An Indian-American youth in New Jersey was sentenced July 28, to 35 years in prison on terrorism charges for firebombing synagogues in a series of anti-Semitic attacks that shocked the Hindu and Jewish communities which have historically lived in rare harmony both in India and the United States.
Aakash Dalal and his friend Anthony Graziano during December 2011 and January 2012 spray painted graffiti on synagogues in Maywood and Hackensack, and attempted to burn down synagogues in Paramus and Rutherford, N.J. In one attack, Molotov cocktail-like fuel-filled bottles with wicks were hurled into a rabbi’s home where his family including five children were asleep.
Reflecting the community’s dismay, Ritesh Desai, an advocate for closer Jewish-Indian ties, said, “The Jewish community is like the older brothers for Indian-Americans, to help and guide us.” Dalal’s was “a one-off” case, he told Desi Talk. “It’s one person out of the 3.5 million Indian-Americans that call U.S. home.” Desai, who is from Atlanta has worked closely with the American Jewish Committee and was a founding member of the Indo-Jewish Coalition in 2005.
The two young men were convicted last year, after Dalal had spent time in solitary confinement after prosecutors said he was planning to murder the assistant attorney in charge of the case and had a list of other people he would go after if his parents bailed him out. The bail was raised from $1.5 million to $4 million back in 2014.
Dalal was found guilty of terrorism and 16 other charges last November, and Graziano was also convicted of terrorism and 19 other charges. Graziano’s attorney contended his client was brainwashed by Dalal. At the sentencing, Graziano showed remorse and apologized for his actions, but Dalal did not make any statement, northjersey.com reported. Dalal’s attorney Brian J. Neary told Desi Talk, they would be appealing the sentence in Appellate Court.
Dalal’s motives do not appear clear. While he seems to have been politically active, working on Libertarian Senator Ron Paul’s campaign in 2012, according to news accounts, it’s not clear if he followed any specific anti-Semitic ideology. However, Assistant Bergen County Prosecutor Brian Sinclair, saw an anti-Semitic motive. The two accused “saw Jewish people not as people but as subhuman and like reptiles,” Sinclair is quoted saying in a northjersey.com report. “They were partners in hate, intimidation and crime.”
Dalal’s attorney told Desi Talk that he argued in court that as a 19 and 20 year old, some of his client’s writings were reflective of his political views and not his views about religion. “Our takes were that he took a Libertarian, anti-government position and (believed) that there were many elements that controlled government,” Neary said.
However, any assertion that Jews control the economy or government is itself considered deeply anti-Semitic given the origins of the horrific pogroms and the holocaust.
The Indian-American and Jewish groups, while being shocked by Dalal’s actions, consider it a blip and not a widespread problem between the two communities. Dalal’s actions, even as they deeply affected the Jewish community in North Jersey, do not appear to have affected the generally amiable political and social connections between Indians and Jews. Dalal’s ancestry or his faith did not seem to feature during the trial.
“We are reminded, as well, of the need to redouble our efforts to fight hatred in all its forms and work together in the building of communities that celebrate diversity and fellowship,” Rabbi David C. Levy, director of the American Jewish Committee, told News India Times in an emailed statement in response to a query. “The sentencing of Aakash Dalal and Anthony Graziano brings to a close a series of hate crimes whose impact have left the affected New Jersey communities shaken to this very day,” he said. “In seeing justice served, we pray that a measure of comfort will be brought to the victims and a strong warning will be sent to those who would traffic in the scourge of anti-Semitism.”
Desai and several other Indian-Americans, including Sampat Shivangi of Mississippi, have been in groups that the AJC has invited to visit Tel Aviv, to build greater understanding between Indians and Israel. Shivangi, president of the Indian-American Forum for Political Education, called the Dalal case “very, very unusual.”
“Indian-Americans have spent years trying to build relations with American Jews,” Shivangi said. They were seen as an example of how a small community has contributed to the nation, he added.
Sections of the Indian-American community supported Dalal’s parents on his behalf and even set up a Support Aakash Dalal Team, but making it clear that the group’s intent was to ask for a speedy and fair trial and not to prove Dalal’s innocence.
Meanwhile, Dalal’s attorney told Desi Talk his client “has a right, and intent to exercise that right, to appeal to the New Jersey Appellate Division. A major issue on appeal is whether the ‘Terrorism’ statute is both constitutional and whether any of the acts he committed would amount to terrorism as defined under the statute.” He was referring to New Jersey’s ‘Domestic Security Preparedness Act’ which was passed shortly after 9/11, and under which Dalal and Graziano were the first to be charged, according to news reports. “The challenge is to prove whether there is a difference between ‘bias intimidation’ and the crime of terrorism,” Neary contended.
During his interview with Desi Talk, Neary recalled he had been involved in the 1980s case when a young Indian-American man, Navroze Mody, was accosted, beaten, and died from his injuries, after being attacked by a gang that was part of the much-feared ‘Dotbusters’ in New Jersey who singled out Indian immigrants. Their name signified the bindi that Indian women wore in the center of the forehead. “The men were convicted of assault and not murder,” in that case, Neary said noting that New Jersey’s ‘Domestic Security Preparedness Act’ did not exist in the 1980s.