Is It Safe to Be Jewish in New York?
Just past midnight on May 1, a young rabbinical student was walking home on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn when he thought he was being followed. A moment after that intuition struck, two men grabbed him, threw him against a car and started punching him.
The victim had dropped a box containing $200, meant for charity, but the money went untouched. The student, it seemed, was attacked because he was overheard speaking Hebrew on his cellphone. His two assailants were indicted on assault and hate crime charges.
No other American city is more closely associated with Jewish identity than New York or more adamantly imagines itself as the capital of liberalism’s most cherished values of tolerance, acceptance and diversity.
And yet, at the same time, New York has become an increasingly unsettling place to be Jewish. The first inkling of this emerged several days after the 2016 presidential election when swastikas and the phrase “Go Trump” showed up on playground equipment in Adam Yauch Park in Brooklyn Heights.
But, in fact, anti-Semitism was already quietly on the rise. For several years now, expressions of anti-Jewish sentiment have made up the preponderance of hate crime complaints in the city.
Contrary to what are surely the prevailing assumptions, anti-Semitic incidents have constituted half of all hate crimes in New York this year, according to the Police Department. To put that figure in context, there have been four times as many crimes motivated by bias against Jews — 142 in all — as there have against blacks. Hate crimes against Jews have outnumbered hate crimes targeted at transgender people by a factor of 20.
Within the course of a few days this month, a swastika showed up on an Upper West Side corner and two ultra-Orthodox men were attacked on the street in Hasidic neighborhoods in Brooklyn in separate incidents. In one of them, according to the police and prosecutors, a Muslim livery driver jumped out of a car and started beating up his victim, seemingly at random, yelling “Allah.” Just this week, more swastikas appeared in advance of Halloween on Garden Place, a popular trick-or-treating spot in Brooklyn Heights, hate messages were left inside of a Prospect Heights synagogue prior to a political event mediated by Ilana Glazer, of “Broad City,” and an anti-Semitic acronym was found on a pickup truck’s vanity license plate in Queens.
If anti-Semitism bypasses consideration as a serious problem in New York, it is to some extent because it refuses to conform to an easy narrative with a single ideological enemy. During the past 22 months, not one person caught or identified as the aggressor in an anti-Semitic hate crime has been associated with a far right-wing group, Mark Molinari, commanding officer of the police department’s Hate Crimes Task Force, told me.
“I almost wish it was sometimes more clear cut,’’ he said. “It’s every identity targeting every identity.”
Of course, not everyone is caught. And, obviously, white supremacists are driving anti-Semitic rhetoric online. It is just that sort of hate speech that the Anti-Defamation League views as largely responsible for the near doubling in bias incidents toward Jewish children in schools across the country last year.
In fact, it is the varied backgrounds of people who commit hate crimes in the city that make combating and talking about anti-Semitism in New York much harder.
A related issue is that bias stemming from longstanding ethnic tensions in the city presents complexities that many liberals have chosen simply to ignore. “When we were growing up in Harlem our demoralizing series of landlords were Jewish, and we hated them.” So begins an essay by James Baldwin that appeared in The New York Times in 1967 titled “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White.”
When a Hasidic man or woman is attacked by anyone in New York City, mainstream progressive advocacy groups do not typically send out emails calling for concern and fellowship and candlelight vigils in Union Square, as they often do when individuals are harmed in New York because of their race or ethnicity or how they identify in terms of gender or sexual orientation.
Sympathies are distributed unevenly. Few are extended toward religious fundamentalists, of any kind, who reach the radar of the urbane, “Pod Save America” class only when stories appear confirming existing impressions of backwardness — the hordes of children delivered into the world whom families refuse to vaccinate and keep semiliterate.
The Anti-Defamation League maintains its own statistics and last year it reported that nine of the 12 physical assaults against Jews categorized as hate crimes in New York State were committed in Brooklyn and involved victims who were easily marked as members of traditionally Orthodox communities. Outside that world they were hardly noticed at all.
Ginia Bellafante on Twitter: @GiniaNYT
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