When slurs were spray-painted on a kosher market in West Los Angeles, it was classified by law enforcement as an anti-Semitic hate crime. But when a swastika was carved into a park picnic table or spray-painted on a stop sign, it was classified as an anti-religious hate crime.
Two similar crimes aimed at terrorizing Jews, two different categories. The distinction caused confusion and led Los Angeles’s hate crimes coordinator to believe that the city was not collecting the most accurate data. That is why the Los Angeles Police Department began more strictly defining an anti-Semitic hate crime last year, by including more reports of anti-Semitic vandalism.
The number of anti-Semitic hate crimes recorded by authorities in Los Angeles has now doubled, thanks in part to those changes. But the rising numbers also mirror a trend seen in cities across the United States. A coming report from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, shows that anti-Semitic hate crimes in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — the nation’s three largest cities — are poised to hit an 18-year peak.
“It is something not seen in many years,” said Brian Levin, the report’s lead author, referring to the fact that Jews in those three cities are now targeted as frequently as gay men and African-Americans in hate crimes. The report, which uses the most recent official police data, found that Jews in all three cities are being targeted at the highest numbers seen since 2001.
In Los Angeles, that rise can be attributed, in part, to the increase in counting appearances of swastikas as anti-Semitic hate crimes, something New York has done for years, and the improved reporting of both property crime and physical assaults. The report shows that Los Angeles had 58 anti-Semitic hate crimes in the first 10 months of 2019, compared with 29 over the same period in 2018.
Detective Orlando Martinez, who leads the 46-member hate crimes unit of the Los Angeles Police Department, said he knew those higher numbers would alarm some people, even if the increase could mostly be attributed to the department’s new tracking methods. “We don’t care how it looks,” he said, adding that his department is trying to categorize all hate crimes more accurately.
Detective Martinez explained that 24 of the 58 incidents would have previously fallen under the category of an anti-religious hate crime. Now if a swastika is drawn on a utility pole not near a Jewish-owned residence, business or house of worship, it will still be categorized as an anti-Semitic hate crime.
The large majority of the anti-Semitic hate crimes tracked in Los Angeles last year involved vandalism, followed distantly by criminal threats, like seeking to attack a synagogue.
Detective Martinez, a 25-year veteran of the department, became hate crimes coordinator in 2018. He put into effect the new rule over what to classify as an anti-Semitic hate crime on Jan. 1, 2019. “When it comes to hate crimes, we want people to trust us and to come to us,” Detective Martinez said.
Experts hope other cities will follow Detective Martinez’s lead in an effort to improve tracking of anti-Semitic hate crimes nationwide. “Sometimes, reporting will beget more reporting,” said Oren Segal, the director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
“A substantial proportion of these hate crimes involve brutal physical attacks on Orthodox Jews who are easily identifiable,” Mr. Levin said. “Today anti-Semitism and ignorance about the Holocaust has simply become broadly acceptable, and that is reflected in the increasing number of assaults and a diversity of offenders, who now also tend to be older.”
Most of those charged with anti-Semitic hate crimes in 2019 were white men, but there were African-Americans and Asian-Americans among them, Mr. Levin said.
New York City counted 229 anti-Semitic hate crimes through Dec. 30, a modern city record and a sharp rise from the 185 over the same period in 2018, according to the report. Experts said they believed that some of the growth could be attributed to changing neighborhood demographics.
Jews in America are twice as likely to live in major cities than other places, and the report draws its data from the top metropolitan areas. Chicago had a 46 percent increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes, to 19, through Nov. 1 after 13 were reported in all of 2018.
In New York City, the Police Department announced it was increasing patrols after a surge of anti-Semitic hate crimes were reported in December. Six anti-Semitic incidents, five of them assaults, happened in an almost 48-hour span during Hanukkah.
“We’re definitely in a different era, and it also looks like we’re seeing more assaults,” said Mr. Levin, a former New York City police officer who has been tracking hate crimes since the 1980s, before the collection of hate crime data was mandated by federal law.
The Anti-Defamation League publishes its own annual audit of anti-Semitic incidents. Its most recent one, for 2018, recorded the third-highest total since the civil rights group started publishing the information 40 years ago.
“We are in an environment in which conspiracy theories seem to be in the news every day, and they’re not necessarily anti-Semitic conspiracies,” Mr. Segal said. “But conspiracies are the lifeblood of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is becoming normalized.”
He said some of the anti-Semitic conspiracies that played out on the fringes 20 years ago have reached the mainstream through cable TV and social media. “Most of the attacks are not done by extremists, but by your average Joe and your average Jane,” he said.
Mr. Levin said elected leaders need to be more forceful in condemning anti-Semitic attacks and letting the public know that the assailants will be prosecuted.
“Jews have consistently been the top target for hate crimes in New York City for years,” he said, “but to see this convergence across other major cities reflects the distressing times in which we are living.”