Several Jewish anti-racist activists were assaulted by their fellow Jews during a demonstration against antisemitism in lower Manhattan Sunday. Organized by a coalition of far-right Jewish and pro-Israel groups, the protest was called last week in response to what was described as Mayoral inaction in the face of a spate of antisemitic assaults committed in Brooklyn predominantly by young Black and Latino men against Orthodox Jews.
The noon rally in City Hall Park drew around 100 participants, though few attendees appeared themselves to be members of the targeted community. The rally instead garnered the attention of "a minyan" of counterprotesters, as one demonstrator deemed them, angered by the star-studded cast of Jewish extremists, each known for prior racist acts and statements, that was set to address the crowd. The protesters sought to challenge those who they said were cynically hijacking an important issue in order to spread anti-Black and anti-Muslim hatred.
Headlining the event was former Democratic New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who, until last year, represented the Orthodox enclave of Boro Park, one of the areas experiencing increased attacks. Hikind was once consigliere to Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the federally-designated terrorist organization the Jewish Defense League (JDL), which was originally founded to disrupt organizing by the Black Panthers in Brooklyn. Assassinated in New York in 1990 and eulogized by Hikind at his funeral, Kahane also founded Israel's Kach party, which was banned from the Knesset for its open advocacy of ethnic cleansing. Hikind, who claims that his role in the JDL was strictly nonviolent, acknowledges participating in illegal activities with the group, but refuses to discuss the FBI's investigation of his role in masterminding six bomb plots in the 1970s and '80s targeting, among others, Arab-American civil rights organizations. (Yad Yamin, which cosponsored Sunday's rally, is a known offshoot of the JDL.)
After joining New York's Assembly in 1983, Hikind made a name for himself as a defender of New York's Orthodox Jewish community, over the years organizing numerous rallies against prominent Black and Muslim public figures for perceived slights against both Jews and the State of Israel. Towards the end of his public service career, these rallies most frequently targeted Palestinian American activist Linda Sarsour.
In 2013, Hikind defended wearing blackface while dressed as a basketball player for the Jewish carnival of Purim and blamed those who were offended for failing to understand that, "on Purim...you do crazy stuff." Since retiring from the Assembly last year, facing accusations of illegally funneling millions of taxpayer dollars to a charity which employed his children, Hikind has pledged fealty to the Republican Party, appearing on-stage behind President Donald Trump at last year's White House Chanukah party, where he was seen clapping along to chants of "Four more years." Hikind has since launched a right-wing Jewish astroturf group, Americans Against Antisemitism, whose raison d'être, during a time of surging white nationalist violence, is attacking Israel-critical leftists and Democrats.
After taking the stage at Sunday's rally, Hikind led the crowd in chants of "am Yisrael chai" ("the Jewish people live") before making misleading claims about the current spate of antisemitic violence affecting Brooklyn Jewish communities. "We're not talking about the numbers being five and then being 10," Hikind said. "We're talking about such dramatic numbers that create such concern and fear." Hikind cited NYPD Hate Crimes Unit statistics stating that the number of antisemitic assaults increased in New York City from 17 in 2017 to 33 in 2018. However, Hikind then claimed another 67% increase in 2019, which was actually the increase in hate crimes over-all for the first quarter of the year, not those specifically targeting the Jewish community. While there has been a marked increase in the number of reported antisemitic verbal attacks and vandalism, the number of physical assaults in 2019 presently stands at around 20, with just three months left in the year, suggesting that even as antisemitic invective is rising, there may ultimately be a decline in antisemitic assaults by year's end.
Hikind then invoked the specter of the Holocaust and asserted that the city's residents and elected officials have been indifferent to surging antisemitic violence, saying that other marginalized communities received preferential treatment from the city. "Only imagine if instead of dozens and dozens of antisemitic acts, just imagine if there were two acts directed against the African American community by people who hate," Hikind said. "Just imagine if there were two incidents that were directed against the transgender or the gay community. Could you imagine what would be going on in this city? Could you imagine the rallies and the demonstrations and the screaming demanding action? But when it comes to Jews, Jewish blood seems to be cheap here again in New York!"
Hikind also dismissed the idea that the far-right plays any role in the increase in antisemitism in New York, before describing what he sees as the real source of the problem. "People ask where's it all coming from," he said. "Ladies and gentleman, when someone running for the Presidency of the United States, Bernie Sanders, can hire Linda Sarsour to be his spokesman, I mean seriously? What more is there to say! [...] Is that what it means to be a progressive? That when it comes to antisemitism there is a double-standard? And then," he added, referring to freshman Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, "you have members of the United States Congress who indulge in antisemitism! You don't think that has any kind of effect?!" Neither Reps. Omar nor Tlaib were yet members of Congress when New York's near-doubling of antisemitic assaults occurred, assuming office only in January of this year.
