NEW YORK – Days after the cease-fire was agreed between Hamas and Israel, Jews in the United States are finding themselves less concerned about relatives in the Holy Land and more about how safe it is to “look Jewish” in public.
A number of New Yorkers have been verbally or physically attacked while walking on the street, and synagogues across the nation have been vandalized in the wake of the 11-day Gaza flare-up this month.
The Anti-Defamation League said it received 193 reports of possible antisemitic incidents in the week after the Gaza crisis began, up from 131 the previous week. Appearing on local TV, Orthodox Jews are sharing their stories of being intimidated – or even physically assaulted – in New York City.
Elliott Hearst, a former city probation officer and longtime Bronx resident, was pushed and struck on Second Avenue while taking part in a counterprotest against a pro-Palestinian rally near the Israeli Consulate. The 66-year-old says that before the assault, four synagogues in his area were vandalized, one of which houses his congregation.
Hearst got choked up while giving his account to Haaretz of being struck by pro-Palestinian protesters and thrown to the ground. He says he has been fighting antisemitism since he was an 11-year-old living in an Italian-Irish neighborhood in the Bronx.
Hearst gathered with about 20 other Jewish and Israeli counterprotesters at the Emergency Rally For Palestine on May 11, when a few Palestinian supporters got past the police, approached the barricade and punched and pushed the counterprotesters cordoned off there. Haaretz caught the whole scene on camera.
Hearst says that all he was doing was waving an Israeli flag when an officer tried to hold one protester back. Then the officer let him walk up to the barricade.
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“No one touched him. They could have done more and security could have been tighter,” Hearst said. “The mainstream media only showed you a fraction of the video, which is of me punching back. Yes, I was pushed and another was pushed. And yes, I did hit back, and I’m proud of that.”
Hearst says he’s upset mostly because the final push sent him to the ground – and took an older woman nearby with him. No one was arrested.
Hearst in fact has asked his daughter if he can stay with her at her home in Vermont. Tearily, he told Haaretz he wouldn’t feel comfortable with her coming to New York, especially if she wore the Star of David necklace he bought her.
“It’s going to get worse, not better. The cease-fire is temporary. Jew hatred is not,” Hearst said. “I’ve seen people saying ‘you’ve got to leave New York City and make aliyah. But I can’t because of my age and my health problems. But there are people packing up and leaving.”
Battered on Times Square
Manhattan resident Joseph Borgen has become the face of New York City hate victims. Video of him being gang-assaulted on 47th Street in Times Square has appeared on every New York local news broadcast and made national headlines when CNN’s Don Lemon interviewed him.
Borgen was born and raised in New York and says he never thought that wearing his kippa or ritual fringes protruding from an undergarment would invite any verbal or physical threat. As he turned down the street, heading to a support rally for Israel, he noticed someone chasing him. Before he knew it, he was being kicked, struck, pepper-sprayed and beaten with a metal crutch. He went into a fetal position on the ground as he was surrounded by several assailants.
“I remember grabbing my head and my face, and that’s why my wrists were sore in the hospital. They took the brunt of the hits. I grabbed my head and neck and held on for dear life, bracing for impact. Once I saw the police around me, I thought the worst was over,” Borgen said.
“Nothing is broken. I’m just sore. I can’t feel the outside of my body and I have headaches,” Borgen added, saying the feeling is of being deflated, not just shaken up. People have been sending him video clips of his attacker being celebrated as a hero.
“He said he’d do it again. I never met this person; I don’t understand,” Borgen said, adding that he would even sit down with that person to talk it out. He hopes that by speaking out he’ll be able to help prevent this kind of violence from happening to any other religious or ethnic group.
Cowering in a bank branch
Longtime Brooklyn resident Mendy Steiner spent close to two hours hiding out in a Manhattan branch of JPMorgan Chase after being threatened while walking to his job in the Garment District. He’s Hasidic and wears a long frock jacket, a beard and side curls.
Steiner was coming down Seventh Avenue when a man whom he presumed was homeless or mentally disturbed started following him and trying to talk to him. Steiner was on the phone and ignoring him until the man became aggravated and blocked Steiner’s way with his bicycle.
“He said ‘Why aren’t you answering my question? Why are you killing my innocent Palestine children?’ I realized he was here for trouble,” said Steiner, who kept on walking until the man blocked him again, this time near the corner of a building.
“Every time I walked a few steps, I started looking around to see if I could find a police officer,” he said. “And unfortunately there was no one around. And I thought – ‘I have to make a decision. How will I get away?’”
Steiner finally noticed the Chase branch and made a run for it while the man threatened him and ultimately came inside the bank too to intimidate him some more. Staff brought Steiner downstairs into a private room to collect himself and asked the heckler to leave the bank. Though Steiner says he phoned the police three times, they didn’t show up. The Chase branch didn’t have a security guard either.
“I waited for an hour and a half. I thought it was a week,” Steiner said. “I called a couple of friends to pick me up and we walked over to my office together. When you know you have help, you could overcome it. But how can I go the next day to New York if I know when I call, no one will help me?”
Steiner says the assailant “said he was going to wait for me outside, and I believed him.” The incident happened just as the cease-fire took hold between Hamas and Israel. Steiner’s son, who lives in Israel, phoned home after the clash.
“He said I’m so happy there’s a cease-fire, and I said, ‘That’s so interesting. There’s a cease-fire in Israel, but not in New York.’”
On the West Coast, video went viral of diners at an outdoor restaurant being intimidated and even assaulted by pro-Palestinian demonstrators.
In San Francisco, congregant Susie Meyer has been bringing her German Shepherd to synagogue on Saturdays after she says her rabbi was met by antisemitic slurs and shouts by drivers passing by.
“Our synagogue was vandalized with ‘Death to Israel’ on it,” she said.
In Tucson, a member of the Arizona House of Representatives, Alma Hernandez, found herself focusing more on her position as a synagogue board member than on her role in the legislature. Her shul was vandalized when someone used a large ornamental stone at the front of the building to break a window.
“Just for context, the synagogue is tucked into a parking lot. It’s not on the street, so you would have to walk a distance to get to throw a rock at it,” Hernandez said. “It’s something someone planned to do. I called the rabbi and we both got very emotional. For both of us, it felt like a true violation of our safety, even though no one was hurt.”
The ADL reports that between May 7 and 14, the phrase “Hitler was right” or a variation was tweeted more than 17,000 times. The organization added that on-the-ground activity demonizing Israel has crossed into antisemitism.
On Monday, President Joe Biden called the attacks “despicable” and tweeted that “it’s up to all of us to give hate no safe harbor.”