Inconvenient antisemitism: daily attacks on Jews in New York

After Jersey City and Monsey the US needs a united front against antisemitism in all communities.

Jewish people walk in front of the house where 5 people were stabbed at a Hasidic rabbi's home in Monsey, New York (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jewish people walk in front of the house where 5 people were stabbed at a Hasidic rabbi's home in Monsey, New York
(photo credit: REUTERS)

The attack on a Rabbi in Monsey north of New York City on Saturday evening has left the Jewish community shaken. It follows at least eight other attacks in New York since the shooting attack on a kosher supermarket in early December. There have been near daily attacks in New York City this year, a kind of slow-moving pogrom against Jews, particularly targeting ultra-Orthodox Jews. 

The murder of three people at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City was mostly ignored in the United States. No rallies or marches against the antisemitism that led to it. No major political upheavals or even much recognition. The usual anger over gun violence after mass shootings was nowhere to be found. The victims and the perpetrators are inconvenient. America as a whole can’t mourn Orthodox Jews and it can’t confront perpetrators when the perpetrators come from a minority community. This is inconvenient antisemitism and it is a kind of antisemitism privilege. Despite widespread anti-racism programs in the US, there are still those in America for whom being antisemitic is a birthright and not something to be ashamed of. The number of people raised with violent antisemitic beliefs is growing.
The Jersey City murders are the culmination of years of incitement against Jews. But the perpetrators in that case were themselves minorities from the African American community. The perpetrators have been identified as coming from an extremist religious group called Black Hebrew Israelites, making them a minority of a minority. The perpetrators are seen as a “militant” fringe within that minority.
The authorities are now looking at the case as domestic terrorism fueled by antisemitism. However major media have endeavored to dismiss the murders as unimportant and unique. The New York Times described the Black Hebrew Israelites as being “known for their inflammatory sidewalk ministers who employ provocation as a form of gospel.” It’s a bit more than that. In fact, the group and the milieu around it tend to view religion through a racial lens, such that Jews are described as “white” and “fake” and the “real Jews” are portrayed as black, along with all the prophets and religious figures. The ADL pointed out that this group views itself as the real “chosen people” and that it sees people of color as the real descendants of the 12 tribes. The group was in the media earlier in the year in Washington DC when they shouted insults at Catholic high school students.
Mainstream society wants to view this as “provocation,” because if they viewed it as a burgeoning racist violent movement targeting Jews then they would have to confront it and ask tough questions of why it is tolerated in a community. Expert J.J. McNab told the Associated Press that in fact this group takes pride in “confronting Jewish people everywhere and explaining that they are evil.”
In American society there is generally only place for one kind of racism. There are far-right white supremacists and everyone else. This Manichean worldview of antisemitism and racism means we are only comfortable with one type of perpetrator. An angry white man. Those are the racists. Dylann Roof, the racist who murdered black people in a church in 2015 is the most normal kind of America racist. The El Paso shooter or the Tree of Life Synagogue attacker are also the kind of killers that fit into an easy narrative. But when the perpetrators stray from that we have a problem dealing with it. In New York City, according to a post by journalist Laura Adkins, data shows that of 69 anti-Jewish crimes in 2018, forty of the perpetrators were labelled “white” and 25 were labelled “black,” the others were categorized as Hispanic or Asian.
To keep the focus on the white supremacists, headlines need to explain to us that “right wing terrorists” have killed more than Jihadists, as said earlier this year. Other types of terrorism are watered down a bit. During the Obama administration Islamist-inspired terror was even rebranded as “violent extremism” so as not to mention the religion of the perpetrators. For some reason even though Islamist terror is also a far-right ideology, it is portrayed as something else. For instance, when Jews were targeted at a kosher supermarket in France they were called “random folk in a deli.” They weren’t random, they were targeted, like the Jews in Jersey City, but they needed to be random or we’d have to ask about the antisemitism that permeates Islamist terror.
