In the country’s best image of itself, the American social compact envisions only a peaceful airing of ideological differences and depends on a strong taboo against settling political disagreements with violence. The occasional explosions of political aggression here and there in this vast country—in downtown Portland or the U.S Capitol, for instance—only prove how indispensable this norm really is, as such episodes present an instructively terrifying glimpse into a nearby alternate world.
For the past several days, Jews in New York City have gotten their own experience of an America in which people are no longer content to settle their differences peaceably. Gaza and Jerusalem are 7,000 miles away, located far beyond U.S. territory, and are the site of conflicts in which New Yorkers are only vaguely implicated—not a single airstrike or eviction was ordered from the five boroughs; no rockets were fired from here on Tel Aviv. Such is the strength of New York City’s social fabric in the spring of 2021 that national political tradition and basic common sense collapsed all at once in the face of a somewhat worse-than-usual Israeli-Palestinian flare-up half a planet away.
Local events during the recent Middle East crisis are jarring to witness, even in a city where street harassment and violence against visible Jews have been allowed to become a fairly normal and unremarked-upon feature of daily life.
On May 11, an Israel supporter was bloodied after a confrontation with pro-Palestine activists in Times Square. This was a mere prelude: On Thursday night, a group of young men in keffiyehs, Palestinian flag in tow, harassed and spat on diners on 40th Street who they apparently suspected of Judaism. Elsewhere in midtown, youths with keffiyehs over their faces lunged at men in kippot, accusing them of supporting child murder. Another beating of a Jewish man in Times Square was captured on camera, his prone body surreally juxtaposed with the sign for the TKTS half-price ticket booth, a vestige of a pre-pandemic era when Broadway shows were still legal and the city’s collapse hadn’t advanced quite so far. And footage from the Upper East Side showed a mob of young men, no doubt enraged exclusively at Israel’s policies in territories lying beyond the 1948 Egyptian and Jordanian ceasefire lines, cornering two Jews, sparking a street brawl.
The city saw instances of pro-Palestinian protesters seizing public commons in ominously anarchic fashion. A car with a Palestinian flag loudly drilled doughnuts into the residential street at the base of the Washington Square arch. “We are terrorists,” demonstrators hogging all of 13th Street proudly declared.
The most bizarre and alarming of this spate of incidents took place in Manhattan’s Diamond District on Thursday. Young men, perhaps inspired by a combination of anger at Israel and the example of Palestine supporters who drove around threatening to assault Jews in Golders Green in London, cruised the area, an iconic site of New York Jewish industriousness, to scream poison at whomever happened to be around. But mere harassment proved too passive an activity for some. Footage taken on a sidewalk showed a small incendiary device emitting billows of white smoke; later, a man was filmed curled up on the ground nearby. Media reports indicate that roving aggressors threw several commercially-purchased fireworks from a convoy of vehicles, burning a 55-year-old woman. Whether one would identify the weapon as a firework or a smoke bomb is semantic. It was a pyrotechnic with the ability to injure, and it was set off to spread chaos and fear in a place popularly associated with Jews.
The response from the city and its leadership has been neither muted nor all that loudly condemnatory. “Antisemitism has NO place in our city,” Mayor Bill de Blasio proclaimed. Leading mayoral candidates Eric Adams and Andrew Yang both tweeted their disapproval of the city’s dark turn, though, like the man they’re running to replace, they waited over 12 hours after Thursday night’s series of attacks before saying anything. The NYPD is investigating the second Times Square beating as a hate crime. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents close to a million New Yorkers in Congress, hasn’t spoken up yet, but she might get around to it as soon as she’s done attempting to cut off military assistance to Israel amid a bombardment by U.S.-designated terror groups.
Still, social reality is never the sum total of what a group of politicians are or are not willing to say or do at a given time. Perhaps the norms that protect Jewish and pro-Israel New Yorkers are eroding beyond any leader’s ability to stop it. Eroding how far? During the inevitable next Middle East flare-up, and probably even sooner than that, the city might be in for another series of hints at how bad things have really gotten. But no one should act too surprised.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.