How to respond to the NYC antisemitism crisis

Reflections from a Brooklyn Jew

Attendees of the "No Hate No Fear" rally against antisemitism, Jerusalem, January 5, 2020 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Attendees of the "No Hate No Fear" rally against antisemitism, Jerusalem, January 5, 2020
As a lifelong Brooklyn resident born and raised in the Orthodox community, it has especially pained me on a personal level to see the recent spike of antisemitic attacks in my area. I’ve found myself increasingly concerned about the immediate ramifications of this uptick, ruminating in concern as I watch my middle-aged father, large knitted black yarmulke spanning his head, dozing off in the kitchen chair watching the Jewish Broadcasting Service after a full day’s work.
A native Yiddish speaker hailing from Vienna, I worry about his vulnerability as a visible Jew taking home the public bus from Borough Park to Midwood every night. My brothers and mother have already started suggesting he wear a baseball cap as a precaution, though that may not be enough to cover the tail of tzitzit (ritual fringes) coming out behind his shirt that he failed to successfully tuck in.
While hate crimes across America have been a rising phenomenon for years, with Jews consistently experiencing between 50%-60% of religious hate crimes despite being a mere 2% of the US population, it was really 2018 onward that marked a visible rise in violent and especially lethal attacks. This manifested with the notorious Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, where a white nationalist gunman left 11 dead and four injured.
More than a year later, another white nationalist shot up a synagogue in Poway, California, which left one woman dead and three others injured, including the synagogue’s rabbi. In the latter incident, the death casualty could have been considerably higher if not for a technical malfunction. These attacks garnered high-profile media coverage – in part due to the quantifiable severity of the attacks, and in part due to the larger trend of white supremacist violence underlying it.
More recently, however, a more “inconvenient” antisemitic trend has come to light. This has been in the form of physical assaults and intimidation directed at ultra-Orthodox Jews in the New York area in large part at the hands of African Americans. Prominent examples include the Jersey City kosher market shooting and the Monsey knife stabbing at Rabbi Chaim L. Rottenberg’s home. But it’s also expressed itself in dozens of more minor-level assaults, intimidation and harassment in New York City, primarily in Brooklyn. One could, of course, understand the queasiness involved in such a situation for someone interested in social justice when such dynamics involve the intersection of two historically marginalized communities.
Let’s be clear: This is not, despite what some reactionaries may suggest, a mirror image of historical pogroms against Jews. At least not yet. There’s undoubtedly a genuine antisemitism issue plaguing the New York area, but it is also being wholeheartedly condemned by the political and social establishment, including from prominent black leaders. Officials are not standing by in complicity; resources are being offered; human solidarity is being shown. The history of the United States is not that of the Old World and, despite this concerning uptick in individual attacks, Jews still walk proudly and unabashedly as visible members of the tribe in a way that doesn’t happen in many nations outside North America.
But another thing has to be equally clear, too: The extent to which these attacks are “systemic” or “sanctioned” has no practical bearing on the Jewish community’s right, and indeed moral obligation, to defend itself. When the shepherd is charged with defending the flock, he does not concern himself with why the wolf is hungry; in the moment, he merely does his duty. The same holds true with the Jewish community needing to meticulously seek proactive and responsive measures to the statistical realities of anti-Jewish violence.
THE FIRST pragmatic line of defense to which Jewish communities should resort is their own internal civil-security organizations. While there is definitely a time and place for reasonable police presence (say, a patrol or two on deck outside major Jewish sites), no one will care more about Jews’ protection than Jews ourselves.
In the ultra-Orthodox community, the group Shomrim – Hebrew for “watchmen” – has historically fulfilled this role competently. While not perfect, and while at times they have gotten into unwarranted altercations with gentile residents, a Jewish group is ultimately much preferable to hiring untrained outsider vigilantes to aid Jewish communities, and likely stoking tensions and conflict instead. In other Jewish communities, this role is taken up by the Community Security Service.
Another line of defense is having one or a combination of factors at play such as guards, metal detectors and automated barricade capabilities. Realistically, however, many synagogues do not have the adequate space or resources for such items. This is especially true for the small shtiebels in Brooklyn. Nevertheless, even in such situations, there are valid deterrences that could be put in place.
One example is an entrance combination code known only to congregants; a second is phone lines with instantaneous access to emergency services, as have already begun to be implemented in some places. Moreover, having a small number of armed and well-trained service attendees – as was the case at a recent church shooting in Texas – should be seriously considered. If God-forbid another Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City or Monsey occurs, we cannot afford to be sitting ducks.
Next, Jews must learn how to defend themselves physically against non-lethal violence on the streets. Local Jewish self-defense organizations, such as Legion (of which I am myself a member), train Jews around the New York area in skills such as mixed martial arts, situational awareness, active shooting drills, and even basic gun safety certification. I am confident that Jews would be getting accosted less if perpetrators actually feared reprisal. We need to further fund, proliferate and mainstream such entities. Other reasonable safety measures are simple and reasonable, like encouraging Jews to carry pepper spray as a deterrent.
Finally, we have to extend the concept of preemptive protection to the realm of public policy.
For example, barely two weeks ago, on December 30, a woman in Crown Heights was rearrested the day after she slapped three Jewish women in the face.
The Monsey stabber’s mother allegedly called the police to plead for her son to be committed and treated for his mental illness. Instead, she learned he had been arrested after waving a knife at officers. (In the prelude to his heinous attack, he purportedly went missing for a week and had not been taking his medications.)
The former incident is a byproduct of New York City’s bail reform, which has come under attack from many in the Jewish community, ought to be subject to moderate revision to allow judges more discretion in retaining those who pose a plausible threat.
The latter incident is indicative of the incompetence in our justice and mental health systems.
It is high time we move beyond partisan narrative and historical Jewish meekness when it comes to confronting antisemitism. Our response to it must be a level-headed one; one that bolsters our immediate security and works hand-in-hand with our neighbors, community and government in a reasonable fashion.
The author is a Jewish-issues writer, prospective law student and graduate of Brooklyn College, where he majored in political science.