University alumnus arrested on charges of anti-Semitic hate crimes
Brandeis alumnus James Polite ’18 was arrested on hate crime charges in New York City last Friday after vandalizing Brooklyn’s Union Temple with anti-Semitic graffiti. He was charged with reckless endangerment, aggravated harassment, two counts of arson and three counts of criminal mischief for actions taken at three different Brooklyn locations, according to the office of the NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Public Information.
All three locations were Jewish organizations of varying sects and denominations, including a private school for ultra-Orthodox children and the historic Union Temple, a Reform synagogue. The University Office of the Registrar confirmed that Polite graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Politics in May 2018.
Polite is charged with writing anti-Semitic messages inside Brooklyn’s Union Temple, including “Die Jew Rats” and “Jew Better Be Ready,” according to a Nov. 3 article in the the New York Times. Jewish comedian Ilana Glazer was set to hold a political event at the temple, but canceled the event when the graffiti was discovered, according to the same article. Polite’s arson charges are from the other two locations.
Polite has struggled with mental illness and substance abuse, smoking marijuana up to three times a day while attending Brandeis, according to a 2017 profile in the New York Times. Polite had been in and out of 10 foster homes throughout high school, per the same article.
While at Brandeis, Polite entered rehabilitation for substance abuse, and was hospitalized for psychiatric treatment this summer, according to the 2018 Times article. Polite was diagnosed with bipolar disorder during his time at Brandeis, according to the 2018 Times article. As of Nov. 3, after being charged, he was being held for psychiatric evaluation.
Polite worked for Christine Quinn, a former speaker of the New York City Council, as an intern for several years before enrolling at Brandeis. Among other duties, he worked to address hate crimes, according to the 2017 Times profile. Quinn wrote that she was “simply and utterly devastated” by Polite’s actions in a statement on Twitter. She called Polite the “adopted child of the Quinn administration” in the profile.
According to a January 2011 newsletter from Harvard Medical School, the relationship between mental illness and violent crime is complex. Most people with mental illnesses are not violent, and the degree to which mental illness contributes to a person’s likelihood to commit violent crimes varies when compared to substance abuse, age, stress and other factors, according to the newsletter.
The newsletter quotes studies that suggest a dual diagnosis of mental illness and substance abuse make a person more likely to commit violent crimes, but that substance abuse may be more to blame.
Brandeis Counseling Center Director Joy von Steiger declined to comment.
Dr. Jonathan Sarna (NEJS), the University’s Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History, wrote that the alleged crime “serves as a reminder that antisemitism can be due to much more than just ignorance,” in a Nov. 6 email to the Justice. Sarna has written extensively on American anti-Semitism.
“A Brandeis graduate unquestionably interacted with Jews and had multiple opportunities to study with them and learn about them. Nevertheless, perhaps under the influence of addiction and mental illness, we are told that he lashed out at Jews and committed vandalism and arson against Jewish institutions,” he elaborated.
Sarna also noted that it was important to avoid stereotyping Polite’s actions as a function of the communities he is a part of. “James Polite is no more representative of African Americans than Baruch Goldstein is representative of Israeli Jews,” he said, referencing the Israeli that killed 29 Palestinian worshippers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the West Bank in 1994.
He explained that recent events such as Polite’s charges in Brooklyn and the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh were indicative of the fact that “Jews are not just ‘white folks’” and that “antisemitism has by no means disappeared in our country.”
University President Ron Liebowitz and Hillel Executive Director Rabbi Seth Winberg did not respond to requests for comment.