Over the course of the year, the number of hate crimes committed against Jews in New York City has risen exponentially, nearly doubling from 2018. The victims in these cases were almost all Haredi Jews, generally living in Orthodox enclaves in Brooklyn.
This epidemic of anti-Semitic crime should have generated a massive response from the organized Jewish world. In the wake of the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway, California, worries about threats of violence against Jews have become a priority for leading organizations and activists in the community, and have created an atmosphere of fear that led to guards being posted at Jewish places of worship throughout the country. But the situation in New York was largely ignored or downplayed both by many Jewish groups and the media.
After a shooting rampage in nearby Jersey City that ended at a kosher grocery frequented by Orthodox Jews and left four people dead, as well as a surge of attacks against Jews in Brooklyn throughout December culminating in a Hanukkah stabbing attack at a rabbi’s home in Monsey that left five wounded, the targeting of Haredi Jews is something that can no longer be dismissed or ignored. Or can it?
The latest incidents did prompt statements of outrage and solidarity from liberal and mainstream Jewish groups. And local authorities in New York are finally responding by stepped-up police patrols in the Brooklyn neighborhoods where assaults of Jews have been happening on a daily basis in recent weeks.
Yet it is still doubtful whether the welfare of the group that has been singled out in this fashion will maintain the attention of the rest of the Jewish community, let alone the news media that is still treating these incidents as primarily a local story rather than one of national significance.
The reason for such skepticism is based on two factors: politics and the antagonism that exists between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of American Jewry.
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The Pittsburgh atrocity captured the imagination of most American Jews in a way that the attacks on the ultra-Orthodox do not because the murderer in this case was a white supremacist, someone who could be easily identified with forces most American Jews already fear and despise, and the victims looked like most American Jews.
Ever since U.S. President Donald Trump conflated opposition to the removal of Confederate statues with support for an August 2017 neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, his critics have alleged that he encouraged extremists and that his coarsening of the tone of American discourse has created an atmosphere in which hatred has thrived. Yet in the overwhelming majority of the reported incidents of violence against the ultra-Orthodox in the New York area, including both the Jersey City and Monsey attacks, the assailants have been African-Americans who are unlikely to be influenced by Trump or white supremacists.
In the age of Trump, in which partisan blinders impact opinion about every conceivable issue, anti-Semitism has also been politicized. Right and left are solely focused on crimes that can be attributed to political opponents and downplay those that can be linked to allies. So it is little surprise that U.S. Jews, who are overwhelmingly liberal, have not be galvanized into action by incidents that don’t fit into their preconceived notions about hatred.
Most American Jews are also reluctant to criticize the African-American community, even if only to lament that most black political and communal leaders have been slow to condemn the anti-Semitism behind these attacks.
Jew v. Jew
But there is another factor involved that may be even more important in shaping Jewish opinion as well as the media coverage: prejudice against or indifference to the sensibilities of the ultra-Orthodox.
Earlier this year Orthodox Jews expressed resentment at the Reform movement for seemingly granting absolution to Reverend Al Sharpton, who though currently an ally in the anti-Trump “resistance,” was credibly accused of race baiting and inciting anti-Semitic violence against both Haredim and Jewish-owned businesses located in black neighborhoods in the past.
More recently, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the head of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism successfully urged the movement’s biennial convention to endorse reparations for African-Americans because of the legacy of slavery. He did so while scolding Jews for the “racism” that still existed in “synagogues,” a comment that seemed more like a jibe thrown at other denominations rather than Reform self-criticism.
Though their numbers are increasing due to high birth rates while the liberal denominations are facing demographic problems caused by intermarriage and assimilation, the most recent reliable Jewish population study shows that Orthodox Jews still make up only 10 percent of U.S. Jewry. Those numbers will likely shift in the future, but that is a community about which little is known among the overwhelming majority of American Jews, who affiliate with the liberal Reform and Conservative movements or who are, as the authoritative Pew Survey termed them, “Jews of no religion.” And with the exception of outreach from Chabad emissaries, most of their interactions tend to revolve around “Jew-versus-Jew” disputes in which secular and liberal Jews regard the ultra-Orthodox who move into their neighborhoods as a threat to their lifestyle and property values.
Can there be any doubt that if Jews who looked like those who attend Reform or Conservative synagogues or who go to no synagogue at all — rather than those whose clothing marks them as ultra-Orthodox — were being systematically targeted in the way that the Haredim have been, Jewish anger would have been far greater than the generally low-key outcry that is being heard even after Jersey City and Monsey?
While the surge in anti-Semitic violence ought to trouble everyone, the inability of most American Jews to identify with the ultra-Orthodox is as important as the fact that such incidents don’t validate their political biases. Unless and until liberal Jews start treating the fear among Haredi Jews about violence from a minority of African-Americans as being of equal importance to their own concerns about white supremacists, it’s likely that what is happening in New York will remain of marginal interest to them.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of the Jewish News Syndicate and a columnist for the New York Post. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.