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Agudath Israel: ‘Invaluable’ to talk antisemitic attacks, zoning with New York AG

Rabbi Eli Steinberg, a community activist, said it is “heartening” that James met with a delegation of Orthodox Jewry not after an extreme event, but at a time when the public isn’t noticing.

An Agudath Israel of America delegation meets with New York Attorney General Letitia James in her New York City office on June 5, 2023. Credit: Courtesy.
An Agudath Israel of America delegation meets with New York Attorney General Letitia James in her New York City office on June 5, 2023. Credit: Courtesy.

The American Jewish Committee’s 2022 State of Antisemitism in America Report found that 89% of U.S. Jews think that antisemitism is a problem stateside, and 41% felt less safe than in the prior year. According to another report, 52% of Jews assaulted in New York City over the prior four years were Chassidic, and another 42% were Orthodox but not Chassidic.

Agudath Israel of America representatives met earlier this month with New York Attorney General Letitia James to discuss “pressing concerns on important issues affecting the Orthodox Jewish community in New York,” per a release.

Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, director of Agudath’s New York government relations, led the delegation, which met with the attorney general for about an hour on June 5 in her New York City office. The conversation addressed religious discrimination in zoning, rising attacks on visibly Jewish people; the antisemitic commencement speech at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law; and anti-Orthodox media bias.

Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Agudath’s executive vice president, told JNS that it is “invaluable” to meet with elected officials—particularly, the state’s top legal officer, who is “sensitive to the community needs and the ways in which she can use her office to help the community.”

“There is room for making an elected official aware of our needs and concerns, and while they will not always be able to accommodate our needs, the placement of a legal officer, who is responsive to the community, is very helpful,” Zwiebel told JNS. “We can take advantage of these opportunities, which are very important, to help our community thrive and to combat illegal attacks on our community.”

Agudath has had a relationship with James spanning her 20-year career as a council member, public advocate, and now, attorney general, stated the 101-year-old nonprofit that represents U.S. Orthodox Jewry.

An issue they have to deal with’

James, whose office did not respond to JNS queries, expressed “deep concern” about the CUNY commencement address and “emphasized her commitment to combating antisemitism in all forms and her determination to ensure that institutions of higher education remain safe and inclusive for Jewish students,” Agudath stated.

“My office will continue to investigate hate crimes and combat discrimination. I will never allow intolerance, antisemitism and ignorance to go unchallenged in this state,” the attorney general stated, as quoted in the Agudath release.

Chaim Dovid Zwiebel Agudah
Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, speaks at the organization’s 2023 Yeshiva Summit. Credit: Moshe Gershbaum/Agudah.

Zwiebel told JNS that the Agudath delegation discussed housing discrimination, including land-use regulations designed to block the construction of synagogues and Jewish schools. That included a 2019 case in Forestburgh, N.Y., in which permits for a property that a non-Jewish developer received were revoked when it was sold to a Chassidic developer. That was done allegedly to “keep the Chassidic out.”

James has been helpful in prior cases, Zweibel said.

Rabbi Eli Steinberg, who is active in New York-area communal politics, told JNS that it is “heartening” to see James meet with Agudath in this way not in response to an extreme event but “in a time when it’s not just something that the public is noticing particularly.”

“Every so often, there’s a burst of recognition from people more broadly, outside the Orthodox community, where they recognize that this is an issue that they have to deal with,” Steinberg said. “Then typically it dies down not because the issue actually dies down, but because the public focus on the issue dies down.”

Antisemitism is often viewed through political lenses, according to Steinberg, with people overwhelmingly recognizing Jew-hatred only across the aisle, while “turning a blind eye when those in their own party are perpetuating it.” 

“Really, it is not a partisan issue,” he said.

Not only are those who are visibly Jewish the most frequent targets of hate crimes, but Steinberg said the number of reported antisemitic incidents likely undercounts because people don’t have sufficient faith that the officials will respond. 

In a recent victim impact statement in Manhattan Supreme Court, before his attacker was sentenced to 18 months, Joseph Borgen asked: “What kind of message does this send to everybody, to all victims of hate crime?” 

“I really can’t fathom why he’s getting a deal,” he said. “I wanted to go to trial. I wanted to see full justice.”

Steinberg told JNS he hopes that discussions, like that between Agudath and James, can help reverse Jewish resignation by producing real results in the prosecution of antisemitic hate crimes.

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