‘Most Visible Jews’ Fear Being Targets as Anti-Semitism Rises

Not surprising but no less reprehensible. Likely same phenomenon with respect to the most visible Muslims:

A rabbinical student was walking down a quiet street in Brooklyn last winter, chatting on the phone with his father when three men jumped him from behind. They punched his head, knocking him to the ground before fleeing down the block.

When police officers arrested three suspects later that night, the student, a Hasidic man who asked to be identified by his first name, Mendel, learned that another Hasidic Jew had been attacked on the same block in Crown Heights just minutes before he was. Video of the earlier attack showed three men knocking a man to the ground before kicking and punching him.

The victims in both attacks were “very visibly Jewish,” said Mendel, 23, who has a beard and dresses in the kind of dark suit and hat traditionally worn by Hasidic men. That, he said, made them easier targets.

“You could ask everyone if they’re Jewish,” he continued, “or you could just go after people who you don’t have to ask any questions about because you can just see that they dress like they’re Jewish.”

Anxiety is increasing in Jewish communities around the United States, fueled in part by deadly attacks on synagogues in Poway, Calif., last April and in Pittsburgh in 2018. Anti-Semitic violence in the New York area has been more frequent lately than at any time in recent memory, with three people killed in a shooting at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, N.J., and five injured in a knife attack at a rabbi’s home in Monsey, N.Y.

But the rise of anti-Semitism has affected different parts of the Jewish community differently. Although synagogues of all denominations have been subjected to threats or vandalism, community leaders say the risk of street violence is greater for Orthodox Jews who wear religious clothing like yarmulkes; black suits and hats; and wigs or other hair coverings in their daily lives.

“We know there are over one million Jews in New York City alone, and a couple hundred thousand of those are Orthodox,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, using a term that encompasses Modern Orthodox as well as Hasidic Jews. “They are being singled out in disproportionate numbers to their percentage of the population.”

Jewish people were the victims in more than half of the 428 hate crimes in New York City last year, with many of the crimes committed in heavily Orthodox neighborhoods, according to the Police Department. Community leaders said most of the victims in the Monsey and Jersey City attacks were Orthodox.

The tempo of such incidents increased as 2019 ended and the new year began, with 43 across New York State from Dec. 1 to Jan. 6, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

No organization tracks the number of attacks on Orthodox Jews, said Jennifer Packer, a spokeswoman for the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center. But Jewish leaders said the heightened risk to the Orthodox was clear in the pattern of incidents.

Nathan J. Diament, the executive director for public policy at the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, said in testimony to Congress last month that “the most visible Jews,” including those who wear hats, yarmulkes, wigs or wear long beards or sidelocks, “have been subject most to these physical and verbal assaults.”

“Anxiety about this new reality is present in Orthodox Jewish communities in all of your districts and across the entire country,” Mr. Diament testified.

Many of the incidents in New York have happened in sections of Brooklyn that have been popular with generations of Hasidic families, like Crown Heights and Williamsburg. Jewish pedestrians in the neighborhoods have been assaulted or harassed, women have had hair coverings ripped from their heads and synagogues have been vandalized.

Community leaders said that the violence reminded them of anti-Semitic acts in Europe, where in recent years Jews have been attacked by followers of the far right in Germany and killed by jihadists at places like the Jewish museum in Belgium.

“We thought the things that happen in Europe would never happen in the United States and definitely not in New York City,” said Rabbi David Niederman, the president of United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn. One of those killed in Jersey City, Moshe Deutsch, volunteered for his organization. “But unfortunately, we were in dreamland.”

Most of the anti-Semitic incidents in New York have not been perpetrated by jihadists or far-right extremists, but by young African-American men, Mr. Greenblatt said. Local leaders said that phenomenon grows out of tension in areas where longstanding African-American and Jewish communities have been squeezed by gentrification.

“You have this mixture of African-Americans and Hasidic people, and then you have gentrification,” said Gil Monrose, an African-American pastor at Mt. Zion Church of God 7th Day who lives in Crown Heights. “All of this is colliding in Crown Heights and it leads to young people committing crimes where they live.”

“Sometimes people want to blame different groups for the fact that they are being priced out of the neighborhood, but the Jewish community is not to blame for that because the Jewish community is being priced out too,” he said. “That’s why they went to Jersey City.”

In November, the Anti-Defamation League expanded an anti-bias education program it started in Brooklyn in 2018 with a goal of bringing it to 40 schools. Eric L. Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, praised the program when the expansion was announced.

“Since extremist, hate-filled rhetoric has become awakened and stoked across this country — particularly in Crown Heights right here in Brooklyn — this unacceptable behavior is increasingly becoming the norm for some,” Mr. Adams said in a statement.

The rise in anti-Semitic attacks has been not limited to Brooklyn.

Jeff Katz, the treasurer of the Stanton Street Shul, a small Orthodox synagogue on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, said that he was riding the subway one day last fall when another passenger erupted at him.

“He was saying, ‘Why aren’t you looking at me?’” said Mr. Katz, who wears a yarmulke. “And I thought, ‘We’re on the subway, I don’t want any part of this. Then he started saying, ‘What? Do you think you’re superior, Jew boy?’”

Mr. Katz said that a friend who also wears a yarmulke had been slapped by a stranger as he was walking on Delancey Street in Manhattan a few weeks later, during Hanukkah.

“A lot of these incidents don’t get reported,” Mr. Katz said. “I’m going to call the police and say someone bothered me in the subway? What are the police going to do?”

That sentiment is common, Rabbi Niederman said. But his organization urges victims of bias crimes to file police reports as soon as possible.

“The first thing we tell people when there is an incident is don’t hide it under the rug,” he said.

Attorney General William P. Barr came to Brooklyn last month to announce federal hate-crime charges against a woman whose case has helped stoke criticism of recent bail reform laws.

The woman, Tiffany Harris, was arrested on suspicion of slapping three Orthodox women in Crown Heights in December. After being released without bail, she was arrested the next day in connection with another assault.

Mendel, who studies at the World Headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, said that almost everyone in Crown Heights seemed to know someone who had been harassed or attacked on the street. But he said few of those incidents were reported.

He praised the response of the Police Department, which arrested the three suspects quickly in his case last January. But he expressed frustration at the comparatively slower pace of the district attorney’s office. The suspects have yet to go to trial, according to court records.

Crown Heights has been a center of Hasidic life in New York since the 1920s, and Mendel and others in the area said that it remained so despite gentrification and the increasing prevalence of anti-Semitic incidents.

“People are concerned,” Mendel said during an interview at a bagel shop crowded with Hasidic families at midday. “I do look around when I go out, I don’t go out too late at night. But it is a beautiful community. I don’t think this anti-Semitism should mar or put a stain on the beautiful community that Crown Heights is.”

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: