Defund the Police – or Buy Them Lunch? The Debate Raging Within N.Y.'s Jewish Community

Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
New York
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People protesting near city hall calling for the New York City government to defund the police, June 30, 2020.
People protesting near city hall calling for the New York City government to defund the police, June 30, 2020.Credit: Carlo Allegri / Reuters
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
New York

NEW YORK – As New York City experiences a surge in shootings and other crime, Jewish residents of Brooklyn, where many incidents have occurred, are increasingly at odds about what’s causing the violence and how to curb it.

With antisemitic incidents and assaults against Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn spiking in recent years, community leaders have often praised the New York Police Department, expressing gratitude for its response to hate crimes.

But as New York became a center of calls to defund the police since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May, some residents and experts are worried that the anti-police movement may be contributing to the rising crime.

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They find themselves in a bind: Support a police force that has drawn intense criticism for its killing of Black suspects, or join calls demanding change.

“I have a very close Orthodox friend who’s very upset that I want to defund the NYPD,” says Andrea Karshan, who lives in the heavily Orthodox neighborhood of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where she says liberal views like hers are not very common.

Andrea Karshan, a resident of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, August 2020.Credit: Courtesy Andrea Karshan

“The Lubavitch [Hasidic] community is out there buying the NYPD lunches, and while I love the NYPD – they’re amazing – while they’re brutalizing our Black and brown neighbors, I don’t think we need to be buying them lunch,” she says. “I think it makes us look bad.”

Karshan says police brutality must be stopped “so that people can feel more comfortable with the police, so the police can do their job. I think until the police stop being so brutal, nobody is going to trust them.”

Yehudah Webster, a community organizer for Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, also lives in Crown Heights. Last month his group gathered at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn with signs reading “Defund the NYPD,” “Defend Black Lives” and “Invest in Community.”

Yehudah Webster speaking through a megaphone during his action "40 Days of Teshuvah," New York, July 2020.Credit: Gili Getz

They shouted loudly and blew a shofar, an effort they’ve dubbed “40 Days of Teshuvah” – repentance.

"It’s not that we don’t need a system of public safety,” Webster told Haaretz. “It’s that we have to reimagine what it’s going to be. We have to implement other forms of public safety that actually work.”

A professor at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Maria Haberfeld, says the Jewish community “is definitely heavily reliant on the NYPD. There’s definitely danger at this point.”

But Yaacov Behrman, an Orthodox community activist in Crown Heights, cautions that it’s “dangerous to say that the Jewish community relies on the police. Everybody does – every major religious center, every major event. New York is the center of major, major events. World leaders come, the United Nations is here, houses of worship need police protection.”

While Behrman agrees that police officers must be trained properly, he says he realizes that they’re not above the law and that community relations should be prioritized. Still, “all the rhetoric we heard from elected officials – they’re all anti-cop,” he says.

“They destroyed community relations in many neighborhoods where the police have had a great relationship with the community. We need police protection, we need community relations with the police.”

Writer Elad Nehorai, who is known for his former blog “Pop Chassid” and describes himself as a “proud progressive Orthodox Jew,” lived in Crown Heights for nine years before moving to Los Angeles in mid-July.

Nehorai, who was at the Black Lives Matter protests in New York, acknowledges the “pain and confusion” he says some Jews may feel regarding the movement to defund the police.

“In general, the idea is that there is this very strong feeling in American Jewry that the government is on our side. So I think that’s scary for Jews to be in a situation where they feel like there are these people that really want revolutionary change, and what does that mean for Jews?” he says.

“I think a lot of secular liberal Jews look down on these Orthodox communities for being concerned about these things, but [Orthodox Jews] have actual lived experiences [of antisemitic attacks], and I think that puts them at odds with the relatively more sheltered Jews.”

A demonstrator standing in front of New York police officers near city hall, July 1, 2020. Credit: Andrew Kelly / Reuters

More murders and burglaries

Talk about defunding the police comes as New York City experiences a spike in crime, particularly gun violence. According to the NYPD, there were 777 shootings this year to August 1, one more than the number for all of last year.

