In 2006, President George W. Bush proclaimed May to be Jewish American Heritage Month.
As we look toward the thirty-one days ahead that celebrate the tremendous contributions of the Jewish American community, I can’t help but be reminded that we must also raise awareness of the sad fact that the United States has seen a dramatic and alarming uptick of racial and religious violence in recent years.
According to data released by the Federal Bureau of Investigations in 2018, hate crimes rose by a staggering 17 percent in 2017. It was the third straight year showing an increase in hate crimes. According to the FBI, the offenses were most commonly motivated by hatred of race, ethnicity, and ancestry, and nearly one fifth of the offenses were religious-based.
Last year, while I was campaigning for the office I now hold, a synagogue in our own community was vandalized with anti-Semitic epithets. Six months ago, our country was rocked bythe deadliest slaying of Jews in U.S. history when 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh were killed in cold blood. And just last month, a shooter entered a synagogue in San Diego, taking one life and injuring more.
As a Greek American, the Greek word philoxenia, which literally translated means, “friend to a stranger,” has served as the backdrop of my life. It was also on the basis of this notionof inclusivity and understanding that I ran for public office. The idea that no matter how you worship or where you come from, everyone deserves to be treated equally and with respect, and that elected officials play a critical role in protecting these basic rights.
I believe that there is a direct link between what happens in our government–be it at our State Capitol in Albany or in Washington, D.C.–and what happens in our communities. From funding for public education, public transportation, to healthcare, to the safety of our streets, jobs and housing, voting rights, and yes, even anti-Semitism, government policies and leadership have very real effects on our lives here at home.
When those who hold the megaphone abuse the privilege and misuse their power to incite fear, anger and hate under the guise of “nationalism,” the effects can be devastating. Sadly, we are living in a moment when hate has been mainstreamed in unprecedented forms and volume through the digital landscape; challenging the very principles upon which this country was founded.
To combat hate at every level, we must stand-up. We must escalate and elevate efforts to raise cultural awareness through events like Jewish American Heritage Month—because the more we understand about each other, the clearer it becomes that we all share a common humanity.
It’s why I co-sponsored legislation in Albany to expand upon the protected class of citizens in our hate crime statues and protect those who wear religious garb from facing discrimination in the workplace. It’s also why I launched my “3 for Community,” a new volunteerism initiative to change the narrative and translate true American values into direct action by forcing us to reckon for ourselves the question of what are we doing for others in a real and tangible way.
With this in mind, let this year’s Jewish American Heritage Month serve not only as a wonderful and well-deserved reminder of all those who have so positively impacted our country, but as a poignant reminder that although hate may have proven a successful campaign tool, love and understanding are far more powerful sentiments.
Elected in 2018, Andrew Gounardes represents District 22 in the New York State Senate, which includes
the neighborhoods of Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bath Beach, Bensonhurst, Gravesend, Homecrest,
Manhattan Beach, Marine Park, Gerritsen Beach, as well as portions of Sheepshead Bay, Borough Park,