In the wake of all the attacks in New York against Jews, culminating in the shooting attack at the kosher market, it became difficult to ignore the rising tide. But there is discomfort in looking at the depth of the perpetrators. The comfort society has with expecting perpetrators to be “far-right” and “white” even led Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib to blame “white supremacy” for the Jersey City attack. Her tweet was deleted. When it wasn’t white supremacy and there was no one to condemn, it didn’t fit the narrative and was less important.
The suspects in Jersey City were called  “drifters,” anything to make them seem unique, as if their views came from the moon. But the hatred of Jews and almost daily attacks in New York City and surrounding areas doesn’t come from thin air. It is motivated by a very clear ideology that has been appeased and tolerated in the name of tolerance of hatred. Almost every day in Brooklyn Jews are attacked. When this happened in the Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire it was called a pogrom. If someone said that every day in Kiev Jews were being beaten and attacked on subways and in the streets, we would correctly identify it as a pogrom-like series of attacks. But not in New York.
In one spate of November incidents a brick was thrown at a school for Jewish girls, three men were punched, and Jews had eggs thrown at them. Jews are also more likely to be victims of hate crimes in the area than any other group. Through September 1 there were 152 antisemitic hate crimes. It’s basically one a day and they are becoming more violent and now deadly.
Hatred of Jews spans the white supremacist far right and the black supremacist far right and milieus in between. The difference is that society condemns and confronts comments by the white supremacists. Even with white supremacists, after the Poway and Pittsburgh attacks, we did not delve deeply into the wider community of hate online. “We got our man,” in finding the perpetrator, and that was enough. When dealing with the wider world of antisemitism in the US, that crosses racial lines, it is more difficult to confront. In the US, since it is difficult to accept that minorities might also be racist, the elephant in the room of black antisemitism is not mentioned. Too often, African American officials make openly antisemitic statements without fear of reaction. A school board member attacked “brutes of the Jewish community” after the Jersey City attack.
In Washington DC an African American member of the city council claimed the Rothschilds control the weather. Instead of fully condemning him, he was invited to the Holocaust Museum and to experience Jewish holidays with the community. Why is the answer to antisemitism often the invitation to a nice embrace at a Jewish holiday? Does the KKK get invited to a black church as a reward for their racism? How about condemning first, apologies and introspection, and then a reward for reform would be an invitation. Unlike with white supremacy, other forms of antisemitism, such as black supremacist antisemitism, is seen as not the fault of the individual, but rather some ignorant ideas that a nice Passover dinner can correct. We need to do “outreach,” is the message.
The attack on Jews as “fake” and “white” is rising. In November in London a black man took out a Bible and began harassing a Jewish Orthodox family until a Muslim woman intervened. The perpetrator was detained for a hate crime. In Miami a man also threatened Jews with a knife, calling them “fake.” In 2018 an Orthodox Jewish man was attacked in Crown Heights, called a “fake Jew.”
This is inconvenient because it appears that there is a deep antisemitic milieu not dissimilar to the way white supremacist antisemitism spreads online and among communities, fueling hatred of Jews among other American minority groups, specifically some black Americans. This antisemitism has been around for decades, gaining strength in the 1990s as Jews began to be blamed for the slave trade.
This trend in black antisemitism isn’t entirely unknown. It is discussed here and there, usually with excuses. For instance The Forward ran an article claiming that while “White antisemites are motivated by a hatred of Jews and a desire  for power, black anti-Semites are motivated by anger over gentrification, police brutality and slavery.” The article claimed that Jews “like all white people, part of the racist system that keeps black people under the foot of society.” This is the way a Jewish newspaper explained hatred of Jews. It defined Jews as “white” and gave credence to the idea that antisemitism is motivated by “police brutality and slavery.” This is a window into a very real worldview that openly says Jews are behind police brutality and slavery and gentrification.  In New York the police have stepped up their presence after attacks, but even that has been condemned as sending too many police to a neighborhood of “people of color.” Now Jews will be blamed for the police presence too instead of someone struggling against the violent antisemitism and inter-racial marches of solidarity against it.
