We all know about Robert Bowers, the neo-Nazi who murdered 11 Jews in Pittsburgh. Yet most of us outside Brooklyn and some other New York City boroughs never have heard of James Polite. Who is he?
In the aftermath of the Pittsburgh massacre, two Jewish houses of worship on opposite American coasts experienced quasi-copycat attacks. The first was in Irvine, Calif., the city where I have lived for more than a decade. The FBI has been ranking Irvine, seemingly forever, as the safest city in the United States. It is so safe here that the police department are kind of like the “Maytag repairman” in the old Jesse White TV commercials—bored with nothing to do. Thus, when two automobiles barely collide in Irvine, it is not unusual to see four police cars and two fire trucks on the scene within five minutes. Finally, something to do!
In the Irvine anti-Jewish incident, a person sneaked onto the facility of the Jewish house of worship two hours after midnight, and security cameras reflect that he was enormously frightened: bundled in a hoodie, donning sunglasses to cover his eyes, wearing a surgical face mask. He rapidly took out an aerosol spray can and painted two words on the exterior wall, perhaps the extent of his vocabulary, and he fled like the coward he is.
By the next morning, after the media were alerted and the photo was disseminated to news media far and wide, the wall was painted over, and it was like it never had happened.
By the afternoon, the ADL and Simon Wiesenthal Center were emailing with messages that seemed aimed at eliciting donations, and Israeli media were pointing to the incident as proof that the American chapter of Jewish history had ended, and the last survivors of the Boro Park Ghetto need to race home to Zion before the exit gates of Flatbush and Miami Beach are closed.
Again, I have been a synagogue rabbi in Irvine more than a decade, and I am an attorney and adjunct professor of the law of Remedies and of Advanced Torts who has taught at the University of California at Irvine for several years. The spraying incident was an absolute nothing. Yes, Jews have learned from our history that we must never be sanguine when even the smallest form of anti-Semitism manifests. If we allow spray paint to go unanswered, then next time it may escalated to a rock through a window, and then a Molotov cocktail, and the next time a punch in someone’s face or a street beating. So vigilance is urgent and imperative, and the culprit must be hunted down, prosecuted and punished severely for any hate crime. But still, honestly—keeping things in perspective—it was a can of aerosol spray and a terrified hoodlum hiding his identity three different ways for dear life in the middle of the night. It did not merit international news—nor, frankly, donations to “defense” agencies.
Predictably, now that one sprayer had made world headlines, it did not surprise that the next day saw yet another Jewish site sprayed, this time a temple in Brooklyn. The Brooklyn one was more concerning because the vandal broke inside and sprayed within the facility. The incident so frightened the temple management and population that a widely promoted and scheduled public event, a candidates’ forum, was canceled.
But who dunnit? Was it a Trump supporter, a white neo-Nazi nationalist? That trope had become the meme of the American Jewish left-liberal establishment after Pittsburgh. Even though Robert Bowers hates Trump for being a globalist and a supporter of Jews and Israel, the Jewish left found it comforting to blame President Trump for Bowers. But what of the Brooklyn defacing?
The police rapidly caught the hoodlum on that one. His name is James Polite. He is black. He has been an Obama campaign worker, and has been active in Democrat and liberal causes for years. And that is why, outside of the inner boroughs of New York City where the incident occurred, you do not know of him. He simply does not fit the narrative. Rather, he disproves it because the true prevalence of anti-Semitism, where it is most rife in America, is on the left. Keith Ellison. Louis Farrakhan. Linda Sarsour of the Women’s March. Campus leftist groups promoting BDS against Israel and threatening the safety of Jewish students from NYU to the University of California.
That may not be the trope of contemporary American anti-Semitism, but it is the truth of it.
Rabbi Dov Fischer, Rav of Young Israel of Orange County and adjunct professor of law at two Southern California law schools, is a contributing editor at The American Spectator and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at Coalition for Jewish Values.