Opinion

No, N.Y. Attacks Don't Show That Black People Have an anti-Semitism Problem

We don't know enough about the origins of the hatred behind the wave of violence, and jumping to conclusions by painting an entire race as anti-Semitic will only make things worse

Elad Nehorai
Elad Nehorai
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People gather at Grand Army Plaza in solidarity with the victims after an assailant stabbed five people attending a party at an Hasidic rabbi's home in Monsey, N.Y., on December 28, 2019,
People gather at Grand Army Plaza in solidarity with the victims after an assailant stabbed five people attending a party at an Hasidic rabbi's home in Monsey, N.Y., on December 28, 2019Credit: AMR ALFIKY/ REUTERS
Elad Nehorai
Elad Nehorai

About a year ago, I was sitting in one of those places you can only find in a Hasidic neighborhood: a place that manages to feel homey, rundown, beautiful, and exotic all at once.

It was there that the Hasid I had asked to meet with invited me to get together. We spoke about a lot that day, but the main issue was this: what on earth could be done about the anti-Semitism in Crown Heights?

Listen: Under Trump, haters don't need an excuse to attack Jews. Ep. 55

Crown Heights, in Brooklyn, has been, in many ways, the epicenter of the growing anti-Semitic violence against Orthodox Jews, and especially Hasidic Jews, that has only recently started to truly gain the attention of America due to the unimaginable tragedies we are currently faced with.

My meeting was with one of the most outspoken voices in the community, constantly demanding action from local and governmental leaders in New York. He had fought tirelessly, but it was also clear that he was forward-looking: he didn’t see this as a racial issue, despite the divide between the largely white Hasidic community and the largely black non-Jewish community that has caused tension for decades.

So, I asked: what can we do? I had spoken to some larger Jewish institutions at the time, and they were dying for a way in to the Hasidic communities to commit their resources to helping their Jewish brethren. I thought there was an opportunity: maybe we could start something new.

We discussed a number of ideas: ways to unite the communities, ways to think beyond only policing and get down to the root of the issues.

But he kept returning to one key point, one that, in retrospect, I wish I had paid more attention to: “We need more data,” he kept saying.

When we discussed the fact that in Crown Heights many of the perpetrators were teens, he pointed out that it was almost impossible to find any hard facts about how anti-Semitism had spread among their peers: schools and local officials didn’t want to cooperate because it might reveal facts that would make them targets of attention they didn’t want.

When we discussed the question of how anti-Semitic rhetoric spreads in a community as both small and diverse as Crown Heights, he pointed out a few anecdotal examples, but again, he repeated his mantra: “We don’t have enough data.” 

As in so many other communities suffering from attacks against Orthodox Jews, the information was sparse: each attack seemed disconnected, without a motivating ideology or movement as with white nationalism, and with hardly any actual hard numbers besides the attacks themselves.

At the time, I thought we could still accomplish something without that data: after all, there were some obvious answers. The issue was so local that we could hone in on certain areas and work on education and other initiatives. But he shook his head when I spoke of this, and said that it had been tried, but that the issues remained.

“We just need more data,” he said again.

Everybody has a solution

It is now a year or so later.  A day before I wrote this, a man walked into a home in the town of Monsey, well known for its large Haredi community, and proceeded to attack the people celebrating Hanukkah with a machete.

Only two weeks earlier, a man and a woman walked into a kosher grocery store in Jersey City, N.J., and murdered three people, shortly after killing a police officer.

In between, there were multiple assaults in the New York area. A friend of mine was walking the streets of Crown Heights when a woman punched her friend in the head. She went on to hit another woman before being stopped by the Hasidic neighborhood watch known as Shomrim. More such stories circulated. Synagogues were vandalized.

A week of anti-Semitic attacks in New York
A week of anti-Semitic attacks in New York Credit: EDUARDO MUNOZ/REUTERS

It has been getting worse for a while, but these last two weeks shook us all, of every denomination: the low-grade assaults have now escalated to murder. And there is little sign it will get better.

As all this occurs, everyone seems to have a diagnosis and a prognosis. If you’ve been following the opinion pages and social media you’ve probably heard them all: we need more police. We need no police. The left is complicit. Trump’s rise helped create this environment. Jews need to arm themselves. Jews need to work with their neighbors.

But by far the most prevalent talking point that has simmered under the surface of mainstream discourse seems to finally have burst forth: the vast majority of the perpetrators over the last two weeks have been black. 

Even the most liberal Jews seem to have latched onto this fact with a fervency that is quite astonishing. People who once recoiled at the idea of broadly linking a group to anti-Semitism seem to be acknowledging what others have been repeating ad nauseam: the black community has an anti-Semitism problem. They may have different answers to this issue, but the point these critics make is pretty standardized: so many of these perpetrators were black, and yet it seems that the only anti-Semitism we have cared to discuss in the mainstream (and certainly in the mainstream left) is white nationalism. Something needs to change.

