The incidents now pass without much notice, a steady, familiar drumbeat of violence and hate targeting visibly Jewish people in New York City.
Early on the morning of June 15, a Saturday, two men in a white Infiniti drove around Borough Park, a vast, traditional Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in central Brooklyn. Surveillance footage posted on the local website BoroPark24 showed a man jumping out of the car’s passenger side as someone in a shtreimel and long black jacket walked down the sidewalk in their direction. As the car idled, the passenger approached the Jewish stranger, lunged at him in a linebacker-like stutter-step, and then darted to the waiting vehicle, which promptly sped away. Levi Yitzhak Leifer, head of the Borough Park Shmira neighborhood patrol, said there were at least six and as many as nine reported incidents that night involving the same vehicle. Beresch Freilich, a rabbi who serves as a community liaison with the NYPD in Borough Park, said that some of the targeted individuals sensed a violent intent: “The car passed by going back and forth, and they felt it was trying to run them over.”
On a Saturday night in mid-January, Steven, a student and member of the Chabad Hasidic movement in his late teens, was returning to his apartment on Empire Avenue after a trip to the gym. (Nearly all victims interviewed for this piece asked to be identified by first name only, due to their involvement in ongoing legal cases). Steven saw what he described as a “rowdy group” of between six and eight “older teens” gathered on the sidewalk on a poorly lit stretch between Schenectady and Troy avenues. One of the teens sucker punched Steven in the back of the head as he walked past. “At first I honestly thought a car ran into me—it was such a blow.” Steven was then struck in his right cheek and fell to the sidewalk. He realized he was outnumbered but some irrational part of him couldn’t accept the insult.
“I charged towards them like in a frenzy, with blood on my hands and my face, and I started trying to give him a thing or two,” he remembered of his run toward his main attacker. They exchanged a few blows before the entire group fled. The teens made no attempt to rob Steven, and there was no clear motive for the assault. In retrospect, given the force of the first strike against a vulnerable spot on his head, Steven thinks the attack could have gone much worse for him. “I was very, very lucky,” he said.
Steven’s attackers can be seen on surveillance footage entering and leaving the area in which the ambush took place, although the attack itself was not recorded, making the case difficult to pursue as either a hate crime or an assault. Steven said he talked to the NYPD’s hate crimes unit, which is called in at the discretion of a precinct’s commanding officer or a borough’s on-duty executive officer when a crime has a suspected hate motive, but that no elected officials reached out to him. It had been months since he had heard from law enforcement about the case.
The attack had made Steven anxious and moody in the months after, but one of his grandfathers was a Talmudic master who had spent seven years in Stalin’s gulag after World War II and only escaped the Soviet Union in the 1970s. “Me getting punched in the face—I think of it almost comically,” Steven said. “It’s a part of being Jewish.”
On May 1, at the corner of Carroll and Albany in Crown Heights, a property manager named Jack Blachman heard a woman screaming and saw two Jewish girls, whose ages he estimated at 14 or 15, running down the sidewalk. Behind them was a “big, tall dude” who Blachman described as “very agitated” and later identified as Hispanic—apparently the girls had not moved out of his way. “I asked him what was going on and he started screaming at me, accosted me, yelled, ‘you Jews, you’ve created this cult,’” said Blachman. “Then he spit in my face.” Blachman recorded the incident—including the spit—and the video eventually ended up on Twitter. There is generally great viral potential in footage that appears to capture acts of bias, yet Blachman’s video currently sits at a mere 479 retweets.
Chayyim, a Satmar Hasid, was struck as he was walking home from synagogue in south Williamsburg with his 11-year-old son on a Shabbat night in late November of last year. “It was a very good punch to the back of my head,” he recalled, a blow that sent his shtreimel and yarmulke tumbling to the sidewalk. “It threw me off balance—it took me even a couple seconds to get my vision back. He hit me pretty hard. It felt like initially it might have been a glass bottle falling from the top of a building or something like that.” The street had been “pretty empty,” and the punch had no obvious motive.
Chayyim ran after his attacker and was able to get a close view of him, quick thinking that helped the police identify and apprehend the assailant a few days later. The suspect turned out to be a Hispanic man in his early 30s who had recently been arrested for lashing out at paramedics treating him after an apparent overdose on K2, the dangerous synthetic marijuana alternative sold throughout Williamsburg and Bushwick. The attacker was charged with assault, but the punch was so inexplicable that a hate motive could not be proven.
