It’s Time to Apply ‘Broken Windows’ Thinking to Antisemitism
In criminology, the “broken windows” theory holds that by responding vigilantly to small crimes, we help prevent larger crimes by sending the message that our community will not tolerate lawbreaking and will not allow criminals to gain the upper hand. The broken windows approach was considered key by many to rescuing American cities from crime and fear in the 1990s.
I believe we are facing a moment in the battle against antisemitism where we need a “broken windows” approach. Where I work, as the founding director of the legal department at StandWithUs, we are seeing an unmistakable rise in people approaching us for legal help due to escalating incidents of antisemitic hate. How we as a community respond will likely set the stage for the next chapter in US antisemitism.
The incidents coming to my organization are mainly misdemeanors, literally and figuratively: swastikas etched into Jewish-owned car windows; a record number of mezuzahs reported stolen or vandalized in student dorms, private apartments, and homes; non-Jewish neighbors threatening violence against Jewish neighbors; Jewish homes, universities, high schools, and even middle schools spray-painted with swastikas and/or the letters “KKK.”
For instance, a couple in New York contacted us after their mezuzah was repeatedly ripped off their apartment’s front door or stolen by another resident of their building, and their door was vandalized in more than a dozen separate incidents caught on video. A mezuzah, the tiny box affixed to the doorpost of a home, is one of the most ancient and outward signs of Jewishness. It represents spirituality and protection — that God is present here. Yet this couple could not hang their mezuzah without it being repeatedly desecrated or removed.
They contacted local police officials and building management, both of whom ignored them completely. They reached out to StandWithUs, and we convinced the NYPD Hate Crimes Task Force to take on the case, collect the evidence, and arrest the perpetrator. The perpetrator is now being prosecuted.
In another incident, this one online, Jewish students at Texas A&M University contacted us in November 2022 about posts on a Snapchat story that included crass references to the Holocaust, and defense of the murderers who perpetrated the Holocaust. The post stated, “we should’ve let the ‘ant exterminator’ do his job back in WW2,” — a reference to Hitler and the Holocaust.
This Snapchat group can only be accessed with a Texas A&M student email address. Our organization, at the request of and together with students, wrote to the administration, noting the various university policies that were being violated by this egregious display of antisemitism. The university couldn’t be bothered to respond — something inconceivable if the hate was directed at almost any other identity group. So we are bringing the story to broader attention.
Some might ask why go to such efforts over one mezuzah or a Snapchat story?
One of the reasons hate crime laws exist is because when one sees a fellow member of one’s racial, ethnic or religious group targeted with a hate crime, it makes every member of that group also feel fearful and targeted. Part of the justification for hate crime laws is the impact of this specific type of crime on the broader community. When a Jewish person learns that their neighbor’s mezuzah has been vandalized, they are not just upset that this happened to another Jew, but may also worry about their own safety.
As the director of StandWithUs’ legal team, I believe we must act in the spirit of the “broken windows” theory. There are some situations where going after “the worst, first” is necessary and appropriate. But as a general rule, we should consistently and vigorously go after the “small” antisemitic crimes with as much force as the headline-grabbing crimes. If we do not show that we are actively concerned, monitoring, and responding with vigilance and strength to all types of anti-Jewish hate, we likely will see hate crimes increase, antisemites grow emboldened, anti-Jewish bigotry normalize, and the overall environment worsen. If we show antisemites that they won’t get away with vandalizing mezuzahs or Snapchat hate, it is far more likely that we will never have to confront a wave of far more severe antisemitism.
Yael Lerman is the founding director of the StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department, providing legal resources to students, professors, and community activists confronting antisemitic and anti-Israel activity. She can be reached at [email protected]. StandWithUs is a 21-year-old, international, non-partisan non-profit organization that supports Israel and fights antisemitism