After a year of a pandemic and a hyper-partisan presidential election campaign, it seems like a lot longer than 12 months ago. However, the Dec. 10, 2019 attack on a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, N.J., briefly focused the American Jewish community on a problem that most of its members neither knew of nor cared much about up until then: African-American violence against Orthodox Jews. But as 2020 comes to a close, the non-Orthodox moved on from a momentary desire to pay lip service to the cause of unity with their more observant brethren. The focus on the impact of the novel coronavirus and differences about whether religious freedom should still be prioritized and protected during the crisis has left us further apart than ever.
The Jersey City incident, in which four people were murdered, was labeled by the FBI as an act of domestic terrorism. Not long after that, a man with a machete attacked a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews celebrating the eighth night of Hanukkah in Monsey, N.Y.
The two attacks were just the most horrific of a string of incidents in which Orthodox Jews were targeted by African-American assailants in the Greater New York area. In that month alone, some 13 such attacks took place in New York and anti-Semitic assaults made up nearly half of all hate crimes reported in New York City during the last half of 2019.
While anti-Semitism had become among the community’s chief concerns in 2019, most American Jews were slow to react to the epidemic of anti-Semitic violence taking place in New York. The reasons for that were painfully obvious. As far as the overwhelming majority of Jews who were non-Orthodox were concerned, anti-Semitism meant attacks from right-wing white supremacists, such as the ones responsible for the Pittsburgh and Poway synagogue shootings.
Following the lead of the Anti-Defamation League, which had long since abandoned its nonpartisan brief for a role as a Democratic Party auxiliary group, most liberals chose to link President Donald Trump to those events, despite the lack of evidence for the charge that he had inspired the extremists responsible for them. As a result, anti-Semitic acts that didn’t fit into a neat anti-Trump argument—as was the case with the string of hate crimes committed against Jews by African-Americans—were neither recognized nor considered a priority for the approximately 90 percent of American Jews who weren’t Orthodox.
The Jersey City and Monsey attacks not only couldn’t be ignored, they tugged at the conscience of a significant portion of the organized Jewish world. The result was a Jan. 5 solidarity march across the Brooklyn Bridge attended by an estimated 25,000 people. Though few members of the ultra-Orthodox community participated, the hope was that it would usher in a new era of unity in which secular Jews would return to a mindset that regarded attacks on the Orthodox as a threat to them, too.
But 11 months later, what turned out to be little more than a large scale photo opportunity feels as if it happened in a different century. Far from growing closer together, the already wide divide between the two elements of the Jewish community now feels more like an unbridgeable chasm.
Two months after the march, Americans were plunged into an unprecedented public-health crisis that, in theory, should have brought us all closer together. But though the virus made no distinctions between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox, the reaction to the pandemic from these two sectors couldn’t have been more different.
In the initial months of the pandemic, the ultra-Orthodox were hit particularly hard as neighborhoods in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Lakewood, N.J., where they predominate, appeared to be among the epicenters of the contagion with scores of prominent rabbis and teachers were among those lost. Even as they were among its most conspicuous victims, it was also soon clear that the most observant communities were nonetheless still determined to carry on with most of the rituals and routines of their secluded lifestyle.
Whereas the non-Orthodox seemed to embrace the lockdowns that shuttered synagogues and canceled events, the Chassidic community chafed at the restrictions on communal prayer, as well as on gatherings for weddings and funerals. Always suspicious of outside authorities and insular in their outlook, instances in which large numbers of Orthodox Jews came together were widely publicized and condemned as undermining the fight against COVID-19. While they were far from the only ones violating the rules governments handed down, they were nonetheless labeled as the most prominent and notorious of pandemic scofflaws. And among those most scathing in their disdain were non-Orthodox Jews.
This point of contention was exacerbated by the national outrage over the May 25 death of African-American George Floyd in Minneapolis, which resulted in widespread protests about racism across the nation, both of the “mostly peaceful” variety and the ones in which riots and looting took place. The millions of Americans who took part in Black Lives Matter demonstrations were doing exactly what government and health authorities had begged people not to do amid a deadly pandemic. Yet in a shocking display of partisan hypocrisy, the same people who were quick to condemn both right-wing, non-Jewish anti-lockdown protesters and ultra-Orthodox Jews who resisted the rules gave themselves a pass for doing the same thing, albeit for what they thought were more laudable reasons.
That ought to have gotten the ultra-Orthodox off the hook for their pushback against lockdowns and restrictions, but it didn’t. Governments continued sending cops to shut down their events while winking at BLM protests and, later, mass celebrations about Trump’s defeat in November. Indeed, it can be argued that far more liberal Jews took part in those demonstrations than the number of ultra-Orthodox who went to weddings, funerals and other gatherings that were labeled as super-spreader incidents.
When Agudath Israel of America sued in federal court to halt the enforcement of arbitrary coronavirus regulations that specifically targeted Chassidic neighborhoods in New York without any scientific data to back them up, the group had no support from non-Orthodox Jews and their organizations. Indeed, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in their favor and reminded the country that the First Amendment, which guaranteed the right to free exercise of religion, had not been abolished during the pandemic, liberal Jews were largely outraged rather than relieved by the court’s decision.
The split was motivated partly by the fact that the non-Orthodox were able to carry on with Shabbat and holiday services via Zoom on the Internet, which the Orthodox could not do. But the divide was as much a function of politics as anything else. The Orthodox have been overwhelmingly supportive of Trump. The identification of them supporting a president who many, if not most, liberal Jews believed was not so much wrong but evil, heightened communal tensions. And like conservative non-Jews, religious Jews believe that secular forces are attacking faith communities in the public square, a concern that liberals neither recognize nor consider of much importance.
All of this leaves us largely where we were a year ago when the concerns and even the safety of the Orthodox was something that seems to mean little to most non-Orthodox Jews. While this characterization can be considered overly broad, the contrasting interests of the two communities have widened a split that was already extensive because of culture, faith and politics.
It shouldn’t take attacks like the one that took place in Jersey City to shock Jews out of their complacency and remind them that all Jews ought to care about each other, no matter how great their differences might be. A year later, the promise of that Brooklyn Bridge march to prioritize Jewish unity is not only unfulfilled, it has largely been forgotten.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.