In July, there were 244 shootings, compared with 88 a year earlier, a 177-percent rise. The number of murder victims jumped to 54 from 34, a 59-percent rise, while burglaries climbed to 1,297 from 989, a 31-percent increase.

This summer’s violence follows nearly 200 days of disruption in New York and many cities due to the coronavirus and protests after Floyd’s death.

Demonstrators, including a sit-in in front of city hall, demanded that at least $1 billion be cut from the NYPD budget for the fiscal year that began on July 1; roughly one-sixth of the force’s funding. While some cuts have been made, many protesters are unimpressed.

Some members of the Jewish community, like Behrman, believe that the rise in violence is partly connected to the “rhetoric of the left about the police department” and its calls to defund the police.

“I think the fact that the district attorney declined to prosecute people doing illegal activity during the protests played a role,” he says.

“We all support Black lives. Black people deserve to feel safe in America – we all support that. But attacking every police officer and allowing crime to go up, and essentially turning a lawless New York into Gotham – there’s a big difference.”

Webster of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice says the idea that the protesters’ actions have contributed to the worsening crime is “deeply offensive.” He says “the police didn’t even get defunded” and warns the Jewish community against getting too distracted by calls to cut the NYPD’s funds.

A demonstrator holding a "Defund the police" sign during a protest march in support of Black Lives Matter, New York, July 30, 2020.Credit: John Minchillo / AP

“You’re missing the point. What we’re telling you is that the system of safety that we have is murdering Black people. We’re not saying we don’t want accountability in our community when folks break community standards,” he says.

Webster adds that, “We’re not saying that we don’t want public safety. What we want is for that public safety to be safe for everybody, that as public safety is enacted, I as a Black man won’t just be killed for being Black.”

As Anthony Beckford, a community advocate, activist and leader of the Brooklyn chapter of Black Lives Matter, puts it, “There should never be a risk for public safety when it comes to accountability.”

He says officials who conflate the rise in crime with the Black Lives Matter movement are employing a scare tactic.

“The real definition of defunding the police is what people need to understand, not the scare tactics that are trying to cause the divide. We never said that we are anti-police in the movement, we said that we are pro police accountability, so the fact that they use this scare tactic shows you the mentality and the culture that still exists in the NYPD,” Beckford says.

“So because we told you to stop modern-day lynching people, you don’t want to do your job? How are you not capable of arresting somebody for a suspected crime without murdering them?”

Beckford has also loudly condemned antisemitic crimes in the past and marched on the Brooklyn Bridge after the stabbing attack in Monsey, New York, last December in which one of the five victims died three months later.

Beckford says he understands why some members of the Jewish community are concerned, and he believes now is the time for community outreach.

“How many times have we handled situations where we’ve come together and we have called against antisemitic acts or anti-Black acts and we brought justice to it? That’s what we have to do,” Beckford says.

Yehudah Webster blowing a shofar during his action "40 Days of Teshuvah," New York, July 2020.Credit: Gili Getz

“Community leaders from all backgrounds have to come together to formulate a plan to actually help stop the crime, to help bring more education. Education is really key.”

Nehorai, the former “Pop Chassid” blogger, believes the question for white Jews who are concerned about the anti-police rhetoric is: “Are we only fighting for ourselves or are we fighting for other people as well?”

“Fear is an incredibly powerful motivator, it makes people think extremely tribalistically; they retreat in general into their community, into themselves,” he says. “The question is how do you get people to understand that this fight for other people is also a fight for ourselves, because we’re trying to make the world a more just place.”

Echoing Webster, Karshan believes that because the NYPD has yet to be defunded, “that’s not the issue here.” She is “100 percent behind trimming the fat on the NYPD,” but says recent changes at the state and city levels have helped drive up crime.

Andrea Karshan.Credit: Andrea Karshan

Last year, New York State eliminated cash bail for a long list of offenses but not violent felonies. Critics warned that the move would keep criminals on the streets. Amid pressure from the police and prosecutors, lawmakers amended the reform to allow more cases where judges can demand cash bail. The changes took effect earlier this summer.