Part of me empathizes with the Jews who are making this point. It is, in fact, true, that America, and especially the left, have obsessed over white nationalism while largely not feeling the same urgency about anti-Semitism that doesn’t fit their right-left constructs. It is also true that when communities like the Hasidim are targeted, anti-Semitism isn’t taken as seriously.

But as I see more and more people demanding we deal with “black anti-Semitism,” I can’t help but feel there is something missing, something that many people seem both desperate for and yet not willing to truly examine.

“We just need more data.”

This is what I return to over and over.

People work to secure the scene of a shooting at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, N.J. On Friday, Dec. 13, 2019,
People work to secure the scene of a shooting at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, N.J. On Friday, Dec. 13, 2019, Credit: Seth Wenig,AP

We know nothing

One of the most frustrating, confusing, aspects of these attacks is exactly what we’ve been facing in Crown Heights: it is very hard to understand what is happening, in large part because we simply don’t have the information on hand that we need.

Because of the intense focus on white nationalism and the alt-right, we have an incredible amount of data available.  We know about specific movements, from Groypers to the Proud Boys. We know about the websites where they congregate, like 4chan and Stormfront. They publish manifestos and video their attacks live. In fact, information seems to be the one thing we have plenty of when it comes to white nationalism, if not solutions. Data is plentiful.

The exact opposite is the case with the horrifying acts in Brooklyn, Jersey City, and Monsey. These attackers seem to pop out of nowhere. These acts don’t appear coordinated, even in the vaguely disconnected version of “lone wolf” attacks we see among white nationalists.

Although we have had vague pieces of information come out about the recent attacks, such as the fact that at least one of the Jersey City shooters was linked to the Black Hebrew Israelites, the one element that continues to be spread is that the perpetrators were black.

And this, it seems, is where the conversation often ends. The investigation, at least on a mainstream punditry and social media level, seems to revolve around the question of: “Do black people have an anti-Semitism problem?”

Whether people answer yes or no, the fact that this question is being posed reveals a latent racism that must be addressed, if only to properly address these horrific attacks, if not to also avoid the very easy and dangerous slippery slope into overt racism that endangers both Jewish black people and black non-Jews.

In other words: “We just need more data.”

The question is not whether black people have an anti-Semitism problem, because an entire group cannot be painted in such generalizing terms. These attacks are not occurring with any similar frequency in other areas of the United States: they are largely confined to the New York area. Even where other Jewish communities mix with black communities, such as in Chicago, these horrors have not occurred nearly as often.

This point alone means that discussing anti-Semitism purely in terms of race is not just wrong and dangerous: it does not help us properly address the heart of the problem.

For whatever reason, be it a lack of resources put towards investigating these acts or a lack of interest from the American mainstream, or partisan distractions, we don’t have the information at our fingertips as we do with so many other widespread acts of hate.  And, in desperation, people are jumping to conclusions.  Worse: they are trying to answer the wrong questions.

The result is an almost completely ineffective fight against this scourge.  And without an acknowledgment of what we don’t know, this issue will continue. Racism will be normalized. Innocent people will continue to be hurt. And anti-Semitism will only get worse.

Knowledge saves lives

I used to work for a startup that specialized in diagnosing rare diseases and chronic illnesses. The problem with these diseases was that because they were so complex and so rare, even the most knowledgeable physicians could not diagnose them.

As anyone who has suffered from an undiagnosed disease can tell you, this inability to diagnose makes every aspect of treatment a painful ordeal. You can’t treat what you don’t understand.

In many ways, this is the problem we’re facing when it comes to the anti-Semitism in the North East that is not explained through white nationalism. We have a disease, but we don’t have a diagnosis.  Even worse, we have people misdiagnosing the issue, which makes the problem far worse.

The solution my company found was fascinating: we used crowdsourcing.  By combining the efforts of hundreds of medical professionals and then applying an algorithm to their input, our company could diagnose people that the medical establishment was unable to even begin helping.

In so doing, we saved lives.

To put it more simply: we gathered data. And it was through this data that we could diagnose the most complicated and rare diseases on earth.

In many ways, the Hasid I sat with a year ago understood what the founder of my company had understood when he started it: without data we are hopeless. And we then, often, end up misdiagnosing and jumping to conclusions that only make things worse.

It’s time we admitted something that is clearer every day: we simply don’t know enough. And while we must take measures to secure our safety in the meantime, we can’t properly address the growth of anti-Semitism without an understanding of how that hatred is originating, spreading, and being acted upon.

Really, we just need more data.

Elad Nehorai is the founder and editor-in-chief of Hevria, a publication for creative Jews, and the blogger behind Pop Chassid. Follow him on Twitter: @PopChassid

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