'Anti-Semitism Has Become Mainstream': NYC Orthodox Jews Face Surge of Violence

The timing of the uptick in anti-Semitic incidents in New York may have an unexpected reason

Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
New York
A Jewish neighborhood watch volunteer patrolling the streets of Brooklyn on a rainy day.
A Jewish neighborhood watch volunteer patrolling the streets of Brooklyn. Credit: Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
New York

NEW YORK – Mendel was on the phone outside his Crown Heights yeshiva dorm, talking to his family back in Australia, when he suddenly felt a blow to the head. It was so strong it knocked him to the floor and sent his glasses and yarmulke flying.

“I felt tremendous pain,” the 22-year-old Melbourne native recalls. “My dad heard me screaming on the phone. It was a terrifying moment.”

Mendel, who asked that his last name not be published, says he got up and unsuccessfully chased one of his assailants, with the police arriving soon after. He hopped into a patrol vehicle in an attempt to track down the aggressors, who hadn’t even tried to steal anything from him.

“We’ve all been hearing about these things,” Mendel tells Haaretz, “it’s been going on for decades. But for it to happen to you – that definitely came as a shock.” It's a reality no one wants to accept until it happens to them, he adds, several weeks after the incident took place overnight on January 30.

Mendel on the Kingston Avenue subway platform in Brooklyn, February 2019. Hate crimes have "been going on for decades. But for it to happen to you – that definitely came as a shock," he says.Credit: Courtesy of Mendel

Attacks on the rise

Reports of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States – ranging from violent attacks to verbal abuse and vandalism (including swastikas drawn on Jewish institutions) – have been on the rise over the past two years, culminating in the deadliest U.S. attack on the Jewish community ever with the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh last October.

The trend hasn’t spared New York City. In 2018, the local police department’s Hate Crimes Task Force recorded a 23 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents citywide – 189, compared to 154 in 2017. And while most of the incidents last year were criminal mischief offenses (which include graffiti and cemetery desecration), the number of assaults has jumped 267 percent – from three in 2017 to 11 in 2018. Aggravated harassment, which includes drawing swastikas on buildings, has risen 73 percent, from 41 to 71 incidents.

Task force figures also show that most of the reported anti-Semitism incidents in New York last year took place within the 71st Precinct, which covers the neighborhood of Crown Heights; the 66th Precinct (covering Borough Park), and the 24th Precinct (which includes the Upper West Side). All three neighborhoods are home to large, visibly Jewish populations.

And there are no signs of that upward trend abating in 2019: In the first six weeks of the year, a total of 32 anti-Semitic incidents were recorded in New York, compared to 17 during the same period in 2018 – an 88 percent increase. Among those incidents, 16 fall under different levels of aggravated harassment – a significant increase from the five such incidents in the same period last year. No incidents that can be legally defined as assaults have been recorded so far.

“There have always been incidents, but never clustered like this,” Yaacov Behrman, a Jewish community activist in Crown Heights, tells Haaretz. “There is no question whatsoever that incidents are on the rise.”

Defining a crime

Although the police statistics illustrate a general trend, Behrman says they are limited in scope and may not actually reflect the full extent of attacks on the street.

“If I go and beat up a person, and you can’t prove I was targeting the person for hate, it’s [just] considered a violent offense,” he explains, adding: “If there’s a robbery involved, it’s possible it would be considered a robbery and not a hate crime.

Members of Shomrim (the Jewish neighborhood watch group) speaking with a NYPD officer on the streets of Brooklyn.Credit: Courtesy of Motty Katz

“There was a guy running up and down Kingston Avenue shoving and punching people,” Behrman continues, referring to an incident in mid-January. “They arrested him and he said ‘When I get drunk, I hit people.’ [But] every time he gets drunk, he hits a Jew. He’s probably not going to be charged with a hate crime, because they can’t prove to a grand jury that his intent was” to target Jews, he adds.

Motty Katz lives in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Borough Park and for some 25 years has been part of his local Shomrim (the neighborhood watch group in Jewish communities). He agrees that not all cases of anti-Semitism are being reported to the NYPD.

“From time to time, we have guys who will curse anti-Semitic comments at people and run away – and people don’t report that because the guy ran away,” he says. “I tell everybody to call 911, because [the police] should know if it’s happening or not. If they don’t make reports, the NYPD wouldn’t know about it.”

He calls his group “the eyes and ears for the NYPD. That means when we see something, we have to say something.”

Katz says it is common for community members to call Shomrim before or while they are dialing 911. People “have trust in the NYPD, but they feel comfortable with us and we’ll have a faster response time,” he explains.

However, some in the Orthodox community believe the statistics showing the rise in anti-Semitism don’t reflect an increase in incidents but rather, increased sensitivity to such incidents.

Borough Park native Alexander Rapaport, who runs the Masbia Soup Kitchen Network in Brooklyn and Queens, says he can’t even remember the number of times he has been verbally abused, or worse.

“Do you remember that video of a woman walking down the street for 10 hours and getting catcalled?” he asks. “If I walked with my beard and with my peot [sidelocks], I would get more harassment walking on the same streets she walked,” he tells Haaretz.

“I have been spat at in Times Square, I have been yelled at by drunken people on the Coney Island beach – it’s nothing new,” he says. “The only difference is that now [the authorities] are willing to listen.”

Generating fear

Two of Mendel’s attackers were arrested on the day of the incident and the third within 24 hours. The men were African-Americans aged 18, 20 and 21.

Mendel later found out he wasn’t their only victim that night: A 51-year-old Hasidic man had also been pushed and beaten even more violently. That attack was caught on surveillance cameras and released to the local media.