Like Chayyim, Yehuda, a Satmar Hasid living in Williamsburg, did not try to draw attention to an attack against him in the neighborhood in early May, when a teenager punched him in broad daylight. “He was silent, he didn’t say anything before and after. I cannot say what his motive was,” Yehuda said. He explained there is a sense of fellow-feeling between Williamsburg’s Jews and their neighbors that one shouldn’t lose sight of. He recalled that the day before our conversation, in early July, he observed a young African American man attempting to hop a subway turnstile. A Hasid approached the barrier and helpfully swiped the man into the subway system.
The increase in the number of physical assaults against Orthodox Jews in New York City is a matter of empirical fact. Anti-Semitic hate crimes against persons, which describes nearly everything involving physical contact, jumped from 17 in 2017 to 33 in 2018, with the number for the first half of 2019 standing at 19, according to the NYPD’s hate crime unit. Jews are the most frequent targets of hate crimes in New York City, and have been for some time (although this number is somewhat skewed by the fact that swastikas, which are by far the city’s most common hate incident, are automatically categorized as an anti-Jewish hate crime).
And yet, many believe the attacks are even more widespread than has been reported. “Since I was a victim, I’ve heard from other people,” Yehuda told Tablet. “I know of four stories where they didn’t report it.”
David Neiderman, a rabbi and the longtime executive director of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, says he thinks instances of anti-Semitism in his community escape official attention, since reporting is often time-consuming or interferes with religious observance. “It’s very difficult to get someone to complain. … I know it’s underreported.”
Indeed, these seemingly random incidents—just the first few days of May saw an unprovoked attack in Lefferts Park in which a woman tried to pull off her victim’s sheitel, two violent assaults on Hasidic men in Williamsburg, and a possible attempted vehicular attack in the same neighborhood—is part of a typhoon of violence that in other contexts might call for a Justice Department Civil Rights Division investigation. The fact that the victims are most often outwardly identifiable, i.e., religious rather than secularized Jews, and the perpetrators who have been recorded on CCTV cameras are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, inverts the perpetrator-victim dynamics with which most national Jewish organizations and their supporters are comfortable. A close look at these cases reveals no apparent connection to neo-Nazis, the alt-right, Donald Trump, jihadism, the BDS movement, or any other traditional cause of anti-Jewish behavior.
The latest wave shows some marked differences with past manifestations of anti-Semitism in the city, primarily in that no one can figure out precisely what’s causing it. “If we could figure out why it was happening, it would be easier to curb it,” said Mark Molinari, the inspector in charge of the NYPD’s hate crimes unit. “It’s gratuitous violence,” said David Pollack, a rabbi and director of public policy and security for New York’s Jewish Community Relations Council. “That’s what distinguishes this from anything else we’ve had in the past: People are physically attacking identifiably Orthodox Jews for no apparent reason.”
Past spikes were seemingly less nebulous in origin. About five years ago, the so-called “knockout game”—a trend of teenagers committing or filming public sneak attacks—resulted in approximately 19 assaults on Jews in the city, according to Evan Bernstein, the New York and New Jersey regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. “The knockout game was definitely a real thing,” Molinari said, though he noted that the fact the attacks were apparently motivated by a quest for social media fame usually undermined the chances of pursuing hate crimes charges, including when visible Jews were the target. The difficulty was due to a 2000 New York state law stipulating that hate crimes must be “motivated in substantial part or wholly by the identity of the person”—a difficult standard to establish in seemingly random, chaotic acts of violence carried out by young people. There have been past outbreaks of anti-Semitic incidents linked to interethnic hostility, most notably during the 1991 Crown Heights riots. But just about everyone agrees that the relationship between black and Jewish Brooklynites has greatly improved since then. “Black leaders have been very outspoken in condemning these kinds of acts,” said Eli Cohen, the executive director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, perhaps hopefully. “This is not a community against a community.”
This latest wave has no evident organizing principle behind it aside from pure hostility against targets that are unmistakably Jewish. In March, a 32-year-old man kicked a double stroller in Crown Heights and was charged with child endangerment. In late 2018, a 26-year-old man who turned out to be a former intern for then City Council Speaker Christie Quinn set fires at a remarkably pluralistic range of Jewish institutions in Brooklyn. In another odd and widely publicized incident, someone smashed the glass storefront of a crowded Chabad house, the only shul in the non-Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, at around 1:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning in February and then escaped with the help of a driver waiting around the corner. “We don’t see patterns of perpetrators committing crimes,” says Molinari. “For the most part, 360 crimes are being done by 360 very diverse people, … there’s no connective tissue between any of these perpetrators.” Not a single incident during the spike has been traced to a white supremacist group or any other organized entity.
