Rise in anti-Semitism renews calls for hate crime legislation in Indiana

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INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — Hours before the memorial honoring the 11 victims gunned down in a Pittsburgh synagogue Saturday, David Sklar sat in his office talking about the deep grief he and others felt, as well as the anxiety.

"Even if we didn't know anybody in Pittsburgh, we can to a certain extent imagine it happening here," he said. "And any time these things happen, it's important to come together as a community and know we're standing together."

While the Jewish community in central Indiana hasn't experienced anything like Pittsburgh, it has been the target of hate.

In August, a Carmel synagogue was vandalized with swastika's and Nazi symbols. Two years ago, the Indianapolis Jewish Community Center was one of several across the country threatened with a rash of bomb scares.

Statistics from the Anti-Defamation League show anti-Semitic incidents on the rise across the country. The ADL reports that anti-Semitic incidents jumped 57 percent from 2016 to 2017, the the largest single-year increase since tracking began 39 years ago.

Senior Rabbi Emerita Sandy Sasso, a spiritual leader at Congregation Beth-El ZedeA said, "It's quite astonishing on one hand. On the other, it's not all that surprising given the increase in hateful, divisive, polarizing rhetoric expressed by leaders and politicians and others in this country. There seem to be so may conspiracy theories and hate mongering."

And while it didn't happen overnight, Kylar said, "Unfortunately heightened security is something the Jewish community is used to. Security is just sort of a way of life. If you walk into the JCC, you're going to find two armed guards at all times, most of our synagogues hire either part-time or full-time security."

He said that's tough because the community is about being open and welcoming... "so, it's about finding that balance on how open we can be and also secure."

But he and others believe more can and should be done statewide.

"It seems time to have a hate crimes bill, way past time," Sasso said.

Indiana is one of five states without a hate crime law, despite several attempts to pass one. Such laws allow stiffer penalties for crimes motivated by hate.

Opponents have argued that hate crime legislation creates protected classes where victims of similar crimes can be treated differently if a bias is a motivating factor.

Skylar disagrees. "You're free to hate based thoughts or hatred in your heart but you're not free to allow that hatred to become the motivation for action," he said. "And that's what we're trying to address is the action."

Mason Burns an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Indianapolis has studied how prejudices develop and what strategies can reduce discrimination.

"A crime is a crime of course ,but the intent of a crime has always been meaningful, for example, did you hurt someone accidentally or on purpose?=," Burns asked.

As for for hate crime legislation? Burns said there's a debate as to whether adding that extra penalty associated with group membership is meaningful.

"It does set a norm and precedent that if you do commit a crime on the basis of group membership, we will penalize it more harshly which speaks to a society's values."

It seems clear a hate crime bill will be introduced in 2019. After the Carmel synagogue was vandalized, Gov. Holcomb called on lawmakers to pass a hate crime law. Monday, a spokesman for the governor said such legislation remains a top priority.

The Indy Chamber, United Way and a growing list of business leaders are also advocating for a hate crime law.

Sasso said she's hopeful a law will emerge from the 2019 session, but isn't sure of the outcome.

"We have gone thru the process many times and last year I was sure we would pass the hate crimes bill but here we are again," she said.