Following a string of anti-Semitic crimes in the city in recent weeks — many of them physical attacks — Jewish politicians are attempting to balance the carrot and the stick, calling at once for tougher prosecutions and increased education in an effort to keep their communities safe.
In signaling the nuanced approach, Coney Island Councilman Mark Treyger said, “We need prosecutions, examples have to be set and [we] simultaneously need an increased public awareness education campaign, really educating them [the public] … that there is a zero-tolerance policy towards hate because you can’t just arrest your way out of this problem either. We need to make sure that we are better informing and educating the public about how wrong this [string of hate crimes] is.”
In addition, two city councilmen are each sponsoring separate legislation to address the anti-Semitic uptick. Mark Levine, who represents Upper Manhattan from Morningside Heights through Hamilton Heights, is calling for a special office at the mayoral level to address hate crimes, similar to existing offices addressing such issues as immigrant affairs and criminal justice. Midwood legislator Chaim Deutsch’s bill would increase education, outreach and the reporting of motives of hate crimes.
Anti-Semitic crimes in the city have risen nearly 25 percent over the past year, with more than 168 documented in 2018 so far, according to the NYPD. In 2017, anti-Semitic incidents nationwide rose 57 percent over the year before, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Over the past six weeks, the frequency of incidents across the city appears to have increased dramatically:
Early Saturday morning, Dec. 1, a chasidic man was walking to services in Crown Heights when two black men attacked him, one of them punching him in the face. They fled when the victim began fighting back, managing to grab the glasses off of one of the attackers.
The evening before, on Friday, Nov. 30, a man punched a 33-year-old chasidic man on the back of his head in Williamsburg. The attacker fled and two witnesses caught him, but because there were no police readily available to turn the man over to, they let him go, according to CBS2 News.
The previous day, a swastika was found in a public library in Brighton Beach. And the day before that, in what officials called a particularly brazen attack, a Columbia University professor who teaches about the Holocaust found two huge swastikas and an anti-Semitic slur scrawled in red spray paint on the walls inside her campus office.
On Sunday evening, Nov. 25, two children were attacked: a 9-year-old was repeatedly punched in the face in Williamsburg and an hour later and a block away, a 12-year-old boy was attacked by a small group of men, according to the New York Post.
On Nov. 7, the New York Police Department circulated a video of 12- to 15-year-olds suspected of carrying out a series of anti-Semitic attacks on Nov. 3. The incidents include a metal pipe thrown through the window of a synagogue in Williamsburg during Shabbat afternoon services pushing a 10-year-old chasidic girl to the ground. In a separate incident, the group is also accused of knocking off a 14-year-old chasidic boy’s hat.
On Nov. 2, a man later identified as James Polite, 26, wrote “Die Jew Rats” and other anti-Semitic phrases scrawled throughout Union Temple synagogue in Prospect Heights. The graffiti, which also included the phrases “Hitler,” “End It Now” and “Jew Better Be Ready,” according to The New York Times, had prompted the Prospect Heights synagogue to cancel a get-out-the-vote event headlined by “Broad City” star Ilana Glazer last Thursday evening, after people were already in line waiting to enter.
And, on Oct. 30, two teenagers drew swastikas on several Brooklyn Heights homes. They were later charged after turning themselves in.
In November, there were three incidents of anti-Semitic graffiti in the area of West 105th Street in Manhattan, according to Levine.
David Pollock, associate executive director and director of public policy and Jewish security at the Jewish Community Relations Council, said calls from Jewish organizations looking for help upgrading their security precautions have spiked since the murders at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last month.
He said more than 200 Jewish organizations have requested security assessments and his head of security evaluation is rushing to provide the schools that have contacted them with suggestions before Dec. 19, which is the deadline for a New York State $10.2 million grant program that helps schools install better security.
Pollock’s security chief has been “working 18 hours a day,” he said, adding that the evaluations are a new development.
“We want to help institutions to make sure that they balance being warm and welcoming,” he said. “But we also have to be safe and secure. You’re not going to want to send your daughter to a nursery school in a building that is not safe and secure.”
Analyzing the causes of the hate crimes uptick, Levine cited political ideology.
“We’ve now seen the ways in which hate speech [from white nationalists] very quickly turns into violence,” said Levine. He also acknowledged “the anti-Semitism that’s coming from the left as well. This is a multifront struggle that we’re in.”
He noted that “Jews make up 13 percent of city residents and 50 percent of city hate crimes are anti-Semitic.”
Levine continued, “For a long time I’ve heard people dismiss anti-Semitic hate crimes because they’re more likely to be in the form of hate speech and vandalism, and I think that’s a very dangerous view that needs to be put to rest. … I think the threat of that ideology escalating into violence can no longer be dismissed after Pittsburgh. … And so I think the city needs to react to every single hate crime with aggressive police work to catch the perpetrator and aggressive prosecution and more policy work to bring communities together and to attack the problem on every front. It should be seen as a major priority of the city that requires a sustained multi-agency response coordinated at the highest level.”
Deutsch, who said he was “very concerned” about the rash of anti-Semitic incidents, outlined steps people should take to fight hate crimes, including always reporting them to 911, installing more police in vulnerable neighborhoods, and, when walking early in the morning or late at night, to try to walk in a group and be proactive — run into a store, call 911 — if your instincts tell you you’re unsafe.
He was slated to hold two community meetings on Tuesday, one in Williamsburg and the other in Crown Heights, to discuss the problem.
Councilman Brad Lander noted that the string of attacks “falls heavily and unacceptably on those who are visibly Jewish — especially Orthodox and chasidic [Jews].” Although, he added, “We saw in Pittsburgh, that it extends across all lines.”
Lander mentioned increasing school integration and tolerance education as a possible step to address the problem. He also said perhaps the city could put even more resources into addressing mental health problems.
Although he doesn’t know for sure that these steps will be effective, he said we have to do something.
“I don’t feel like what we should do is throw our arms up and say: ‘Well, we can look for accountability, but we can’t do anything up front.’” Lander continued, “It’s important to do something up front and this goes to the question of what’s out there in the air [that is causing this uptick]. It’s coming from somewhere, right? This sense that it’s more OK to engage in hate crimes. It feels like it’s out there and we have to try to do something about it.”
Ed’s Note: This article previously identified Councilman Levine as the Chairman of the Jewish Caucus. Councilman Deutsch is the head of the Caucus.