Here’s yet another incident involving violence against Jews on U.S. soil that seems to have been waged with the least ambiguous of motivations. In December of 2017, Alen Califano allegedly entered a Jewish nursing home in the Bronx and proceeded to “terroriz[e] residents,” punctuating his ramage by “repeatedly bashing an 84-year-old man on the head with a fire extinguisher while shouting, ‘I’m going to kill you, you mother f—ng Jew!,’” according to the New York Post. You’d think Califano had gone out of his way to make the reasoning for his alleged attack as clear as possible, but you are not Judge Nicholas Iocavetta. Per the Post, “Iacovetta said he wants Califano, who has alcohol and substance abuse problems, to go to an inpatient rehabilitation facility instead of serving jail time. “Mr. Califano meets the diagnostic criteria … and treatment is appropriate,” Iacovetta said, adding, “An institutional incarceration in a correctional facility is not necessary at this time.” At trial, Califano would face up to 25 years in prison.
Surely some happy medium exists between a maximal prison sentence and none at all for an alleged violent anti-Semite but the judge in the case is recommending a scandalous degree of leniency in the event a plea deal can be reached. If Califano avoids prison, straightforward, violent anti-Semitism would be recast as an unfortunate but narrowly clinical symptom of mental illness or addiction, a determination which—aside from being insulting to addicts and the mentally ill—sucks any moral agency, or even moral content, from Califano’s actions.
In the era of Donald Trump’s presidency, and particularly after the massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in late October, Americans are supposed to be more sharply attuned to anti-Semitism and other resurgent bigotries, which represent a threat to both individual lives and the broader social fabric. Yet, even in heavily liberal and disproportionately Jewish New York, it’s far from apparent that anti-Semitism is actually being treated that way. There have been several recent attacks on Haredi Jews in Brooklyn which have gone generally ignored; those came just on the heels of an anti-Jewish arson spree that turned out to have been the responsibility of a former intern for the Democratic speaker of the New York City Council. In that perpetrator’s case, mental illness and addiction were again touted as explanations for actions that targeted only Jews and were committed by an individual with a long public record of making conspiratorial anti-Semitic statements.
Anti-Semitism is supposedly more present and more dangerous than every—yet it’s also always at a convenient and reassuring distance.