As Molinari explained, the perpetrators of anti-Jewish hate crimes (which include crimes against property, like swastika vandalism) range from the age of 12 to 65, with suspects in their 30s and 40s being somewhat more prevalent. A stronger commonality among alleged offenders is that almost none of them has a prior record of hate.
Everyone has a different explanation for the increase. “Society is in terrible shape … so you attack people different from you,” Neiderman hypothesized. Several others in the Satmar community attributed the incidents to mental illness or standard-issue juvenile delinquency. “Some kids when they’re in a wild mood, the first target is going to be a Jew. Is that anti-Semitism? I don’t know,” a businessman active in the Williamsburg Jewish community told me. “A Jew is a very good target. A Hasid doesn’t hit back and doesn’t run.”
This penchant for caution in the face of violence throws into relief another, even starker difference between these latest attacks and those of recent eras in New York history: In the past, the administrations of the city-home to the largest Jewish community outside of Israel-took them seriously.
The incidents targeting Williamsburg Jews are no less alarming than the ones that have cropped up in Crown Heights, but the community can be averse to overly public demonstrations of its political might: “We are not Dov Hikind,” one Williamsburg Satmar told me, referring to the notoriously outspoken former state assemblyman. On matters of intercommunal relations, the Satmars are notably discrete. “People here are very in their own thing—religious politics, getting married, making money. They’re not as much into interfaith or outreach or these fancy words,” one Satmar educator told me. Still, a sharp watcher of Brooklyn real estate might have noticed the March announcement of a plan for United Jewish Organizations and a number of Hispanic-led neighborhood groups to jointly develop new affordable housing in the Broadway Triangle area, the result of extensive—and discrete—negotiations between Hispanic and Jewish leaders in the area.
While there are practical reasons for a strict yet highly cohesive religious community to keep matters out of public view, there might be philosophical factors at play as well: “A Satmar Hasid is taught to feel like they’re in galus [exile], and that they have to suffer,” one explained to me. This doesn’t translate into total quietism. The Williamsburg Shomrim has over 100 volunteers, and the popularity of WhatsApp in the community means that incidents are shared and reported with greater frequency. And as one member of the community pointed out, the Satmar rebbes never wanted their followers to be unsafe.
Attitudes toward the rise in violent anti-Semitic attacks are somewhat different further south, in Crown Heights and Borough Park. Menachem Moskowitz, a 52-year-old who was nearly strangled to death when a man attacked him outside of his synagogue in Crown Heights on a Shabbat afternoon in early 2018, screaming that the Jews stole his house, speculated that his community was being blamed for the Trump presidency. (“When I was in the headlock I started to say Shema Yisrael,” Moskowitz recalls. “I thought that was it.”) Others suggested that demonization of Israel has created a more hateful and permissive atmosphere—the irony being that the Satmar community in Williamsburg has a complex and generally negative relationship with Zionism, rejecting the legitimacy of the idea of Israel as a “Jewish state.”
One popular explanation both within and beyond the affected communities is that Jews are being blamed for gentrification. “The Hasidic neighborhoods have always been transitional,” Pollack rightly notes—Williamsburg and Crown Heights are two of Brooklyn’s loci of change, and they’ve become more appealing and expensive places to live over the past 20 years.
Jewish communal media have taken the gentrification answer seriously, and it is true that social dislocation of the kind being experienced throughout Brooklyn, and particularly in and around the borough’s Hasidic neighborhoods, can be a driver of toxic attitudes toward an easily scapegoated other. But if rising housing prices really are causing the anti-Semitism surge, then it means New York’s harassers and attackers are little different from Jew-haters of centuries past, who have always blamed their Jewish neighbors for whatever the current evils happen to be—whether it’s bubonic plague or the arrival of wealthy newcomers. Nor is there a public record showing dozens of random attacks against gentrifying white hipsters in the same neighborhoods.
Another superficially compelling explanation has to do with trends in how the city government approaches crime. Under the direction of New York’s current mayor, Bill de Blasio, the NYPD has generally stopped making arrests on a range of small-time crimes, including minor trespassing and the public smoking of marijuana, since these are seldom if ever prosecuted anymore. “Respect for authority has gone away so people revert to activities they’d be afraid to do a couple of years ago,” Cohen speculated.
