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Jewish community leaders respond to rise in antisemitic acts in Connecticut

By Cindy Mindell

NEW HAVEN – Two days before Thanksgiving, red spray-painted swastikas and negative references to Donald Trump were discovered by Wilbur Cross High School staff inside the New Haven school’s athletic complex.

Among the community officials and leaders interviewed by local media outlets about the incident was Judy Diamondstein, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven.

“The NBC affiliate was looking for our response to what we learned [from the incident],” Diamondstein says. “My first response was to say that I wish I could say that I was shocked by these incidents. Unfortunately, I’m horrified and I’m sickened and I’m saddened but I’m not shocked. This is happening much, much too frequently, especially in our region. It’s a horrible thing that just happened at Wilbur Cross but just last week and the week before were incidents in Branford on an I-95 overpass. It’s something that we have to be diligent about and continue to speak out against because there seems to be this pervasive sense that hate is okay. We in the Jewish community have to respond and say, ‘It’s absolutely not,’ in all forms, and we need to teach tolerance and love and kindness.”

The New Haven incident is just the latest in a statewide flurry leading up to and in the wake of last month’s presidential election, according to Andy Friedland, assistant regional director of ADL’s Hamden-based Connecticut office.

“The swastikas that we saw in New Haven come after ones that we saw in Danbury, Madison, Branford, Ridgefield, at UConn, Wesleyan, and different high schools in the state, as well as the highly-publicized and more personal incidents that we’ve seen, like the Jewish family who was harassed at Bradley International Airport and the man dressed in KKK robes at a bonfire,” he says.

The list goes on: Stars of David and the words “white genocide” graffiti scrawled on several streets in Watertown; a mannequin dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes and sporting a Nazi salute placed atop an abandoned building in Wallingford. Friedland reports that the ADL and law-enforcement agencies are currently investigating “troubling and creepy” hate mail was sent to synagogues, the ADL and other Jewish institutions, and Jewish schools to many communities including Ridgefield, Woodbridge, New Haven, Simsbury, Southbury, Greenwich, Orange, and West Hartford.

Diamondstein notes that all New Haven-area Jewish congregations reported receiving the letters. She commends the strong working relationship between the Jewish Federation, local Jewish community, and ADL’s Connecticut Regional Office.

“It’s an excellent symbiotic relationship because I’m constantly informing the ADL of incidents, they’re letting me know what’s going on, and we’re working together to make sure that we have unified messaging,” she says. “We also take advantage of ADL’s resources because they’re the experts in this area. I think we’re going to have a lot more work to do.”

According to Friedland, there are three explanations behind the significant uptick in antisemitic incidents.

“There are hard-core racists and haters out there who think that more of the country agrees with them than they would have thought before,” he says. “We don’t think that’s the truth; we think the overwhelming majority of the country thinks that those kinds of acts are disgusting. But a lot of these people feel emboldened, as if the things they might have kept to themselves before can now be expressed openly. There are also kids out there who know they can get a lot of attention and are doing things for that reason. Then there are people trying to equate Donald Trump with Nazism, which we also see as a bad analogy and an inappropriate use of powerful and horrible symbols.”

All three possibilities provide their own challenges and warrant different responses on the part of ADL. The organization uses its Center on Extremism to track racists, educational programs to address attention-seeking kids, and speaks out publicly to dispel inappropriate analogies drawn between Donald Trump and Nazism.

As of press time, Friedland had no updates on the investigation at Wilbur Cross High School. “We’ve been really heartened by how seriously everyone – law enforcement, community officials, and school leaders – has been taking these things and how prompt their response has been,” he says.

In the wake of the election with more hate incidents and a more fearful environment, ADL is looking to the long game.

“When the president-elect pledges to be a president for all Americans, we at the ADL hope to work with these issues and meet with the administration going forward,” Friedland says. “At the same time, we’re going to be relentlessly holding anybody accountable, to fight against any sort of antisemitism, racism, and bigotry.”

CAP: Vandals spray-painted swastikas and references to President-elect Trump on walls and equipment at the Wilbur Cross High School athletic complex in New Haven. Photo courtesy of New Haven Police Department.

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