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Rabbi Saperstein Submits Testimony on Hate Crimes and Domestic Extremism

Rabbi Saperstein: "Violent domestic extremism not only threatens Jews, Muslims, and the LGBT community, but is a threat to our national security as a whole."

Contact: Sean Thibault or Benny Witkovsky
202.387.2800 | news@rac.org

WASHINGTON, D.C., September 20th, 2012 -- F0llowing the August 6th attack on a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, WI, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights held a hearing yesterday on "Hate Crimes and the Threat of Violent Domestic Extremism." Rabbi David Saperstein, Director and Counsel of the Religious Action Center, submitted the following written testimony:

“Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee,

Thank you for the opportunity to address the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights. It is urgent that the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act be fully enforced so that the law's promise of increased protections against violent, bias-motivated crimes is fulfilled. I am Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. The Center is the social justice arm of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose nearly 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, whose membership includes more than 1,800 Reform rabbis. The Reform Movement, along with its partners in the Jewish and faith communities, worked for more than a decade to see the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act passed; I speak to you today to ensure its enforcement.

This hearing comes at an important time in the Jewish calendar. Yesterday was Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish year. It is the beginning of a new chapter in the life of the individual and the community. In the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Jews are called to introspection - to examine our words and actions of the last year, and to make commitments to improve upon ourselves and our communities in the future. We ask forgiveness for the wrongs we have done and for hardening our heart to the pain of others.

As the nation mourns the August attack on the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and the burning of the mosque in Joplin, Missouri, these themes from Jewish High Holidays liturgy are instructive. What hatred do we, as individuals and as a nation, still hold in our hearts and what threat does that pose to our friends and neighbors? To whose pain have we hardened our hearts, and who among us suffers unnoticed? What commitments have we made and left unfilled? In this time of introspection, we look at promises like the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, evaluate our progress toward their fulfillment and ask what work is yet undone.

According to the FBI, 2010 saw over 6,600 incidents of bias-motivated crime. The number of attacks against people based on their sexual orientation continues to grow. Attacks against racial and ethnic minorities remain alarmingly frequent. And notably, attacks against Muslims or those perceived to be Muslim have increased more than six-fold in the past decade. Reporting hate crimes, however, is not mandatory and many precincts refuse to submit data or simply report no instances of bias-motivated crime. Because of this pattern of underreporting the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimate that the actual number of hate crimes could be 15 times greater than that which is reported. I ask you today to examine the way these crimes are reported and to do everything possible to help collect a more accurate picture of bias-motivated crime in the United States.

Today's hearing draws special attention to the disturbing growth of organized domestic extremism. Statistics provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center suggest that there are nearly 60% more hate groups in the United States than existed in 2000. Violent domestic extremism not only threatens Jews, Muslims, and the LGBT community, but is a threat to our national security as a whole. Any efforts to curtail the troubling rise in bias-motivated crime must address the proliferation of these groups.

We had no illusions that the Hate Crimes Prevention Act would end hate crimes. Yet the law was and remains an essential tool to combat these crimes based on race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, disability, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity that degrade our nation. Those who commit these crimes do so fully intending to pull apart the too-often frayed threads of diversity that bind us together and make us strong. They seek to divide and conquer. They seek to tear us apart from within, pitting American against American, fomenting violence and civil discord. They are a betrayal of the promise of America and erode our national well-being.

Jews, who have endured persecution throughout history, know all too well the dangers that stem from a failure to speak forcefully and act effectively to bar discrimination and prevent the demonization of the "other." As the target of over 65 percent of religiously motivated hate crimes, the Jewish community has a vested interest in the diligent enforcement of this law. Yet, we also recognize the importance of seeking the same security for all. The Torah commands, "You shall not oppress a stranger; for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourself been strangers in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 23:9). We are instructed to never "stand idly by when your neighbor's blood is being shed" (Leviticus 19:16).

There are those who fear that this law infringes upon their first amendment rights. As Jews we know firsthand that the freedoms of speech, of assembly and of religion are critical to the protection of minority rights. Let me be clear: as a rabbi and lawyer who has taught church/state law at the Georgetown University Law Center for over 30 years, I can say with conviction that the beliefs or words of any person, clergy or otherwise, cannot be prosecuted under this law, which is concerned with hate crimes. It deals with violent conduct and attempts at bodily injury, not the preaching or sermons of members of the clergy, and it must be enforced.

Jewish values teach that words alone are not enough, that we must also act to achieve the goals we pursue. I urge Congress to enhance the implementation and data collection provisions mandated by the Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Furthermore, innovative approaches - like the widely applauded National Church Arson Task Force of 1996 - must be employed if we are to address the pressing threat posed by hate crimes and domestic extremism. Let us fully enforce the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act and make clear that violence rooted in bigotry and hate is unwelcome in American society."

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The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose more than 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, whose membership includes more than 1,800 Reform rabbis. Visit www.rac.org for more.



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