If you’re Jewish, how afraid should you be of being a victim of a violent anti-Semitic hate crime? In the wake of the Pittsburgh and Poway synagogue shootings in the last year, many American Jews remain afraid. The specter of white-supremacist hate that fueled those and other mass shootings has become the primary focus of those tasked with fighting and monitoring anti-Semitism. But while the slaughter in Pittsburgh remains the worst act of anti-Semitic violence in American history—with 11 Jewish worshippers shot and killed during Shabbat-morning services—and the scary imagery of the August 2017 torch-lit march of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Va., has become a symbol of the rise of extremism, the odds of the average American Jew personally encountering violent Jew-hatred remains extremely small.
Except, that is, if you are Orthodox and living in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Within the last week, three violent incidents involving attacks on Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn have occurred. Although there was at least one close call involving a paving stone being hurled at a rabbi that injured him, no deaths resulted. While the police have hesitated to label all of these attacks as hate crimes, the common denominator is that the victims were all Jewish men clad in Orthodox garb, and therefore easily recognizable as Jews, with the perpetrators also hurling anti-Semitic abuse.
The New York City Police Department has reported 150 anti-Semitic hate crimes in the five boroughs so far in 2019. That’s already more than double the number recorded in 2018. Most seem to fall into the same category as last week’s spate of attacks in which identifiably African-Americans set upon Orthodox Jews.
If any other religious minority were facing this kind of threat, it’s not hard to imagine that the reaction from the organized Jewish world, as well as the mainstream media, would be something close to panic. Yet calm has prevailed among those who are tasked with the job of sounding the alarm about hate.
The reason is clear. Those who are being insulted, threatened and assaulted don’t look like most American Jews. Even worse, those responsible for these crimes don’t fit into the narrative about anti-Semitism that has been established by groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the media. Instead of white supremacists who can be loosely, if inaccurately, linked to President Donald Trump, the perpetrators are African-Americans.
You don’t have to be a Jewish community-relations professional or a sociologist to understand that a replay of the tensions that tore New York apart in the 1960s and ’70s as blacks and Jews clashed is not the topic that the organized Jewish world wishes to discuss in 2019. Indeed, the instinct among some in the mainstream non-Orthodox community is to put down what’s happening in Brooklyn as the inevitable tensions that result when starkly different ethnic or racial urban populations live in close proximity to each other, rather than traditional anti-Semitism.
But in order to come to such a conclusion, you have to ignore the fact that there is a conspicuous source of anti-Semitic incitement and influence among African-Americans that many political liberals have struggled to ignore: Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam.
Though the members of NOI mosques are only estimated to number around 50,000 nationally, Farrakhan’s sympathizers and admirers are more likely to be counted in the hundreds of thousands. Moreover, it is a fact that African-American leaders don’t treat the hatemonger as an extremist to be shunned. The same is true of the heads of leading anti-Trump “resistance” groups like the Women’s March, who are open admirers of this purveyor of crude anti-Semitism. Only a year ago, Farrakhan sat on the stage at singer Aretha Franklin’s nationally televised funeral alongside Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and former President Bill Clinton, who shared a handshake with the Nation of Islam leader. Yet most objections to this incident were dismissed as partisanship.
While they constitute a small minority among African-Americans, NOI members, as well as Farrakhan’s supporters and enablers, far outnumber the ranks of those affiliated with white-supremacist groups. It’s also impossible to imagine any prominent Republican officeholder, past or present, willing to embrace someone like, say, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. And while there is, as of yet, no evidence that those attacking Orthodox Jews are linked to Farrakhan, it’s far easier to connect the dots between him and those crimes than it is to try to blame Trump for acts of far-right extremism that the president has repeatedly condemned.
Other incidents involving prejudice against Orthodox Jews have come to light. One example is the astonishing video ad put out by the Republican Party of Upstate New York’s Rockland County. The Rockland GOP is locked in a political struggle for power with representatives of the Chassidic community, whose exponential growth and appetite for development has transformed that once-formerly sleepy exurb. Zoning battles are always bitter affairs, but the exploitation of the image of the Orthodox, who look and act differently than other local residents, as a unique threat is dangerous specifically because it plays into anti-Semitic attitudes.
Yet the most pressing problem facing the Orthodox community remains the steady stream of violent attacks that no one seems to be willing or able to do anything about.
The point of highlighting what is going on in Brooklyn is not to exacerbate tensions between blacks and Jews, but to illustrate the fact that that many prominent Jews don’t seem to care that much about a serious threat to Jewish security.
What is needed now is for the American Jewish world to come together to embrace the Orthodox community the way it did after the Pittsburgh and Poway attacks. If that doesn’t happen, the clear lack of interest on the part of the mainstream Jewish community—and the likelihood that this stems from both politics and hostility towards the Orthodox—will worsen the already dangerous divisions along denominational lines that already exist.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.