How did we get here? The motivation behind the Jersey City attack is clear from social media posts one of the perpetrators made, according to a research by the ADL. This included claims that Jews are “Khazars,” and that “Brooklyn is full of Nazis-Ashkenazis,” and that the “police are in their [the Jews] hand now.” The worldview matches with the larger milieu in which Jews are portrayed as not merely “white Jews” but in fact as controlling the slave trade and police violence. In this new antisemitism Jews are reframed as both being “fake,” as in not really Jews from the Middle East, and also being “white” and running white supremacism. This replaces German Nazis with Jewish Nazis; it replaces white supremacists with a hidden hand of Jews controlling both the American far-right and also the police. Instead of pushing back against this there are attempts to excuse it or just remain quiet about it and hope this antisemitism goes away.
Despite the way this this antisemitism has combined traditional antisemitism with a twist, turning Jews into “whites” as opposed to hating them for being wandering Middle Easterners, there is very little recognition that it is dangerous.  This is despite hundreds of violent attacks over the years, primarily targeting Orthodox Jews. Now, this has resulted in murder. But many voices want to downplay it and explain it away. For instance, The New Yorker asked whether an “influx of Hasidic residents in the Greenville [Jersey City] neighborhood spur two assailants to embark on a shooting spree that left six people dead.” Jews, simply for moving somewhere, may cause a shooting spree, in this explanation. Jews are the only US minority group who, when they move somewhere, are accused of being an “influx.” Others have argued that we can’t even label the recent attacks “right wing” or “left wing” because it’s totally different to “white nationalists whose beliefs are based on antisemitism.”
A review of the discussion about the New York City attacks reveals an America that has trouble adjusting to and describing antisemitism when it comes from unexpected perpetrators. This is partly because the general view of racism in the US is that racism is not just about racism but about power. That is why in the US people look for racism in “white privilege” and the way racist views can be perpetuated even through code words and social settings and institutions. Confronted with the idea that minority groups are also racist, such as Hispanics using the n-word, there is a struggle to come to grips with how to define and confront. With the Jewish community there has been an agenda to argue over its relative “whiteness” and insofar as Jews are then removed from the intersectional agenda of minority groups fighting white privilege, Jews become either a separate category or part of the oppressive majority. This is odd but it is part of a wider agenda to assert that Zionism is racism and Jews are somehow linked to far-right groups through Israel and Israel is a modern apartheid colonialist structure. These ideas didn’t inform the Jersey City killings, but they are part of the milieu that informs those who might excuse the attacks.
Another element at play is the fact people are being inured to antisemitism. There was so much violent antisemitism in 2019 that people are less shocked. Also, those most prone to be shocked, other members of the Jewish community, sometimes see haredi Jews through a vaguely discriminatory lens, which others them. There is little solidarity with Orthodox Jews as a minority group, whereas if they were another group, there would be a larger outpouring of sympathy.
The result is a multi-layered cake of excuses and fear at confronting a wider range of perpetrators of antisemitism in New York. If violent antisemitism that sees Jews controlling the police and being responsible for slavery and white supremacy, is growing in the African American community in America then confronting it requires asking a minority community that is also a victim to be self-critical. In the US there tends to be pass for minority groups who are homophobic or racist. Society can only confront one kind of racism. This is largely because those driving the agenda of confronting racism either have blinders on regarding all forms of racism and antisemitism or are unaware of it because they don’t conduct surveys and polls regarding the prevalence of antisemitism in places like Brooklyn. When the perpetrators and victims do not fit a convenient model, it is easier to just excuse the attacks or see them as random. Unfortunately, in the US these attacks are not random, and there is rising violent antisemitism coming from a broad spectrum of communities, including white supremacists and from African Americans. Confronting it requires the same broad spectrum to step up the struggle.