“It doesn’t mean bail reform is a bad thing,” Karshan says. “But the thing is, something needs to be changed, and when change happens, it takes time. It’s not going to happen perfectly, it’s like having growing pains.”

‘Seismic shift’

In mid-June, another significant change was made: New York Police Commissioner Dermot Shea announced he was disbanding the NYPD’s Anti-Crime Unit – around 600 plainclothes officers targeting violent crime who have been criticized for doing too much shooting themselves. Shea described the move as a “seismic shift in the culture of how the NYPD polices this great city.”

While Mayor Bill de Blasio has attributed the spike in crime to “all the dislocation that’s happened over these last four months with the coronavirus,” criminologist Haberfeld believes that bail reform and the closure of the Anti-Crime Unit are the main causes.

“People who understand crime, who understand crime causation, who understand deterrence, people in law enforcement, were not consulted about bail reform,” she says. “All this was passed in a political move without any understanding of the consequences.”

Terence Monahan, the NYPD chief of department, taking a knee with protesters in New York, Monday, June 1, 2020. Credit: Craig Ruttle / AP

The Anti-Crime Unit, she adds, “was actually the tool that allowed the police to contain violent crime. Now that the tool was dismantled overnight by an uninformed mayor who put pressure on the police commissioner who didn’t push back, we’re seeing the immediate results. Do we need to restore this unit? Yes, like yesterday.”

Black community leaders have also started calling for the NYPD to restore the unit. “I think that a total elimination is something we need to reevaluate,” the Brooklyn borough president and a former policeman, Eric Adams, told CBS News in New York last month. “Right now, bad guys are saying if you don’t see a blue and white, you can do whatever you want.”

For Webster, though, the solution doesn’t lie in reinstating police units or pouring more money into the NYPD. “The city needs to invest in communities. When you invest in communities, you don’t need to turn to crime. When you have a job, you don’t need to rob nobody,” he says.

“Through investing in education and health care and community centers, ensuring that everybody has a job or has the means to put food in their mouths, these are the ways that you bring down crime. We don’t need to militarize our city and heavily police our neighborhoods – that only increases crime.”

Beckford, a Marine veteran who is also running for the city council in 2021, also believes the city needs to expand community programs that have been cut over the years.

“All of our summer youth programs, our free after-school programs, our mental health services programs, our food programs, our maternity programs, they have all been defunded,” he says. “They were defunded to put the money into the NYPD, and so it’s like you’d rather have incarceration instead of education.”

By cutting the NYPD budget, the city would simply be giving “the community the money that it’s owed,” Beckford says, adding that the coronavirus only exacerbated the issue.

“We have many people, adults and teenagers, who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, many people who have sat inside their homes for three months with so much pent-up energy that there is no positive outlet: no summer programs, there’s no basketball. It produces a stirring pot of problems for the community,” he says.

“If you don’t provide the things that are needed to stop it, then of course there is going to be a significant uptick” in crime.

Karshan, the Crown Heights resident, says that “since the shootings, and especially since coronavirus, since it’s very deserted on the streets, I get worried about getting mugged.”

As Behrman, the Orthodox community activist, puts it, “I remember in the ‘80s and the ‘90s there were parts of Crown Heights you couldn’t go, there were streets I wouldn’t walk myself. Today it’s happening again. New York has gone lawless.”

Haberfeld says that for police brutality to be addressed properly, fundamental change is needed.

“Unfortunately, very much like police commissioners, the directors of training or deputy commissioners for training in large cities are frequently appointed based on their political affiliations and not necessarily their knowledge,” she says.

Over the last 20 years, Haberfeld and a team of researchers in ethics and integrity have worked on a template for police chiefs and commissioners to “make it very clear to the officers what the consequences are of their misconduct, but also to explain to them why these consequences are there.”

Police officers need to be held to a “much higher standard,” she says.

“We have to recruit people who are older, we have to recruit people who have emotional and social intelligence, we have to recruit people who are there for the right reasons, not because it is a good job with benefits.”

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