His faith, religious freedom drives
lawmaker’s fight against antisemitism

A worker removed antisemitic graffiti on a shop window in the Belsize Park neighborhood of London Dec. 29, 2019. (CNS Photo by Aaron Chown, Reuters)

By EmmaLee Italia

TRENTON, N.J. — U.S. Rep. Chris Smith’s long-standing work to fight antisemitism stems from his firmly held belief in religious freedom.

The New Jersey Republican congressman, a member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Whiting, acknowledged that his Catholic faith informs much of his advocacy, including pro-life legislation and human trafficking as well.

He noted a growing need for laws against hate crimes as the practice of religion wanes throughout society.

“As people jettison their faith in God, there’s a need for an increase in laws in relation to that loss of faith,” Smith said, referencing a point introduced in writings of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.

“When the Ten Commandments are written in your heart … you’re far less likely to commit the crimes that the state now has to put on the books … with a loss of faith, there’s a concurrent increase in violent behavior,” he told the TrentonMontor.com, the online news outlet of the Diocese of Trenton.

The recent case of a New Jersey man who ultimately was charged with federal hate crimes in attacks on Orthodox Jews points up “a rising tide of hate” in this country against Jewish people, according to Smith, who represents New Jersey’s 4th Congressional District.

In April, he wrote a letter to the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation asking for an investigation into whether antisemitism had motivated a violent crime spree in which a Manchester, N.J., man allegedly targeted members of the Orthodox Jewish community in Lakewood and Jackson, N.J.

“Tragically, attacks like the one we recently witnessed are reflective of the historically high levels of hatred directed at Jews across the United States and throughout the world,” Smith said in the letter.

Coinciding with the eve of the Jewish Sabbath April 8, the attacks were allegedly carried out by Dion Marsh, 27, and included carjacking, assaulting a driver, running over pedestrians and shouting antisemitic slurs.

On April 20, just 10 days after Smith’s letter, Marsh was charged with federal hate crimes, including four counts of violating the federal Matthew Shephard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

Each of the three hate crimes violations charging Marsh with attempting to kill the victims carries a statutory maximum term of life in prison and a $250,000 fine, according to officials.

“The federal hate crime charges brought against Dion Marsh are a chilling reminder of the ugly reality that antisemitism won’t go away by ignoring or wishing it away. It must be defeated,” wrote Smith, who co-chairs the House Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Antisemitism with Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., and also sits on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

“As you know, the most recently available FBI hate crime statistics show that in 2020 — despite accounting for approximately only 2.4% of the U.S. adult population — 55% of all religiously motivated hate crimes were against Jews,” Smith added.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, he said, Jews are “consistently the most targeted religious community in the U.S. and antisemitic incidents are being reported at record levels.”

Prosecuting hate crimes at a federal level sends a very clear message to potential criminals, Smith told the TrentonMontor.com.

“The law is a great teacher, state or federal,” he said. “It prioritizes the importance we give as a society (and demonstrates) that we have zero tolerance. With the overlay of federal law … we hope it has a chilling effect and a warning — accountability, and a clear message about what we prioritize in terms of prosecution.”

Noting that the crimes attributed to Marsh will be prosecuted at more than one venue, including the convening of a grand jury, Smith said that “the criminal penalty needs to be commensurate with the crime … and for those victimized, there is some sense of justice being accomplished. That’s important; it doesn’t bring back a loved one or heal a disability (caused by violent crime), but it does give a sense of justice.”

In a statement he issued April 27 with Deutch after the ADL released its annual report in advance of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Smith said antisemitism “won’t go away by ignoring it or wishing it away — it must be defeated.”

“There must be zero tolerance at every level for hate-fueled crimes against members of the Jewish community. We must work together with law enforcement to do more to protect our communities and do a better job of educating our children about the evils of antisemitism.”

Pope Francis continues to strongly condemn antisemitism, referring to it as “a fuse that must not be allowed to burn. And the best way to defuse it is to work together, positively, and to promote fraternity.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church stresses that “the Jewish faith, unlike other non-Christian religions, is already a response to God’s revelation in the Old Testament.”

The Second Vatican Council document that transformed the church’s approach to Judaism after centuries of troubled relations was “Nostra Aetate, ” the 1965 Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religion.

“In her rejection of every persecution against any man, the church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of antisemitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone,” says “Nostra Aetate.”

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