The attack that sent 31-year-old Yossi Hershkop to the hospital was an unmysterious crime, the opposite of a stone-cold whodunnit. Security cameras recorded clear video of a group of four men approaching Hershkop’s car, with two of them repeatedly punching him through the driver’s side window while his 5-year-old child sat in the back seat. Another camera recorded the license plate and model of the attackers’ getaway vehicle. The assault took place around 3:40 p.m. on July 13, 2022, on a busy street in Crown Heights. Hershkop believes his assailants were identified later that evening.
In an ideal world, a victim’s personal background would be irrelevant to whether their attackers are arrested and prosecuted. But at least in theory, Hershkop is someone with enough of a profile to keep the police and prosecutors focused on his case. The young Chabad Hasid is an energetic yet shrewdly understated local political activist—the kind of person who knows the total number of newly registered voters in Crown Heights off the top of his head, or who you might WhatsApp when you need to reach a particular City Council member later that afternoon. He also manages a large urgent care center in Crown Heights, a position of real civic significance during New York’s COVID nightmare. Hershkop is also a personal friend of mine, although even people I am not friends with should expect the police to move quickly when they’re able to easily identify the people who bloodied them on camera in broad daylight in front of their child.
The police did not move quickly. No arrests were made during the two weeks after the attack, a span in which the getaway car got ticketed in a totally unrelated incident, Hershkop says. On July 27, an exasperated Hershkop tweeted: “No arrests have been made, despite the assailants’ vehicle having been seen all over the neighborhood. My son still has a lot of trauma from the incident & we now Uber instead of walk whenever we need to go out.” Perhaps not coincidentally, the first arrest in the case was made the day after that tweet, some two weeks after the attack. The first suspect was released on bail after the judge ordered a bond of $10,000, significantly less than the district attorney had requested, according to Hershkop. Hershkop is confident that after a long period of delay, the NYPD is now making efforts toward arresting the second individual who physically attacked him.
“This was a perfect opportunity for them to do the right thing,” Hershkop told me. “Nobody was saying this isn’t a big deal and we shouldn’t make an arrest. Everybody was on the same page here.” As he explained, “it was an assault on a 5-year-old caught on camera. I didn’t think I’d have to fight for justice.”
Perhaps the attack, which stemmed from a seemingly innocuous dispute over a parking space—a common enough occurrence in a densely populated place like Crown Heights, and one that almost never ends with anyone in the hospital—was just too fraught of an event for the police to want to handle too aggressively. Maybe someone feared that drawing additional attention to a group of young Black men attacking a prominent Orthodox Jew would threaten to inflame tensions in a neighborhood with a long but mostly improving (and generally misunderstood) history of racial division.
Maybe, but maybe not: Overload in the New York court system, increasingly lenient prosecutors and judges, and a police department in which officers are quitting at a growing clip, all make it easier for even open-and-shut cases to languish, and for people at every level of the system to find excuses not to resolve them.
The dysfunctional handling of public order takes different forms across the city, and across the country: Philadelphia is experiencing record murder rates; San Francisco experimented with decriminalizing certain forms of property crime, at least until its pro-reform district attorney lost a recent recall election. As with various other recent American traumas, the ambient disorder has its own distinct characteristics as far as Jews are concerned. In a study released this past July, the New York-based group Americans Against Antisemitism found that of the 118 adults arrested for anti-Jewish hate crimes in New York City since 2018, only one has been convicted and sent to prison.
Earlier this month, an Orthodox Jew from Baltimore named Aryeh Wolf was gunned down in broad daylight as he attached solar panels to the roof of a building in a gentrifying neighborhood in southeast Washington, D.C. As with Hershkop’s attack, Wolf’s murder was a motiveless crime in which the motive was obvious. To the killer, Wolf and the trendy new technology he was installing might have represented the growing penetration of outsiders, further distilled by Wolf being the ultimate of outsiders: the proud religious Jew. So far, no one has been arrested. The Washington police still consider the motive in the crime to be unknown.
In New York, street harassment, minor assaults, and even full-on beatings of visible Jews are almost a banality now, too frequent over too long of a period to be considered an active crisis, even in the communities most affected. The city reported a 76% year-over-year rise in hate crimes during the first three months of 2022—attacks on Jews more than tripled, accounting for much of the spike. When reached for comment by email, the NYPD’s public information office stated that the Hate Crimes Task Force has made 44 arrests related to attacks on Jews so far in 2022 compared to 33 in all of 2021.
The report from Americans Against Antisemitism only dealt with incidents in which the NYPD found enough evidence of a bigoted motive to refer the case to the department’s Hate Crimes Task Force. Not every potential bias-related attack on Jews reaches that threshold, though. In Hershkop’s case, the assailants used no antisemitic language and had no connection to any extremist networks. The question of whether the attackers would have responded with similar brutality to a parking dispute involving a member of any other ethnic or religious group is considered too hypothetical for the New York criminal justice system to handle. The NYPD’s Hate Crimes Task Force was not involved in investigating the attack on him, Hershkop told me.
Israel Bitton, executive director of Americans Against Antisemitism and one of the co-authors of the report, said the study aimed “to answer a simple question: Are there consequences for anti-Jewish hate crimes?” The document gives a clear answer: “In the majority of trackable cases, prosecution has been effectively nonexistent.” Some unknowable number of the 118 anti-Jewish hate crime suspects whose cases showed up in the state’s WebCrims database since 2018 were sent to state psychiatric institutions for an unknown period of time, instead of being criminally charged, Bitton explained. Fifteen took plea deals, although the study found no evidence that any of these agreements involved jail time. In 23 cases, the charges were dropped. The only conviction was for a relatively high-profile incident, in which the suspect choked and beat a visibly Jewish man in his mid-50s while he walked home from Shabbat day services in Crown Heights.
