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Anti-Semitism and the ‘visible’ Jews

The correct observation that the situation in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., is an exception, and not the rule, for most American Jews shouldn't lead us to complacency.

An observant Jewish man seen waiting on the streets in Munich, Germany. May 05, 2018. Credit: Nati Shohat/FLASH90
An observant Jewish man seen waiting on the streets in Munich, Germany. May 05, 2018. Credit: Nati Shohat/FLASH90
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz and many other publications.

One evening about 30 years ago, my girlfriend, who is now my wife, came home to our small flat in London, her eyes swollen with tears, and the backs of her knees and thighs covered in painful bruises.

An hour earlier, she had been walking through Kings Cross train station when a young Chassidic visitor to the city, lost in the web of the London Underground, approached her asking for directions. She duly took him to the correct platform for Heathrow Airport, picking up one of his suitcases along the way. As she dropped him off and started walking back in the direction of her train, she heard footsteps running up behind her. Before she could turn around to see properly what was happening, she felt a series of brutal kicks to her legs. An oafish voice hissed “you Jewish c***” into her ear as the kicks landed again. Then her assailant, a white male whose face she only glimpsed, ran off, leaving her terrified and dazed, while everyone else around her carried on as if nothing had happened.

I have to admit, I did a lousy job of comforting her after this ghastly episode. I was shocked and worried and angry, but I was also confused when she mentioned, with touching sweetness, her relief that the young Chassid had been safely away from her when the attack occurred.

“Wait, what do you mean?” I blurted, as she sat down on our sofa with a cup of tea. “He attacked you because he thought you were Jewish or because he saw you helping the Chassidic kid?” Exasperation flashed across her face. “What difference does it make?” she snapped.

My stupid question was a salutary lesson in how I’d internalized anti-Semitic stereotypes more than I cared to admit; it dawned on me that I’d asked it because, with her blonde hair and blue eyes, my wife didn’t “look Jewish.” But to the lout who assaulted her, she was as much of a Jew as the young Chassid she’d assisted—and she was therefore unambiguously the victim of an anti-Semitic attack. Like many victims of anti-Semitic violence, she didn’t report the assault to the London transport police, and neither did I, processing the incident instead as an ugly and painful memory.

To this day, it still troubles me that among my first reactions was to wonder why the assailant had identified my wife as a Jew. The internalization of anti-Semitic stereotypes offers part of the answer, but there is, perhaps, an additional explanation that is even more disturbing—that somehow violence against those of us who are visibly Jewish is more easily explained and rationalized than it is against those of us who are not. If the assailant had spotted my wife helping the young Chassid with his suitcase, then there, to my mind, was a rational explanation for why she’d been targeted. But what if the assailant had just decided on the spot that she was Jewish and therefore a legitimate target for his hatred? That was perhaps too unpleasant to contemplate.

We will never know what my wife’s attacker was thinking in that moment. But when it comes to anti-Semitic violence these days, that awkward distinction in my head—between those of us who are publicly visible as Jews and those who are not—is still very much in the air.

On a purely empirical level, it’s a distinction that makes sense, insofar as hate-crime statistics show that “visible” Jews are more likely to face random violence as Jews than are “non-visibles” because, of course, they are identifiable as such by their clothing. But on a moral and political level—and this is the lesson I learned from my wife’s experience—it is a distinction without value.

It reinforces, among both Jews and non-Jews, the notion that violence against visible Jews can be comfortably explained away; lunatics prowl the streets of our cities, and some of them are anti-Semites and racists with no self-control, so a Jew took a beating because he was unfortunate to be wearing a kipah in the wrong place at the wrong time. Next time, wear a baseball cap, you might advise.

These generic platitudes are of little help in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., home to the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, where in the last three months about a dozen Chassidic men have been brutally beaten up, leaving many in the community fearful, as one rabbi told me this week, of walking a couple of blocks to go to the store or visit a relative. The most recent incidents took place within a few minutes of each other, in the early hours of Wednesday morning last week. Three African-American youths attacked a 22-year-old yeshivah student who was chatting on his cellphone, leaving him bloodied and disoriented on the sidewalk. Minutes later, the same youths attacked a 51-year-old Chassidic man, dragging him to the ground as they kicked and punched him without mercy. Two of them have since been arrested by the NYPD and charged with hate crimes.

It’s a miracle, frankly, that none of the victims of these or the previous attacks have been killed, but if this trend is allowed to continue, that can easily change. Since the anti-Semitic riots of August 1991 in Crown Heights, there has been real progress in good relations between the Orthodox Jews and African-Americans (and these days many other ethnicities) who live in the neighborhood side by side. And yet, there is clearly a counterprocess at work, expressed in the kind of violent and delinquent anti-Semitism that has become horribly familiar over the last decade to French Jews living in poor neighborhoods of Paris alongside much larger Muslim immigrant communities.

Jewish community leaders in Crown Heights are right, therefore, when they insist on a proper investigation by the city authorities into the circumstances underlying the current spate of anti-Semitic violence. To casually invoke “historical grievances,” the Black Lives Matter movement or any other convenient filter as the sole reason for these attacks doesn’t help anyone. Similarly, the correct observation that the Crown Heights situation is very much an exception, and not the rule, for most American Jews shouldn’t lead us to complacency.

Violence against “visible” Jews is at the same time an expression of hatred towards all Jews and those perceived as Jews. True, the “non-visibles” among us are not on the frontlines—at least, not when we are casually walking the streets of our cities—but that is no reason for us to pretend that what’s happening in Crown Heights is not our problem. Make no mistake: The fundamental impulse behind these assaults is the same impulse behind the Oct. 27 mass shooting of 11 men and women who became visibly Jewish as soon as they entered Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue.

Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in “Commentary,” “the New York Post,” “Haaretz,” “The Wall Street Journal” and many other publications.

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