It was 7:40 p.m. when a young black man wearing a backpack jogged up behind a 39-year-old chasidic man walking alone in Williamsburg last month and punched him on the head, knocking off his hat and kipa. He then ran off, looking back once to see the chasidic man stumble against a building to regain his footing.
Just days earlier, a chasidic man also walking alone in Brooklyn was confronted by a group of men, one of whom punched him in the face while another uttered anti-Semitic slurs.
In February, vandals smashed the front window of the Chabad of Bushwick Synagogue, scrawled anti-Semitic graffiti on a mailbox in Bay Ridge and placed a note on the billboard in front of the Jewish Children’s Museum in Crown Heights that read, “Hitler is Coming.”
“New York has become the capital of hate,” said former Assemblyman Dov Hikind. “Jews who are identifiably Jewish are being attacked because they are Jews. There is no other reason.”
He added that he had just spoken before a group of 120 Emunah women in Brooklyn about anti-Semitism because “this is what people are concerned about.” He cited a survey last month by the Jewish Electoral Institute in which 73 percent of Jews said they felt “less secure” than they did two years ago.
At a time when crime is at record lows in the city, there has been a 90 percent spike in anti-Semitic hate crimes this year, accounting for about 60 percent of all hate crimes to date, according to the New York City Police Department. In response, Mayor Bill de Blasio has advanced the start of the Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes, which had been slated to open in November.
Although no date has been named, a spokesman for the mayor said it will be this summer, and City Councilman Mark Levine (D-Manhattan) said it could be as early as next month.
“We are very excited to have passed legislation in January creating this office, which will serve as an umbrella coordinating office to bring together every agency in city government to fight hate crimes,” he told The Jewish Week.
Levine said plans are being formulated to develop curricula for public schools, as well as “programming for after-school settings to help kids understand the history of other people and break through the ignorance that fuels so much prejudice.”
City Councilman Chaim Deutsch (D-Brooklyn) said in an email that the new office “is a huge piece of the puzzle to resolve this issue, working to prevent hate crimes by going into communities and helping people of every age and background understand the repercussions of baseless hatred and bias.”
That is already being done by David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, and Rabbi David Niederman, executive director and president of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, who go together into some middle schools in Williamsburg.
“Both of us look very much like ‘the other’ to most of the kids in public schools,” Pollock said. “These kids have never had the opportunity to ask basic questions about what is a Jew and what is a chasid. We both wear kippot and have beards and he is in full chasidic garb. They don’t know who we are. The problem is that we are living in social silos and political silos and racial silos. And when you have silos without social interaction, you can have hate. Hopefully, the city-sponsored program will do more of this and in more neighborhoods.”
He added that he is hopeful about the new office, saying it is “possible this office can figure out how to reknit the fabric of society and reduce hate.”
The increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the city actually goes back to the fourth quarter of last year, according to Evan Bernstein, the New York/New Jersey regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.
“The trend began at the end of 2018, so we are not surprised by the numbers,” he said. “What is concerning is how long the Orthodox community in Brooklyn has had to endure this long wave of anti-Semitism, whether it’s harassment, vandalism or assault.”
Speaking with reporters last week, de Blasio insisted that the increase in anti-Semitism is caused by a “right-wing movement,” and has nothing to do with those “on the left in the BDS movement [boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel] and around the world.”
“I want to be very, very clear — the violent threat, the threat that is ideological — is very much from the right,” he said, adding that the perpetrators trace their history to Nazism and fascism.
But none of those interviewed for this article agreed.
“This is not a white supremacist problem,” Bernstein maintained. “This is a community problem. There have been community problems in Brooklyn since the Crown Heights riots [in 1991].”
Deutsch said there is “absolutely no evidence of far-right white supremacists committing these acts. It’s frankly upsetting that the mayor is using Jewish victims of assaults in Brooklyn to perpetuate an ideology that he feels will further his national campaign.”
Levine said he too does not believe there is “one single cause because this should be seen in the context of a global rise” in anti-Semitism.
Devorah Halberstam, whose son Ari, 16, was shot in the head and killed by a Muslim terrorist as he rode in a van on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1994, said she compares the upsurge in anti-Semitic attacks to a “forest fire – it keeps spreading, whether in Pittsburgh or the murder of my son.”
“I think some of it is by copycats, but people have short memories and we have to give them history lessons, teach them about hate symbols, what they mean and that the Nazis were evil,” she said.
The Jewish Children’s Museum, which Halberstam played a major role in creating, offers programs that teach children from public schools about Jewish people.
“We need to teach them about our culture and what we do,” Halberstam said. “So much of it is pure ignorance. … They don’t know what a swastika represents.”
One reason for the upsurge in anti-Semitic hate crimes may be the current “polarized world that does not tolerate differences among people,” suggested Stephen Savitsky, president of Bnai Zion Foundation, an organization that funds capital projects in Israel in areas of social inclusion, health and culture.
“New York City has the largest concentration of Jewish people outside of Israel, and if there is going to be a spike in anti-Semitism, you will see it here,” he said. “I think education is a great idea. What we have to do is educate the general public — particularly young people — about Jews, our history, our culture and our caring for the world. And we have to make sure that every single Jewish person is equipped with enough information that they can speak intelligently when they encounter anti-Semites.”
A different approach is advocated by Brooke Goldstein, founder of the Lawfare Project, who believes “it is time we stood up for ourselves in courts of law — like every other minority — and demand equal protection under the law. If we don’t do that, we send a signal that they can get away with it.”
“The community has to be mobilized to provide pro bono legal support to Jews or Israelis who are targeted because of their faith,” she added, noting that in the last four years her organization has filed 76 civil rights cases in 16 different jurisdictions on behalf of Jews who have been discriminated against because of their religion.
“The most effective thing you can do is engage in civil rights litigation – not marches, letter writing or mass emails,” Goldstein said, citing her group’s success in suing San Francisco State University on behalf of Jewish students who said they had been discriminated against on campus.
The defaced mailbox was in the district of Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis (R-Brooklyn/Staten Island), who agreed that education about the Holocaust and Nazism is essential.
“I’m disturbed by words like ‘racist’ and ‘Nazi’ that are used so liberally by young people on social media,” she said. “I want to bring together faith-based leaders in Brooklyn and ask the police department to talk about the uptick in hate crimes in Brooklyn. … We need also to be mindful as elected officials of what we say and do, and when individuals in Congress spew anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric, it may give others a license to do the same.”