Earlier today, the New York Police Department arrested a man suspected of vandalizing the Union Temple in Brooklyn by scrawling “Hitler” and “Die Jewish rats” on its wall. The man, James Polite, is also being investigated for allegedly attempting to set several Jewish institutions throughout the city on fire.
Polite, 26, is not a white supremacist. He is African-American, was raised in part by Jewish foster parents, and was sent to Brandeis University with the help of a charity partially funded by The New York Times. He was a Democratic Party activist, a protégé of former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and a one-time City Hall intern who, according to the Times, worked on “initiatives to combat hate crime, sexual assault and domestic violence.”
But Polite’s journey through so many of contemporary liberalism’s most vaunted paths—academia, politics, activism—and the kindness shown him by Jews were apparently not enough to prevent him from contracting the mind-numbing virus of anti-Semitism. A day before he set out to vandalize the synagogue, he took to Facebook and wrote: “Civil war is here. Nobody gotta die. Mexico, latin America, carribean vs. Jew nigger pigs. One person touch me this whole shit a smoking.”
That same day, Polite also posted a photo of himself lighting the American flag on fire. Police suspect—and security footage seems to affirm—that later that night he also set fire to seven shuls and yeshivas in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Coming as it does, on the heels of the deadly attack in Pittsburgh, Polite’s case merits a moment of consideration. After the shooting in the Tree of Life synagogue left 11 dead, some pundits pointed out that President Trump bore some measure of responsibility for the attack, if only for fomenting the sort of chaotic atmosphere that empowered and invigorated the alt-right.
It’s a serious accusation, and one well worth considering carefully and at length (Benjamin Kerstein does an excellent job promoting this very argument here). But in Polite we have an equally terrifying counterargument, one that suggests that in today’s America, no one side has a monopoly on hate and chaos. When the Democratic Party’s leaders, including a former president and a former attorney general, stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Louis Farrakhan on the stage at Aretha Franklin’s funeral, is it any wonder that some are prone to listen when Farrakhan refers to Jews as termites? And listen they do: Earlier this week, a rabbi, Avram Mlotek, was harassed on the subway in Manhattan by a Farrakhan supporter who blamed the Jews for all the violence directed against them everywhere in the world.
And now, we’ve Polite. If the left is honest, it will spend the coming days and weeks asking how someone educated at a fine liberal university, on a *scholarship from a fine liberal newspaper, could graduate from a job with a fine liberal politician—helping curb hate crimes, no less—to trying to intimidate and incinerate Jews.
(*After this article was published the New York Times contacted Tablet to clarify that it had not directly funded Polite’s education through its own scholarship fund. Rather, the paper raised money for a charity that helped subsidize Polite’s college expenses as the following statement provided by the Times explains in greater detail – ed.)
The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund raises money that is distributed by eight charities. One of those charities, Children’s Aid, used money from the fund to cover school supplies for James Polite but it was not a scholarship. (Polite was also not a recipient of The New York Times College Scholarship Program.) See relevant excerpt from The Times article: “In June, Children’s Aid used $856 from the Neediest Cases Fund for school supplies and fees not covered by his financial aid package.”
It’s a question worth lingering on: Polite wasn’t a disgruntled loner with a loose social network and no systems of support. Throughout his troubled life, he received one opportunity after another to rise above his hard beginnings. He enjoyed all aspects of the liberal American dream, from a warm foster family to an all-expenses-paid *scholarship to a fine university to a position working alongside a prominent progressive politician. He ought to have been, as the Times wrote when it reported about his success just a year ago, one to “defy the statistics.” Instead, he tried to burn down the Jews.
Those of us not beholden to blinding partisan commitments are saddened but not surprised. Anti-Semitism is so pernicious precisely because it eats through ideological convictions, afflicting left and right alike. And no matter what you think of the president’s comportment, cases like Polite’s make it impossible to deny that the left has just as much of a Jew-hatred problem on its hand, if not a much bigger one: If the second-most-powerful progressive politician in the city with the largest Jewish population in America couldn’t detect, let alone curb, the arsonist on her staff, the problem is much graver than many might care to admit. Before more troubled maniacs attempt more violence, it’s time for real soul-searching to begin.
This article has been updated with a correction since publication – ed.