A bipartisan effort is underway to increase federal funding for security programs designed to help protect Jewish community centers and other religious institutions across the country at the same time as the Trump administration is proposing cuts in homeland security protection grants. A March 9th letter to U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and 16 other senators, asked for an increase of $30 million to help build and maintain “target hardening” infrastructure to protect religiously identified and at-risk nonprofit institutions.
“In just the last few months, there has been a clear and painful rise in explicit acts of hate,” said Sen. Gillibrand, who is leading the effort. “Fully funding the Nonprofit Security Grant Program through the Department of Homeland Security would help provide the resources necessary to prevent and protect against these acts of violence and keep our institutions safe. I will keep fighting in the Senate to secure federal funding for our houses of worship and community organizations because New Yorkers shouldn’t have to live or worship in fear.”
Last month, dozens of gravestones at the Chesed Shel Emeth Jewish Cemetery in the St. Louis area were toppled. Sen. Blunt said that “racism and anti-Semitism have no place in our society. The terrible events in St. Louis and around the nation continue to strengthen our collective resolve to protect and defend the rights of every individual and every faith. It is imperative that the Department of Homeland Security provide the resources necessary to respond to these growing threats and to keep our communities safe.”
In their joint letter, the senators wrote, “At a time when children are being evacuated from daycare centers to repeated bomb threats and mosques are deliberately being set on fire, we must ensure that all organizations that face these threats have the support they need. It is simply unacceptable to not act.”
First funded in 2005 with broad bipartisan support, the Homeland Security target-hardening grants have funded efforts by nonprofit organizations, religious groups and community centers to deal with threats to at-risk nonprofit institutions, including protection against explosive devices, arson, active shooters, assassination/kidnapping, chemical/biological agents and cyberattacks. The grants have reportedly helped improve security and cover costs for the installation of access controls, barriers, blast-proofing, monitoring and surveillance capability, and cybersecurity enhancements to meet growing threats.
Community leaders point out that current funding has not been sufficient to assist all sites seeking enhanced security. New York Jewish Community Relations Council Associate Executive Director David M. Pollock explains, “In 2016 the Nonprofit Security Grant Program distributed $20 million to at-risk nonprofits across the country. New York applicants received a little more than one quarter of the grants nationwide, but only 70 of the 198 applicants were successful.”
The shortfall in target-hardening funding comes at a time of reported increases in bomb threats to Jewish communal institutions. William J. Daroff, senior vice president for Public Policy and director of the Washington Office of the Jewish Federations of North America, recently told a congressional subcommittee, “The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that the number of hate groups in the United States rose in 2016 from 892 to 917, and that the majority of these groups are anti-Semitic. Since January 1st, at least 116 Jewish communal institutions, including community centers, schools, places of worship and others have received more than 160 bomb threats in 39 states.”
President Trump’s FY 2018 budget proposal did not include any funding increase for the nonprofit target-hardening grant program. Instead, the administration proposed combining funds for nonprofit protection into a larger federal emergency-preparedness fund to be disbursed to the states. The administration also proposed slashing funding for homeland security preparedness grants, cuts that could hit New York City particularly hard.
NYPD Commissioner James P. O’Neill warned that the president’s budget proposal would “completely cut state and local grant funding under Homeland Security by nearly $700 million nationwide. Included in that is roughly $110 million the NYPD receives annually as part of the Homeland Security Grant Program.”
According to the commissioner, “Under the president’s proposal, nearly all federal funding to the NYPD would be eradicated. This funding is absolutely critical. It is the backbone of our entire counterterrorism apparatus.”
This fight for federal budget funding for FY 2018 is just getting underway. New York U.S. Sen. (and Democratic Leader) Charles E. Schumer told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) that “at a time when perpetrators are terrorizing the Jewish community across the country, even here in New York, it makes no sense to slash FEMA’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program; we should be putting more money into terrorism prevention for at-risk nonprofits, not less.”