NEW YORK – A year on from the spate of antisemitic incidents that rocked the New York area, including deadly attacks in Jersey City and Monsey, Jewish leaders remain fearful for the future despite the high-profile show of solidarity for the community that initially followed.
“I’m saddened that I think a lot of the progress that was made because of these horrible incidents has eroded one year later,” says Evan Bernstein, CEO of Community Security Service, which helps empower Jewish communities to act for their own safety.
“I think antisemitism is still as relevant as it was before, and I’m concerned now that people just don’t think about it and they’re not looking at the antisemitism that’s still taking place,” adds Bernstein, who previously spent 20 years working at the Anti-Defamation League, including seven years as the organization’s regional director for New York and New Jersey.
Though it is too early to talk about numbers for 2020, especially given this year’s extraordinary circumstances, a number of antisemitic incidents have been recorded in recent weeks. Antisemitic graffiti was found scrawled on the side of a yeshiva in Brooklyn last week, for example, while a dead pig was placed at the door of a rabbi’s house in Lakewood, New Jersey, late last month.
‘No downtime for Jews’
December 2019 saw a particularly high number of antisemitic assaults in the New York region. On December 10 last year, a couple opened fire at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, New Jersey, killing three civilians, including the store owner, an employee and a customer. At least 40 Jewish children were studying in a classroom above the store at the time of the attack. The attackers were killed in a subsequent shoot-out at the store with police.
With the community reeling, another antisemitic attack occurred less than three weeks later, on December 28, when a man stabbed attendees at a Hanukkah party in the home of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg in Monsey, Rockland County. Five people were injured in the attack and one of them, Josef Neumann, succumbed to his injuries three months later.
Between the two incidents, the ADL also recorded dozens of antisemitic assaults. New York City saw three such incidents on the first two nights of Hanukkah, December 22-23. There were multiple incidents of Orthodox men being attacked on the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan, where they were punched, kicked or had objects thrown at them. Orthodox women were also assaulted: one was hit in the head while walking with her son, while three others were slapped.
“There was just no downtime at all for the Jewish community during that period,” Bernstein says. “Even when I’m 120, I hope I never experience anything like that again as I did in that three-and-a-half week period.”
He recalls arriving at the crime scene in Jersey City while the attack was still underway that Tuesday night, and sleeping a few short hours in his car the night of the Monsey attack, in order to stay on the scene.
That string of assaults, he says, is what pushed him to join Community Security Service, which focuses on training communities and volunteers to defend themselves in antisemitic incident scenarios – “so they’re not just waiting for the next shooter, but are active in protecting themselves.”
Bernstein reflects that last December’s incidents put him in a place where he eventually said to himself: “We need to empower the Jewish people; security is a real issue here.”
Alexander Rosemberg, ADL’s deputy regional director for New York/New Jersey, says the events of last December were part of a larger trend, with antisemitism hitting a record high in 2019. According to the organization’s last annual audit, New York and New Jersey were hardest hit, with a 106 percent rise in antisemitic assaults in New York and a 73 percent uptick in incidents in New Jersey. National figures showed that, on average, there were six antisemitic incidents every day across the United States last year, with physical assaults against Jews up more than 50 percent from the previous year.
“It was the worst year on record,” Rosemberg says. “I’m hopeful, but I’m just always fearful for what’s next.”
Yossi Gestetner, co-founder of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council, based in Rockland County, recalls that the Monsey attack was “certainly a traumatizing rare event” for the local community.
“Of course people have concerns in the back of their minds, and of course you now have more security precautions than you did a year ago. But by and large, on a day-to-day basis, life goes on because that’s how humans are,” he says. Gestetner points out that a lot of people in the Rockland County community have gotten gun licenses and bought firearms over the past year.
Beyond the health crisis
Since the coronavirus crisis hit the United States in mid-March, Jewish leaders have expressed concern over online expressions of hate and conspiracy theories blaming the spread of the virus on the Jewish community. This online hate was exacerbated in recent months following an uptick in COVID-19 cases in predominantly Orthodox neighborhoods.
“We’re dealing with less hate on the streets but a whole lot more online,” Rosemberg told Haaretz. “Internet hate kind of went on steroids, because everybody was stuck at home and it was the outlet of choice,” he says.
Rosemberg adds that he’s fearful for what might happen after the pandemic is over. “Is there going to be somebody to look for to scapegoat?” he asks.
Bernstein is also worried that the COVID-19 crisis will make things worse in the long run. “I don’t want the Jewish community to go into a place where they think [antisemitism] is not there anymore because maybe the hate crime numbers are less this year – it’s because we’re not congregating, it’s because we’re not outside,” he explains.
According to Gestetner, “The bottom line is that there are less attacks, and less attacks means less pain for more people, so it’s a good thing regardless of the cause.” However, he says he’s shocked and disappointed at how New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo “both spent quite some time in October making the resurgence of the coronavirus about Orthodox Jews in a way that they didn’t do for any other ethnic group.”
Over recent months, as the city and state have imposed restrictions on Orthodox neighborhoods and blamed the community for events and gatherings that violated guidelines, many have accused the mayor and governor of singling out Orthodox Jews. Community leaders have also told Haaretz that despite claiming to have undertaken extensive outreach in Orthodox areas, almost no meaningful collaboration was actually initiated.
Hundreds of Orthodox Jews also protested in Borough Park against the restrictions, while the umbrella Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America filed several lawsuits asking to bar the state from enforcing them because the rules were specifically targeting Orthodox Jews. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked coronavirus restrictions imposed on religious gatherings.
“It’s irresponsible rhetoric,” Gestetner charges, “and to me that’s a surprise – especially when you consider how compassionate Gov. Cuomo was after the attack in Rockland County, and when you consider how responsive Bill de Blasio was after the string of attacks in Brooklyn last December. It’s unbelievable,” he sighs.
Short-lived Jewish unity
A week after the Hanukkah attack in Monsey, some 10,000 people participated in a march across the Brooklyn Bridge under the banner “No Hate No Fear.” That event was the largest display of solidarity with the Jewish community in recent years and included many non-Orthodox Jews, some of whom had come to New York especially to take part in the demonstration. Though he says he was grateful for that show of support, Gestetner feels that some of the Jewish community is “missing in action” a year on.
“The march was a good thing at the time because showing solidarity is in itself an end,” he observes. “But a rally is a one-day thing, and almost 365 days have passed since then.
“To me, it’s quite surprising how voices within the broader Jewish community, who claim to be champions of civil rights, civil liberties or fighting bigotry, are either missing in action in the face of the rhetoric coming from Cuomo and de Blasio or have even fanned the flames,” he says, stressing that he doesn’t want to generalize about the community.
After last January’s march, Orthodox Jews who spoke to Haaretz said they didn’t always feel the support of the mainstream Jewish community while the more visibly Jewish members of the community are on the front lines against antisemitism.
More recently, after de Blasio’s controversial “Jewish community” tweet in April, Orthodox Jews told Haaretz that the widespread outrage from American Jews over the mayor’s comments shouldn’t be mistaken for new-found solidarity with the Orthodox community. Instead, some said they believed non-Orthodox Jews were more concerned about being categorized with the Haredim.
Bernstein believes the events in Monsey and Jersey City made antisemitism a “more mainstream problem in the New York area,” and put a spotlight on the reality faced by many Orthodox Jews on a daily basis. But that solidarity has “eroded,” he says.
“I have two young kids and I wish I was more optimistic about this,” he says. “It’s really so sad for me as a Jew, as a professional who works in this field. It’s heartbreaking.”