As much of the country was transfixed by a hoaxed hate crime in Chicago over the past month, a very real wave of hate crimes in Brooklyn has been taking place. In New York City overall there have been 36 hate crimes against Jews so far this year, according to The New York Times, compared to only 21 last year. In the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn alone, ultra-orthodox Jews have been violently attacked at least 15 times since October of last year.
In most of these cases there is no apparent motive beyond anti-Semitism. No robbery occurs, and often the attackers — generally black men — and their victims are complete strangers. State and local government, as well as the New York City Police Department, have stepped up measures to protect the community, but the incidents have continued apace.
The spate of anti-Semitic attacks raises some significant questions. First and foremost, why is this happening and how can it be stopped? But also, why have the news media and the nation’s politicians been so quiet about an epidemic of hate crime in our country’s largest city? Why isn’t this a big story?
To get at an answer to the first question, we have to peer back through some troubling Brooklyn history. In 1991, the Crown Heights riots exploded in the Brooklyn neighborhood shared mainly by black and ultra-orthodox New Yorkers. Tensions between the two groups had existed for years. Then, a Jewish driver killed a black child. The crash was clearly shown to be an accident, not intentional or negligent, but deadly violence was the result nonetheless. In the years since, tensions have calmed, but never truly disappeared.
The roots of the disputes are murky. The ultra-orthodox are a strange set of neighbors in New York City. It is an insular community, in which a strict form of Jewish law, including dress codes and famously hats, is enforced. Anyone who attempts to leave the community, or live outside of its silo, is cut off from friends and family.
This is not the kind of attitude one typically looks for in neighbors. Its one thing for the Amish to promulgate this kind of lifestyle in rural Pennsylvania, but the ultra-orthodox are smack in the middle of the most populous borough of New York City. Existing in such an exclusive way in that environment is sure to cause tension, but just as surely is not grounds to be physically attacked.
For its part, the black community in New York City has struggled with accusations of anti-Semitism dating back at least to the riots. Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam has a foothold in the community, and with that comes some pretty awful messages about Jews. Even non-adherents to the Nation of Islam in the black community have a complicated relationship to Farrakhan and his message.
Recently Women’s March leader Tamika Mallory put this in some perspective when she refused to denounce Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism, citing the good works he has done in black communities. To a lot of Jews, this is like saying you won’t denounce the Klan’s racism because they do a Christmas toy drive. Jewish organizations have attempted to do outreach into the black community, but frankly, the black community has its own work to do, especially in terms of condemning anti-Semites like Farrakhan.
The question of why this onslaught of anti Jewish violence is happening so quietly is not as important as stopping the violence, but it’s still important. Any fair-minded observer would agree that if 15 black people had been victims of racially motivated beatings in relatively white Bensonhurst since October, it would be a big national story. In fact, just one such alleged incident in Chicago got more coverage on its own than the attacks in Brooklyn have.
To some degree this is explained by the fact that the ultra-orthodox keep their own counsel, and do not engage in a lot of public relations outreach. But it’s more than that. It is very clear that news outlets are much more comfortable not only reporting, but also extrapolating on white violence against blacks than they are black violence against Jews.
Some of this reticence may be understandable. It can be reasonable for journalists to consider race in how they cover a story. Given the unfair stereotypes about black men regarding crime and violence, it makes sense to try to avoid feeding that stereotype. But the answer cannot simply be to bury the story because it is uncomfortable. Rather, the facts and context can be reported and explored in a nuanced manner that makes clear no broad generalizations about anyone are being asserted.
Likewise, politicians both locally and nationally need to speak up about this violence against Jews. In the wake of the alleged Smollett attacks, the tweets poured like wine from Democratic presidential candidates, yet none seem very interested in these repeated attacks on Jews in Brooklyn. That should change.
Shining a spotlight on white racists, such as the abhorrent participants in Charlottesville, is easy. It comports with a comfortable narrative about how vestiges of white supremacy still exist and must be confronted. Talking about black men committing violent hate crimes against Jews is far more complicated and difficult, yet it has to happen.
If these attacks continue, and the press continues to shield the city and country from it, people are going to die, just as they did in 1991. Now is the time when we need strong leadership from local officials and a news media willing to be upfront about what is going on. If that doesn’t happen, there is every reason to believe Brooklyn’s ultra-orthodox Jewish and black communities could be headed back into the bad old days.