An anti-Semitic symbol is found on a mosque, highlighting a rise in hate crimes

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MIDLAND PARK, N.J. — It's an emblem of hate that's often associated with violence against Jewish people.  But now, somebody has defaced a mosque in the New York metro area with a swastika. The hate crime brings to the fore the issue of a rise in hate crimes locally and nationwide.

The scene of the vandalism is a house of worship that looks like just about any suburban church.  But on the steeple is Arabic writing praising Allah, which is typically seen on the minaret of a mosque.  Of course, the building, which is a former church, is now a mosque, the Masjid El Zahra.  It's named after one of the daughters of the prophet Muhammad.

In front of the mosque, though, there's only a set of poles, in the shape of an 'H', where the sign with its name used to be.  The sign has been removed in order to be redone, after the vandalism carried out on it over the Memorial Day weekend.

"I see this as an opportunity to educate," said Ammar Charaf, the mosque's youth minister, regarding the crime done to the religious institution of which his father, Moutaz Charaf, is the imam, or leader.

Somebody etched a ten-inch swastika into the mosque's sign, along with another obscene image.  The bias crime vandalism is part of a rise in similar hate crimes in the New York area and across the country.

Anti-Semitic crimes like swastika graffiti were up 21 percent nationwide  last year from the year before, the most recent data available.  In New Jersey, however, the increase was 27 percent, according to Anti-Defamation League.  In New York, the increase was 14 percent, but the number of incidents was still moving in the wrong direction.

The New York increase includes incidents like one that happened this week.  On Tuesday, a swastika was found scrawled on the F train at a station on Jamaica Avenue.

Meanwhile, people reacted to that kind of hate crime at the recently vandalized mosque in New Jersey,

"Am I surprised?" asked one local resident.  "No.  Not at all."

She did not want to give her name, but identified herself as a Muslim who was born and raised in Midland Park, the town that's home to the mosque whose sign was defaced with a swastika.

She said that she was speaking with PIX11 News in order to let people know what her hometown is like.  "It's just a very white, Christian town," she said, "and people from different ethnicities and whatnot don't really live here."

That doesn't mean, however, that every resident is closed minded, according to the people who operate the mosque. Far from it, they say.

"We actually assume there are tons of good people here," said Charaf, the youth minister.

He said that the mosque is responding to the hate crime by embracing the community.  It's proceeding with plans for an open house on Friday, which had been scheduled long before the vandalism incident.

In attendance will be worshiper Amin Jalal, who told PIX11 News that he has a simple explanation for the vandalism, and a even simpler solution.

"I think it's some minor thing," he said.  "Some kid might have done it."

"The school systems, teachers," he continued, should have their students  "visit mosques, churches, visit other denominations."

Charaf, the youth minister agreed, and said that it's a two way street.  He said that his congregation is involved in a variety of community activities, including environmental issues, food banks and other outreach.

"You can't eradicate racism," Charaf said, "without curing it through education, because [racism] stems from ignorance."