Could an ambient sense of disorder be creating a space for anti-Semitic attacks that previously didn’t exist? In Crown Heights, the Shomrim has observed an increase in incidents involving mentally disturbed individuals acting erratically in public, perhaps suggesting that such people are not being arrested with as much frequency—indeed, many of the attackers, including Moskowitz’s assailant, who had been arrested some 40 times, seem to have been mentally unbalanced. But this explanation isn’t convincing either. Crime is at record lows across the entire city, and even if there has been some limited nonenforcement around a small handful of nuisance crimes, it doesn’t explain why any newfound freedom has come at the expense of a single ethnoreligious group.
Since the advent of statistically driven crime tracking in the early ’90s, homicides and vehicular theft have each plunged about 90% in the city. In contrast, the number of hate crimes have remained steady, oscillating between the high-200s and low-400s annually regardless of the general crime rate. “I just think it doesn’t follow the lines of regular criminality,” says Molinari. In the chaotic early ’90s, “a lot of the crime was fueled by the crack wars and drug wars and things like that and the NYPD did an excellent job of getting rid of it. But you’re not gonna get rid of hatred. You’re not gonna get rid of somebody’s dislike of other people.”
Another explanation for the spike is that there is no spike: Orthodox Jews have always been attacked and harassed in New York. The perception of a rise in anti-Semitism may therefore be a function of heightened vigilance and reporting, social media, and omnipresent security cameras in Jewish neighborhoods. These arguments echo a semimystical, Satmar-like outlook on the Jewish condition. As one member of the Williamsburg community put it, “in exile, you suffer”—a principle that holds even in New York, site of probably the safest and happiest exile in Jewish history.
Indeed, it is a fact that Orthodox Jews in New York have always faced a level of harassment and physical danger largely unacknowledged by both their fellow New Yorkers and many of their fellow Jews. The past year might not even be the most severe increase in anti-Semitic violence of this decade. As the ADL’s Bernstein explained, the latest climb still lags behind the number of violent incidents against Jewish targets that occurred during the brief period of the knockout game.
Barry Sugar, a community activist in Crown Heights who says he has documented scores of anti-Semitic incidents in the neighborhood over the last 15 years, believes it is a mistake to interpret recent events as something new, rather than a continuation of a long-term problem. “This is not just the past two years,” he told me. “This has been developing over the past 10 years.”
There was a string of paintball attacks in Williamsburg in 2015, including against a 62-year-old man walking along the communal artery of Lee Avenue; a 35-year-old teacher was brutally beaten outside of a Satmar school later that year. Elsewhere in the neighborhood, which is home to what is perhaps the country’s poorest Jewish community, 13 mezuzot were burned in public housing in April of 2013. (There are roughly 600 Satmar families currently in public housing in and around Williamsburg according to a knowledgeable community source). The Times reported that Crown Heights “simmered with tension” after violent incidents between Jews and African Americans in the spring of 2008, although this occurred approximately an eternity ago. A much more recent attempted stabbing spree at 770 Eastern Parkway, in 2014, is now scarcely remembered; the spiritual center of the Chabad movement currently has a 24-hour NYPD command post stationed outside, a legacy of the 2008 jihadist attack on the Chabad house in Mumbai. “Why isn’t that a story that a synagogue in New York has to have a permanent command center in front of it?,” wonders Menachem Heller, the rabbi at Chabad of Bushwick.
Heller, who often walks the two or so miles between his home in Crown Heights and the Bushwick Chabad, had experienced anti-Semitic harassment on numerous occasions before the attack on his shul. “I always get a comment,” he said of any time he does the walk between neighborhoods at night—once, a group of young children screamed “Hitler! Hitler!” at him while a number of adults looked on.
Like others I interviewed who had seen, witnessed, or in some way responded to anti-Semitic incidents, Heller speaks fondly of his highly diverse home, and emphasized the general social harmony that makes life in Brooklyn so appealing to Jews, as well as to seemingly everyone else in the world.
But the attack, which took place when his entire family of six and a few lingering Shabbat-goers were still inside the storefront synagogue, and which the rabbi recalled as a “deafening explosion,” raised even more sinister possibilities. What was the difference between a broken storefront and a synagogue massacre—how distant are they really, and how might they be related to one another, he began to wonder?
“Worse things happen—the window’s broken, we got away easy,” Heller said, recalling his thought process in the days after the attack. “But I learned a lesson, that you cannot look away from small things.”
There is scant evidence that the de Blasio administration or local politicians have made stopping physical attacks on Jews in New York City a priority. After Menachem Moskowitz’s beating, the first call after the end of Shabbat came from Barry Sugar, who Moskowitz says was the only one who offered guidance as to how to push for a hate crimes prosecution. “Not one politician came to me to find out what happened or comforted me,” says Moskowitz. “I didn’t get a call from anybody.”
