Following a spike in anti-Semitic crimes over the summer — including the attack of a visibly-Jewish couple on the Upper East Side last month — New York City-area Jews began celebrating the High Holidays this week in a charged atmosphere and with stepped-up security measures at synagogues and other Jewish institutions.
Hate crimes spiked over the summer against both Jews and Muslims coinciding with the flood of images of the war in Gaza and the rise of the Islamic State. Reports of anti-Semitic incidents more than doubled, jumping from an average of eight incidents a month before July 1 to an average of 18 a month in July and August, according to the NYPD.
Crimes against Muslims also rose this year, with all but three of the 17 anti-Muslim incidents happening since July 1, the Associated Press reported.
In all, there has been a 39 percent rise in anti-Semitic crimes this year, with 89 anti-Semitic incidents reported between Jan. 1 and Sept. 17 compared to 64 during the same period in 2013. Crimes against Muslims also more than doubled, jumping from seven to 17 during the same periods.
Three of the anti-Semitic incidents were assaults, including a late-August attack on the Upper East Side, when men in a pair of cars with Palestinian flags on them yelled anti-Semitic slurs at a kipa-wearing man and his wife. According to reports, after the cars came to a stop, one of the men threw a water bottle at the woman and punched the husband in the head when he tried to defend her.
But anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim crimes have dropped, so far, in September, and even at its height, the spate of anti-Semitic crimes have been decidedly amateurish, ranging from graffiti to “impulsive street thuggery,” said David Pollock, assistant executive director at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, which advises Jewish institutions on security measures. In addition, all of the perpetrators appear to be unconnected to organized hate groups.
“Most of the incidents involve crimes against property: drawing a swastika or an anti-Israel or anti-Semitic statement on an identifiably Jewish wall, for example,” Pollock said. “The worst things that have happened involved verbal disputes plus some sort of very short-duration physical exchange.”
Pollock and others who deal with security at New York City-area Jewish institutions say that not only has the number of anti-Semitic incidents increased this year, but there have also been differences in what types of institutions have been targeted.
While in past years, crimes have primarily been perpetrated against Israeli institutions, cultural venues and embassies, now Jewish institutions of all types are being targeted, said Paul Goldenberg, director of the Secure Community Network, which works with national and local Jewish community groups on security issues.
“Synagogues, Jewish centers and federation buildings, unfortunately, have come into the crosshairs of those who may be angry or bear hatred towards the State of Israel,” he said.
There has also been greater understanding among counterterrorism experts about the role that anti-Semitism plays in terrorist attacks, said Pollock.
“What’s different this year is the acknowledgement that eight out of the 18 attacks or plots against New York City [in recent years] involved a Jewish component,” Pollock said in an interview with The Jewish Week. For instance, Pollock continued, “There were people from Westchester who wanted to shoot down a military flight at Stewart National Guard Station, [but, they said,] ‘Before we do that why don’t we plant two bombs in front of synagogues in Riverdale?’
“We know that there is a pattern of involving a Jewish component in lone-wolf attacks,” he continued. “We also know that anti-Semitism is a component of the radicalization process used by some of the terrorist groups like al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula. You layer on top of that the media images resulting from “Operation Protective Edge,” and it’s probably a good idea to heighten your level of vigilance.”
During a briefing with Jewish groups last week, NYPD officials were mum on the exact security measures planned for High Holiday services, and the NYPD did not respond to a request for an interview. However, Pollock, who attended the meeting and has works regularly with the NYPD on synagogue security, said the police were “on top of the situation.”
“The New York City Police Department has its own intelligence division that works with Homeland Security and the CIA and the FBI, so they know what the situation is and they are taking appropriate steps,” he said.
Pollock also attended a meeting last week between Nassau County law enforcement officials and Jewish groups. “Both departments are very well aware and very prepared,” he said.
Goldenberg, of the Secure Community Network, added that since Police Commissioner William Bratton took over the in January, the NYPD has done “extensive outreach” to Jewish communities, developing relationships with a network of liaisons in Jewish communities across the city to learn about the security needs of individual institutions and to provide “real-time” information should there be an attack at a Jewish institution anywhere in the city.
“The message that we are putting out is that there are no known specific threats but there is a need for heightened vigilance out of an abundance of precaution,” said Pollock.
Goldenberg and Pollock said Jewish institutions have been increasing security measures steadily in past years with such measures as requiring drivers entering an institution’s parking lot to show a parking pass, making sure security guards are well trained in such areas as dealing with active shooters and recognizing security threats and checking bags of everyone who comes in the building.
“The trick is, to balance being warm and welcoming and being safe and secure,” said Pollock. “For example, as people come in, greet them warmly, but you can do a bag check … ‘I hope you have a meaningful holiday season with us, but we’re checking what’s in everyone’s bags just to make sure that everyone is safe.’”
“That kind of balance,” he said, “people understand it, and it makes them feel better. It enhances the warm welcoming, because it shows you care.”