Imagine that members of a religious minority were being frequently physically assaulted in America’s largest city at alarming rates. Imagine if members of that minority were being cold-cocked or spit on randomly for doing nothing more than being who they are and dressing how they dress. Imagine what a powerful and important story this would be to our country, how mobilized the media and government would be to stop it. But what if I told you that this is happening in New York City right now, and nobody seems to care very much? How can this be? I’ll explain it.
Orthodox Jews in New York City, specifically in Brooklyn, have experienced alarming rates of physical assault over the past year. The New York Police Department says that hate crimes in the city are up 67 percent this year. Of those, a whopping 80 percent have been anti-Semitic hate crimes. Just this week an Orthodox Jew just walking down the street was attacked from behind, punched in the head by an attacker who then ran away. In another incident this week, an Orthodox Jew was attacked by a group of men, one of whom shouted “You (expletive) Jew.”
This is an all too familiar story in Brooklyn these days, and there is a reason it isn’t being treated as a crisis by our media or government. That reason is that many if not most of the assailants are black or Hispanic men. In an article in The New York Times last October that was careful to point out, although without much evidence, that people of all descriptions are committing acts of anti-Semitism, Ginia Bellafante writes (emphasis mine), “In fact, it is the varied backgrounds of people who commit hate crimes in the city that make combating and talking about anti-Semitism in New York much harder.”
We should be clear about what this means. It means that if these assaults were being committed by white men in hoods or MAGA hats, it would not be “hard to talk about.” It would be a clear-cut case of bigotry that needs to be fought with every tool in our arsenal. Instead, journalists are wringing their hands about intersectionality, and careful not to indulge the narrative that these physical attacks are coming from blacks and Hispanics in bordering neighborhoods, even though that narrative is absolutely true.
I know this because I have done it myself. Back in February I wrote about these attacks and I wrote some things that I now regret and want to apologize to the Orthodox community for. I wrote that Orthodox Jews are a “strange set of neighbors,” and their insular ways lead to tension in communities. In retrospect, and through some Orthodox Jews who reached out to me, I see that this was not acceptable, that in fact, I was in some way blaming these Jews for their own assaults.
Just as bad, I was making excuses for these attackers, trying to a find a far more nuanced take than I ever would if the assailants were white men. Even as someone who writes often about race double standards in the media, I fell straight into the trap. I found it “hard to talk about” without placing some blame on both sides.
There is nothing wrong with taking historical racial prejudice into account when writing about racial tension. A conscientious journalist should have worries about painting groups with too broad a brush or promoting stereotypes, but this must be balanced with telling the truth and giving a story the attention it needs and deserves.
In this, both the media and the city government are failing badly, and this is part of why. I asked city councilman and candidate for public advocate Joe Borelli if he thought the city and Mayor Bill de Blasio were doing enough. He was succinct, “It seems like the outrage ended when they couldn’t tie these hate crimes to Trump.”
At a time when we hear anti-Semitic remarks from a U.S. congresswoman and blatant anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan still holds sway among black Americans, we need to focus on and address the roots of anti-Jewish bias and crime in New York City. It can’t be “too hard to talk about.” We have to talk about it, directly and bluntly.
Every week that goes by without doing so, more Jews will be hunted and attacked on the streets of Brooklyn. This is not a complicated and nuanced story, it’s a crisis that nobody seems to want to deal with. That has to change, and it has to change now.