Explained What We Now Know About the Attack on ultra-Orthodox Jews in Monsey

Six key questions answered about the suspected anti-Semitic attack that took place during a Hanukkah celebration in New York state on Saturday

Suspect Thomas Grafton leaving Ramapo Town Hall in Airmont, New York, after being arrested on December 29, 2019.
AFP

NEW YORK – The latest violent attack targeting New York’s Orthodox Jewish community, during the festival of Hanukkah, has deeply shaken the community. As community leaders and politicians discuss measures to combat anti-Semitism, here is the latest information on the knife attack in Monsey that took place on Saturday evening.

1. What happened?

Just before 10 P.M. on December 28, a man with a scarf covering his face walked into the home of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg in Monsey, New York, and began stabbing people with what witnesses described as either a “very large knife” or a machete.

The criminal complaint states that the assailant entered the rabbi’s home as dozens of congregants from the nearby Congregation Netzach Yisroel were celebrating the seventh night of Hanukkah by lighting candles and reciting prayers. The federal criminal complaint said the suspect told the group, “No one is leaving,” and proceeded to stab and slash them. He reportedly fled the scene after the congregants fought back using furniture.

2. Where is Monsey?

Monsey, a hamlet located within the town of Ramapo in New York state, has a population of 22,043 people, according to the American Community Survey from 2017. It is located in Rockland County, northwest of Manhattan.

The county has seen its Hasidic Orthodox Jewish population grow over recent years. According to the New York state website, Rockland has the highest Jewish population per capita of any U.S. county, with 31.4 percent, or 90,000 residents, being Jewish.

Like other growing Orthodox communities, Jewish residents in Rockland County have been the target of much online hate in recent months, with other community members blaming them for overdevelopment, squeezing public school budgets and zoning issues.

Members of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg's community gathering in front of the house of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg in Monsey, New York, on December 29, 2019.
AFP

3. Who are the victims?

Five people were injured in the knife attack, all of them Hasidic Jews. Little information about the identities of the victims has been released, but one – who was said to be in critical condition on Saturday night – is still fighting for his life in hospital, local politician Aron Wieder told Haaretz on Tuesday.

The New York Post identified the critical victim as 70-year-old Joseph Neumann. His family told a Post reporter he is “not doing well” after undergoing brain surgery. Another victim remains in hospital but doctors are optimistic about his recovery, Wieder added.

Wieder also told Haaretz that the three remaining victims had been released from hospital, with one even attending the wedding of one of his children on Monday night.

4. Who is the suspect?

The suspect has been identified as Grafton E. Thomas, a 37-year-old African-American man from Greenwood Lake, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) from Monsey. He originally fled the scene in a car, but the New York City Police Department arrested him in Harlem after a witness noted the car's license plate.

Thomas had blood all over his clothing and smelled of bleach when he was taken into custody, according to prosecutors. He was arraigned on five counts of attempted murder on Sunday and ordered held on $5 million bail. He pleaded not guilty to all charges.

5. Is it an anti-Semitic attack?

Although the attack was widely accepted by organizations, politicians and individuals as being anti-Semitic in nature, it was only officially defined as a hate crime on Monday.

According to federal prosecutors, Thomas kept handwritten journals in his home that expressed anti-Semitic views – including references to Hitler and “Nazi culture,” as well as drawings of a Star of David and a swastika. Thomas’ phone also revealed he had recently conducted online searches for phrases such as “Why did Hitler hate the Jews?” “German Jewish Temples near me” and “Zionist Temples” in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and on Staten Island.

However, Thomas’ defense lawyer, Michael Sussman, refuted the prosecutors’ interpretation of Thomas’ journals. He argued that the entries reflected the ramblings of a “disturbed individual,” not proof that his client hates Jewish people.

6. Is it connected to other recent attacks?

Although no direct link has been found between Monsey and other anti-Semitic incidents, Saturday’s attack was the latest in a string of assaults on Jews in the New York area in recent weeks.

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

Over the week of Hanukkah alone, there were multiple cases where Orthodox Jewish men in Brooklyn and Manhattan were punched, kicked or had objects thrown at them by assailants. In addition, four Jewish women were also assaulted: One was hit in the head while walking with her son, while three others were slapped.

The number of reported hate crimes against Jews in New York City rose significantly over the course of 2019. The New York Police Department reported 311 hate crimes through September, compared to 250 in the same period through 2018, according to Deputy Inspector Mark Molinari, who heads the department’s Hate Crimes Task Force. This does not include the dozens of incidents that occurred between September and December.

Molinari said 52 percent, or 163, of the reported hate crimes have targeted Jews. Over the same period last year, the NYPD reported 108 anti-Semitic hate crimes.

The Anti-Defamation League and the Secure Community Network issued a joint statement Monday expressing their horror at the wave of violence. “New York has a growing problem,” they said. “When will enough be enough?”

“It is time for leaders everywhere, Jewish and non-Jewish, to recognize that additional actions to protect the Jewish community are urgent,” the statement added. “The Jewish community is under assault. All of America must hear our cry.”

A member of an Orthodox Jewish community walking through a Brooklyn neighborhood on December 29, 2019.
AFP