He says he has no idea why he didn’t suffer the same level of violence. “Thank God they didn’t, but they could have. It might be because I screamed really loud. It might have scared them off,” he says.

Community activist Yaacov Behrman speaking at an opioid epidemic conference in Brooklyn, May 2018. Credit: Itzik Roytman

Stories such as Mendel’s are an obvious cause for concern among this insular religious community. Last October, Borough Park was the scene of a violent assault when a Hasidic man in his 60s was beaten to the ground in broad daylight. “That really shook up the community, they were scared,” recounts Katz. “Anybody could be walking on the street and get hurt.”

People are “obviously nervous and frightened by what's going on,” Behrman adds. “Even small instances where people were pushed – that generates fear.”

Mendel admits to still being shaken by the January 30 attack. “It has really taken away my sense of security,” he says. “I wouldn’t go in the street past midnight [now], I'm looking around the streets a lot more when I walk.”

Why now?

A question people inside and outside the Jewish community are increasingly asking is: why now? After the Jewish man was punched on Kingston Avenue in January, Behrman tweeted: “What's wrong with Crown Heights that innocents are being beaten in the streets? Is there an atmosphere that is encouraging violence?”

He believes the answer carries an economic dimension. “The prices in Crown Heights have gone up for apartments, rent, food,” says Behrman. “There is tremendous poverty; people can’t afford to live with the rising prices, and there is a story being peddled in the streets that the Jews are the ones doing this and raising the prices.

“If your landlord happens to be Jewish and he disrespects you, and you go and beat an innocent Jew, that is the very definition of anti-Semitism,” he says. “It doesn't make it right just because your landlord may have done something wrong. ... The truth of the matter is that gentrification is about economics, not race, and the Jewish community in Crown Heights has been here since 1940. We are suffering the same way everybody else is suffering.”

Evan Bernstein, the New York regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, says Brooklyn “has had issues of anti-Semitic assaults for some time. Whether it is gentrification or other issues that are leading to these assaults, the Jewish community ... is very concerned.”

In addition to gentrification, Behrman also points a finger at public figures who have either openly expressed anti-Semitic views or have refused to condemn them.

In this file photo taken on February 5, 2019, Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar is seen attending U.S. President Donald Trump's State of the Union address in Washington.Credit: AFP

“Ilhan Omar, the congresswoman, tweeted that the Jews are buying up the government. That’s exactly like saying the Jews are buying up the community,” he charges. “That’s also not true and that’s very frightening.

“Anti-Semitism has become mainstream – from the halls of Congress to the leader of the opposition in Britain,” he adds, referring to Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Katz concurs that the current climate is being fueled by politicians’ failure to speak out against anti-Semitism. “Ten years ago, if a politician said [what Rep. Omar said about pro-Israel lobby AIPAC’s control of Congress], they’d have to resign,” he says.

Since its last annual report, which showed an nearly 60 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents across the United States in 2017, ADL has attributed much of that rise to political rhetoric since the 2016 presidential campaign.

The 2017 neo-Nazi rally at Charlottesville, the Pittsburgh massacre “and elected officials’ statements have brought more attention to anti-Semitism nationally,” says Bernstein. “With that, more of a spotlight has been put on what is taking place in Brooklyn.”

Although Brooklyn-based incidents rarely make it past the local news, anti-Semitism has undoubtedly become big news in the United States since President Donald Trump took office.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio with Shomrim volunteer Motty Katz. New York should be “the example to the entire world of what it means to protect our Jewish community,” De Blasio says.Credit: Courtesy of Motty Katz

“When there was a swastika on a bench in Ocean Parkway half a year before Trump was elected, you couldn't hold a press conference about it,” recounts Rapaport. “If you have a swastika in a park now, you’ll have every New York politician ready to stand in front of the camera.

“It’s good that it’s happening, but this was here before,” he continues. “So does that mean that if you change the president, we’ll stop talking about it?”

Rapaport, who describes himself as part of the “anti-Trump camp,” adds that while the “hate that [Trump] allows around him is terrible,” his administration can’t be held entirely responsible for manifestations of anti-Semitism.

“No one can tell me that it started with [Trump], because I felt it on my own skin,” Rapaport notes.

Condemning is not helping

Some Orthodox Jews say they feel excluded from the debate on anti-Semitism, and that the discussion surrounding it is more connected to politics than to them.

“If someone from any other minority is assaulted like that in the street, it makes national news,” says Mendel. “But when it happens to a Hasidic Jew, it doesn’t really get much further than the local papers and the Jewish papers. It’s as if people think, ‘Well, they look so Jewish they deserve it,’ or something.”

Adds Rapaport: “It’s fair to say that both sides [Republicans and Democrats] are using it a little bit for politics – and that’s the scary part. It loses its authenticity.”

Indeed, Rapaport admits to concerns about how he believes some lawmakers are jumping on every opportunity to condemn anti-Semitism and speak out against it. “Educating people to have less hate doesn’t come from politicians on a podium,” he says. “It’s a hard-to-deal-with problem, because condemning it is not really helping. It keeps it on the news, so to speak.”

In addition to his yeshiva studies, Mendel also volunteers once a week at a program providing religious instruction for Jewish children in New York City public schools.

The morning after he was attacked, his head still hurt and he didn’t feel like going to class. Although he says it would have been easy for him to cancel given the circumstances, he ultimately decided to proceed as usual and attend the class.

“I thought I should do it, and should feel more compelled to do it now than ever before because the youths who did this, they're only a few years younger than me,” he explains. “If they would have been taught good values by someone like myself 10 years ago – good morals in school instead of whatever they were doing – they wouldn't be in this place today.”

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