talk about antisemitism,” Kramer said. “We’re actually taking action and doing something proactive.”
Kramer’s approach is to better educate Maryland’s young students about the Holocaust and racism. He said the state is failing to teach its children about that history, leaving young people with a significant gap in understanding surrounding the massive loss of life and atrocities that occurred because of antisemitic violence in the past.
“Clearly much of antisemitism and hate in general is a consequence of ignorance, and that’s really at the root where I think we have to focus the greatest effort,” Kramer said. “If we are going to change minds, we have to educate.”
The question of how to reverse rising hostility aimed at Jewish people is a national one, the ADL report shows, with the number of recorded incidents of antisemitic assaults, harassment and vandalism increasing 36 percent last year, to nearly 3,700 incidents – an average of more than 10 per day.
The ADL documented a nearly 50 percent rise in reported incidents in K-12 schools. In Montgomery County, which Kramer represents, several antisemitic incidents at schools in 2022 sparked student walkouts. At least nine additional incidents occurred at schools in Montgomery – Maryland’s most populous county, where about 10 percent of residents are Jewish – even as school and local officials attempted to combat the trend with strong condemnations, community forums and police investigations.
One of Kramer’s bills would create a Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27 each year, which coincides with the United Nations’ International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Another would set educational standards mandating that public schools teach students about the history of the Holocaust. A third bill would set aside $500,000 to fund school field trips to museums dedicated to teaching about either the Holocaust or African American history. The fourth bill would dedicate $5 million in state funds for grants to nonprofit and faith-based organizations so that those institutions can beef up security measures in hopes of preventing future bias crimes. The final bill creates a legal pathway for hate-crime victims to sue perpetrators in civil court and recoup emotional and financial damages, similar to existing laws in states like New York and California.
Although four of Kramer’s bills have found widespread support – now passed out of the state Senate and poised to move through House committees to a final vote – the proposal to require more substantial educational standards for teaching the history of the Holocaust has hit a snag, he said.
While many of the bills target hate generally, Maryland officials are paying close attention to the substantial rise in antisemitism over the last year. More than half of the 109 incidents chronicled by the Anti-Defamation League were categorized as harassment and nearly 40 percent were vandalism; there were three antisemitic assaults last year.
“I want everyone in Maryland to hear me clearly – hate has no home in our state. The recent rise in hate crimes against the Jewish community is absolutely unacceptable.” Gov. Wes Moore (D) said in a statement addressing the report on Thursday afternoon. “As Governor, one of my chief responsibilities is to ensure the safety of Marylanders across the state, and I refuse to allow these alarming actions to go unnoticed.”
Last year’s attacks in Maryland included spray-painted hangmen and swastikas along public hiking trails, the words “Jews not welcome” scrawled across the entrance sign of a high school, and hateful words directed at Jewish students.
The origins of many incidents have been elusive. The Montgomery County Police Department, which opened 48 investigations into antisemitic crimes in 2022, said on Thursday that officers last month arrested a 17-year-old in connection with harassing phone calls to a Jewish outreach center in Rockville, but an agency spokeswoman said she was unaware of any other recent arrests connected to antisemitic incidents.
The proliferation of bias crimes targeting Jewish communities led Montgomery County officials last year to pass a resolution condemning antisemitism and creating an $800,000 fund for grants to nonprofit and faith-based groups to improve security measures such as cameras and outdoor lighting. Many leaders in the county, just outside Washington, D.C., have also participated in forums and joined the County Committee Against Hate/Violence to hear from residents who have been affected by growing antisemitism in the region.
Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said the significant rise in antisemitic incidents last year did not surprise him.
“Hardly a weekend that goes by where I don’t get a call that something has happened,” he said.
He attributed the rise in hateful incidents against the Jewish community, both in Maryland and nationwide, to increasing societal tensions over economic instability, the chaos of the pandemic, and a meteoric rise in baseless conspiracy theories and hate speech spread on social media.
Halber said he supports Kramer’s bills because they go after the root of antisemitism through education and also provide both prevention and deterrence through funding for security measures and more avenues to punish perpetrators of hate crimes.
“Society has to rise up with ferocious condemnation so that this behavior will not be normalized or accepted,” he added. “We are at a watershed moment where antisemitism is continuing unabated and causing harms not just for the Jewish community – it may begin with the Jews, but it never ends with the Jews.”