“You need to tackle these issues head on and be proactive,” City Councilman Chaim Deutsch said of de Blasio’s response to the spike. “He has not shown leadership when it comes to tackling hate crimes.”
One reason for this wan response may be the lack of a coherent, unified position by New York’s Jewish communities-which was what, in other eras, forced local administration’s to address such problems. But these days the Jewish communal facade is beset by a slew of cracks: a fear of encouraging copycat attacks, a rejection of an ethos of victimhood, disagreement about the scope and nature of the problem, fears about antagonizing surrounding minority communities; and, in Williamsburg, greater concern over what locals feel are comparatively more important issues, like maintaining access to government social programs and protecting the curricula of publicly subsidized religious schools from state oversight. For many of the non-orthodox organizations in the city, attacks against traditional Jews in Crown Heights and Williamsburg are perhaps too distant from their usual range of issues to warrant any major political agitation.
Still, the city’s response has been shockingly aimless. In late 2018, Deutsch and Council Speaker Corey Johnson began pushing for the creation of an office of hate crime prevention, which de Blasio announced this spring. In June, the mayor said he would move up the anticipated launch date from November to an unspecified point later in the summer. An announcement on June 4 said that the office, which would be embedded in the mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, would take “a holistic approach to preventing hate crimes, developing and coordinating community-driven prevention strategies to address biases fueling crimes, and fostering reconciliation and healing for victims” and would also “support NYPD training.”
When asked if the office would have any fact-finding mandate, Colby Hamilton, the chief of public affairs for the mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, responded, “As the City Council law requires and as the Office plans, we will issue annual public reports on the activities of the office, including regarding prevalence of hate crimes and availability of services to address the impact of the crimes.” Elsewhere Hamilton explained that the office would help develop “diversion programs and other strategies so that the NYPD, district attorneys’ offices, defenders and judges have options beyond arrest and prosecution to deal with hate crime perpetrators.”
One Jewish community activist who met with the mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice said that at the time of the meeting in mid-June there was no director, no dedicated staff, and nothing to show of the office outside of fairly preliminary efforts. As of early July, it was still unclear exactly what this entity will actually do, and there was no official launch date.
Deutsch refrained from speculating about the reasons for any hesitation on de Blasio’s part, at times implying that the mayor’s staff might not have kept him updated or engaged on the issue. “Sometimes people are too busy, they’re inundated with issues that come up every single day,” he said. “That’s why you have staff.”
At best, this means that the administration’s seeming complacency toward violent anti-Semitism is the result of lagging intraoffice communication, rather than any intentional policy on anyone’s part. At worst, it means De Blasio is actively avoiding the issue.
In any case, much remains to be done. When asked about the office, an officer in one of the NYPD precincts where several attacks had occurred said, “we have nothing to do with that.” Molinari said he had been involved in one meeting with the mayor’s office about the effort. “The police commissioner and the higher-ups are all determining how exactly to implement that and what our place is going to be,” he said. None of the victims or community leaders mentioned in this article reported any substantial contact with anyone regarding the new office.
An honest reckoning with the problem carries plenty of its own risks. The spike in incidents complicates the current national political narrative around anti-Semitism, which maps a narrow left-right paradigm on to Jews and their terrorizers. The overwhelming majority of the alleged perpetrators in New York are either black or Hispanic, and casting anti-Semitism as an issue pitting Jews against various other minority groups threatens to reagitate problems that many in the Jewish and surrounding communities hope no longer exist.
But perhaps there’s a vaguer and simpler motive behind the city’s trepidation: Like the collapse of the transit system or out-of-control living costs, anti-Semitism is a challenge that feels too large for the city to meet. And unlike those issues, the problem of anti-Semitic hate crimes is hazy and localized, and the outcry it provokes is manageable, muted, sometimes nonexistent. As long as the city can ignore the scope of what it’s up against, there’s little or no pressure to address the problem.
Yaacov Behrman, a Crown Heights-based educator and member of the local community board, believes that a sociological study of attitudes toward Jews among the city’s young people is an essential first step to countering anti-Semitism. Such an investigation might involve anonymous questionnaires administered in public schools. He doubts it will ever happen. “Personally I think the city is scared of what they’re gonna find and never do it,” he told Tablet. “I think the city is concerned they’ll find anti-Semitism numbers are very high in Brooklyn.”
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.