Devorah Halberstam, a veteran anti-hate crime activist based in Crown Heights, co-founded a civilian review board that advises the NYPD on how to proceed with incidents that could be classified as hate crimes. The group has been meeting each month for the past year. She stressed that any failure to punish such attacks isn’t a problem limited to Jewish victims. In a widely publicized case this past January, a 62-year-old Asian woman was attacked outside of her home in Queens. She fell into a coma and died 10 weeks later. Halberstam said the killing was not prosecuted as a hate crime, even though it seemed to have no other motive besides hatred of Asians. “It’s not against the Jewish community. It’s not against the Asian community,” Halberstam said of the rarity with which hate crimes charges are pursued. “It’s the broader picture.” Halberstam blames the sparse number of guilty verdicts on the vagueness of New York’s hate crimes statute, leading prosecutors to drop hate crime charges in order to pursue lesser allegations that can be more easily proven in court. “If you make the guidelines stricter, they don’t have as much leeway to get out of it,” Halberstam said.
A backlog in the criminal courts further gridlocks the system. In early 2022, the state had over 47,000 open criminal cases, an increase of 15% compared to the start of the COVID pandemic in 2020. Americans Against Antisemitism found that there were nine anti-Jewish hate crime prosecutions in the city that had been pending for two years or more.
The Americans Against Antisemitism analysis only refers to incidents that generated police reports and entered the criminal justice system. Some unknowable number of attacks on Jews occur beyond any official awareness. “Most hate crimes are not even reported in the first place,” says Dov Hikind, founder of Americans Against Antisemitism, and a former power broker in the New York State Assembly.
Hershkop agrees. “Eighty percent never even got to the point of making a police report,” he speculated, referring to Jewish victims of bias incidents. “That’s how we’re artificially hiding hate crimes. People are so burnt out and so not believing in the system that they don’t even make a police report.”
Even the Jews who do report what are obviously identity-motivated crimes against them can be treated with a revealing indifference. In June, 26-year-old Yizchak Goldstein was sucker-punched on East 33rd Street near Park Avenue at around 1 p.m. Goldstein, who was visiting from Miami, was wearing a kippah, unlike his nearby cousin. The attacker didn’t run off. “He squared off to fight,” Goldstein said. “He wasn’t afraid of the cops—he literally joked to me, call 911 … he was so confident.” When Goldstein did call the police, he discovered that the assailant, who had disappeared down the crowded street at a walking pace, was right not to be worried. The officers told Goldstein that they could not treat the assault as a hate crime because the attacker didn’t say anything antisemitic to him.
That wasn’t all. “They said that even if we catch this guy he’ll be out in a few hours and that this happens every single day,” Goldstein recalled. But at least the police arrived quickly, he said, “and were honest and upfront with me.” Goldstein said the NYPD’s Hate Crimes Task Force never contacted him, and that he only heard from the department one other time, when an officer wanted to confirm the location of the attack about a month later. No suspect was ever arrested.
When asked about these statements and for an update on the case, the department’s public information office replied to Tablet by email: “There are no arrests and the investigation remains ongoing.”
Whether it’s because of a lack of confidence in the authorities, fear about the consequences of coming forward, or a somewhat fatalistic view of the inevitability of antisemitism, some number of the city’s Jews believe that crimes against them aren’t worth reporting. The Jewish community is not unique in this respect, either. A range of different types of crime, from hate crimes against Asians to sexual assaults on the subway to bodega robberies are believed to be dramatically undercounted. One popular explanation for the supposed disconnect between the 75% of New Yorkers who say they are concerned about violent crime and the official crime rate, which has risen only slightly, is that the city is in a state of undue panic, with a fearmongering media and cynical public officials driving a false perception of declining public order. Another, perhaps more plausible explanation for this discrepancy is that the official crime rate itself is an undercount, and that ordinary poll respondents have either seen or experienced crimes more frequently than the official numbers reflect.
The growing sense of chaos, of which the failure to punish antisemitic attacks is a possible symptom, exposes a tension within the current governing project in New York and beyond. Criminal justice reform is aimed at correcting real and longstanding inequities; at the same time, rising crime denies large numbers of law-abiding citizens, most of them women or members of minority groups, of their basic right to safety. In the case of hate crimes, which are one of the most extreme ways that human beings can express their bigotry, newfound sensitivity toward the accused, however justified, clashes with a societywide crusade against bias and racism.
When irreconcilable visions of equity are in conflict—when it’s a stark choice between punishing a criminal and protecting a targeted group, for instance—a bizarre inertia prevails. Homeless encampments will be made permanent with the help of well-meaning aid groups and public service agencies, as in Los Angeles and San Francisco; public drug use will be turned into a supposedly manageable feature of city life even as living conditions plummet, as in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood. Focusing all of society’s attention on the scourge of bigotry, only to refrain from prosecuting a spiking number of hate crimes, is the inevitable default position when no one tries to reconcile the gaps between people’s everyday needs and ascendent notions of fairness. When nearly everyone’s apparent goal is to create as little friction as possible, and to avoid pushing too hard against the gaping contradictions in how our cities are now governed, the result is situations like Yossi Hershkop’s—and maybe Aryeh Wolf’s, too.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.