Jessi Kingston’s experiences reporting anti-Semitism or bias issues to the Edina Police Department has rarely been a positive experience – whether it was the repeated theft of a lawn sign wishing Muslims a good Ramadan or the swastika spray-painted across from her house.
“They do not label these as hate crimes. They don’t even label them as a hate incident,” Kingston said Wednesday night at Temple Israel. “And we need stronger legislation to address what is hate, and instead they classify these as miscellaneous and graffiti.”
Kingston was one of more than 120 people in attendance – and one of the couple dozen who spoke – at Attorney General Keith Ellison’s listening session on hate crimes. Ellison was joined by State Rep. Frank Hornstein, Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas Executive Director Steve Hunegs, and Jewish Community Action Communications Director Isaiah Breen. The attendees and speakers were both Jews and non-Jews.
“The real way we solve this problem is doing a lot of this stuff,” said Ellison of the listening sessions. “We went out to Fergus Falls to talk about hate crimes because there was all this Sharia law nonsense. We’re going to St. Cloud next week. You know, we’re working on this issue but it will be the neighbors who show up, and not the politicians, who really make society better.”
Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman jumped at the opportunity to host the event when Ellison asked.
“We need to bring the world a code of ethics that doesn’t allow hate not only for Jews but for Muslims, for people of color, for all people,” she said. “The idea here is that we are here to understand and to find a way to use every tool that is at our disposal to fight hate. It is very important that we tell our story so that people who can make a difference can make a difference.”
Breen talked about the work that JCA does and how it impacts all communities – not just the Jewish ones.
“The work that we’re involved in is the work of solidarity and it’s a really essential aspect, I think, of anti-Semitism in particular and hate crimes and various oppressions in general,” he said. “So if you think about the shooting at the mosque in Christchurch (, New Zealand), the same ideology that motivated that shooter also motivated the [synagogue] shootings in Poway, California and in Pittsburgh.
“The things that connect our community with other communities and the ways that our community is targeted, and how similar those ways are to the ways that other communities are targeted. These are the things that we need to be aware of. And this is the way that we build a sort of response to it.”
After the event, Hornstein said that hearing the experiences of people like Kingston and the others who spoke was powerful.
“Whether it’s hate crimes or increases in incidents where they feel unsafe, we have to respond to that as a state,” he said. “I think this was really helpful just to hear the stories that people have that these issues are very real.”
Gigi Stillman, a sophomore at St. Louis Park High School, told a story of how she saw someone in school doing a Nazi salute. When she relayed this in her Hebrew class, her classmates were not surprised.
“How little people were shocked by it was really sad,” she said. “We got into talking about other incidents people had and it was really sad, and we don’t really know how to combat it in those circumstances. We need to learn at a young age what to do.”
Hunegs said that the JCRC’s speaker’s bureau has volunteers giving between 500 and 600 speeches per year in churches and schools to help educate. But he also pointed out two damning statistics in the Anti-Defamation League’s annual anti-Semitism survey: more than 30% of respondents believe Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus, and 30% believe that Jews are more loyal to Israel than the United States.
“That’s tens of millions of people that harbored these beliefs all these years though and that’s despite brave and heroic measures by the Catholic Church to educate people about this,” Hunegs said. “My point is, some of these issues are hard-wired, even in 2019. We do a lot of wonderful things, live in a wonderful community. There’s no better time to be a Jew in any place than in the United States in 2019. Nevertheless, there remain issues and that’s why all of us need to come together. Education is so very important.”