Jews in New York on edge for Election Day

Violent extremists exist on both ends of the political spectrum, with white supremacists and neo-Nazis on the far-right clashing with Antifa supporters, many of whom consider Trump to be a fascist.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather in Borough Park (photo credit: REUTERS/YUKI IWAMURA)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather in Borough Park
(photo credit: REUTERS/YUKI IWAMURA)
NEW YORK – Tensions between the Orthodox communities in the New York area and the general population – already exacerbated by coronavirus pandemic irregularities – are expected to be heightened on Election Day, with some Jews fearing an antisemitic backlash.
“I’m very anxious over the election,” said Rabbi Jonathan Leener, who leads Prospect Heights Shul, a modern Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn. “I have anxiety over a backlash being taken out on a Jewish community.”
“We’ve been davening outside in a vacant parking lot because of COVID, which poses a unique security challenge,” Leener continued. “We need to have more security and not put out a lot of information publicly like we would have done before.”
When asked whether a particular election outcome induces more worry, Leener said he fears “white supremacists taking over the streets if Biden wins.”
The rabbi said he is anxious for cities across the country, but added that in Brooklyn specifically, “there’s tension between the Jewish community and our neighboring communities.”
Violent extremists exist on both ends of the political spectrum, with white supremacists and neo-Nazis on the far-right clashing with Antifa supporters, many of whom consider President Donald Trump to be a fascist and may resort to extreme measures in the event of his reelection.
On the other side, far-right groups are willing to take drastic measures against their opponents, such as last month’s plot to kidnap Democratic Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The risk of violence may grow should Trump be defeated and try to invalidate the election results.
Jewish voters are set to vote 75% to 22% for Democratic nominee Joe Biden, according to a poll by the American Jewish Committee. The same poll showed that 74% of Orthodox Jews favor Trump.
FURTHERING THE divide are a number of election related conspiracies targeted at Jews on both sides, said Evan Bernstein, CEO of Community Security Service (CSS), an organization that has trained thousands of Jewish volunteers to keep synagogues safe.
While Bernstein noted that extremism is found on each side, he said far-right conspiracies led to the murder of Jews in Pittsburgh and Poway, which he fears could play out in the wake of election results.
“These come with the risk of spurring a lone wolf action, which can be the type of attack hardest to prevent,” Bernstein said on Sunday. “We have eyes and ears open to what’s going on in chat rooms online.”
Bernstein said the Jewish community is currently experiencing a period of elevated risk, noting that Jews are the most likely target of violence motivated by anti-religious bias.
A recent report from law enforcement confirms this.
The Department of Homeland Security reported last month that white supremacists are “the most persistent and lethal” threat in the United States, noting that such groups are characterized by hatred for Jews.
In an effort to fend off Election Day unrest, the Anti-Defamation League is asking officials to reassure voters that the election will be fair and to speak out against violence. The Secure Community Network, which coordinates security for Jewish institutions nationwide, is urging Jewish institutions to monitor entry and exit points and even construct barriers to protect from possible car-ramming attacks, which have been previously deployed across the country in protests, against voters waiting on line.
David Pollock, chairman of Community Security Initiative, a joint project of UJA-Federation and JCRC-NY, said both organizations are urging New York Jewish institutions to review their security protocols ahead of November 3.
“We’re worried about everything,” Pollock said. “Are your doors locked? Do your alarms work? Are your cameras operational? Make sure not to leave anything outside that could be thrown through a window, like garbage cans.”
The pandemic has led to an increase of voting by mail, with nearly 60% of voters projected to vote by mail nationwide, making it possible the election outcome will remain unknown for days or even weeks.
Bernstein emphasized the importance of remaining vigilant during the period of uncertainty. “We need as many people as possible to be aware of their surroundings,” he said. “Right now, with the political situation, it’s a difficult time. The Jewish community needs to be keenly aware.”