Hikind was followed to the stage by Morton Klein, the pugnacious and oft-embattled President of the Zionist Organization of America, a formerly illustrious organization that was once presided over by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, and which is now derided as fringe and unrepresentative, despite continuing to hold a prominent seat in major U.S. Jewish umbrella organizations. In 2017, Klein bestowed his organization's highest honor upon ex-White House advisor and Breitbart publisher Steve Bannon, who once declared his website "the platform for the alt-right," at an awards gala which was attended by various far-right luminaries. Among them was also-ex-White House advisor Sebastian Gorka, who was forced out of his position after his ties to Hungarian Nazi collaborators were exposed, as well as Pizzagate conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec, and far-right activist Laura Loomer, who donned herself with a yellow star and handcuffed herself to Twitter's New York headquarters after her account was suspended for repeatedly making racist remarks.
Klein, who himself routinely shares content from white supremacists like Katie Hopkins and Islamophobic extremists like Pamela Geller on Twitter, has his own reputation for racist commentary. In 2017, he made headlines after standing by remarks that "Blacks are much better dancers" than white people, and in 2018, after a well-known Jewish extremist was killed in a terrorist attack in the occupied West Bank, Klein referred to the attackers as "filthy Arabs."
Klein took a similar tack to Hikind, suggesting a disparity in the treatment of Jewish hate crimes victims, shouting, "Not only do Black lives matter! But Jewish lives matter! And Orthodox Jewish lives matter!"
Pointing to Jewish participation in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, Klein demanded Muslim, Black, and Hispanic leaders speak out against antisemitism. "Where are the African American and Hispanic leaders?!" he shouted to applause, describing the attackers as "cowardly African American and Hispanic thugs." He then called for increased policing in mixed Black and Jewish neighborhoods, including having detectives walk the streets dressed as Orthodox Jews, and insisted Mayor DeBlasio stop criticizing the NYPD, which he complained was being hamstrung by the Mayor's calls for more compassionate policing.
Klein went on to fault observant Muslims, campus anti-Israel activists, Black civil rights leaders, and finally Reps. Omar, Tlaib, and New York's own Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for the rise in antisemitic violence, making no mention of white supremacism nor Republican officials who have amplified xenophobic and antisemitic rhetoric since the election of President Donald Trump.
As one Jewish counterprotester rose to disrupt Klein's remarks castigating communities of color, a woman reportedly threw a beverage in their face. Video by one rally-goer showed them shouting, "The answer is not scapegoating Black people!" as they were violently pushed outside of the rally area. At least three such incidents transpired during the course of the rally, where protesters shouting in solidarity with the targets of the speakers' invective were subsequently shouted-down, in some cases with homophobic/queerphobic epithets and taunts of "take your kippa off" and "are you even Jewish," before being physically driven from the scene. No arrests were made.
Brooklyn resident Andrew Silver, 35, was led away by police after he was mobbed by angry rally-goers, having raised a sign reading "Jewish Black solidarity is the answer," and shouting out, "Hate is not the answer!"
Asked why he chose to take such action, Silver said, "Preaching hatred and racism towards the Black community of Crown Heights is the way to exacerbate tension—the way to provoke additional conflict—when what we should be doing is working towards a message of solidarity."
"African Americans, Jews, Black Jews, Arabs, Muslims—we have a common enemy and it's white nationalism," he continued. "And when this group of people decides they want to bring in right-wing radicals who have no concern for the safety of Jews in any other situation except when they can show up to push an anti-Black message, to push an anti-Muslim message, that's something we need to oppose."
Radio personality Sid Rosenberg, who once called tennis star Venus Williams an "animal" and said that she and her sister Serena Williams belonged in National Geographic magazine, also spoke at the event, at one point threatening anti-racist protesters from the podium. "It takes all of my guts not to walk out in the middle of the crowd and beat the daylights of these antifa folks, with their masks on, these cowards, covering their face...Believe me I can do it," he said to wild cheers. "I can bench press 300 pounds, I will kick your ass!" The person to whom Rosenberg directed his comments was soon removed from the rally area by police, presumably for their own safety.
Later, Rabbi Aryeh Spero, who in the past has claimed that former U.S. President Barack Obama is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, used his time at the microphone to accuse American Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee of caring more about non-Jewish victims of hate crimes than Jewish victims. He also chided the leadership of the Black, Hispanic, and Muslim communities for not more forcefully opposing antisemitism. "The Jews were always there for every minority! It's time that they came now and supported us and spoke out against Jew-hatred!"
Echoing charges of disloyalty to their own, waged against Jewish Democrats by President Trump, Spero also attacked Jewish members of Congress for not trying to drive Reps. Omar, Tlaib, and Ocasio-Cortez from the House, shouting, "They have chosen liberalism over the Jewish people! They have chosen the Democrat Party [sic] over the Jewish people!"
"They say the antisemitism is coming from the Trump people," Spero continued. "Well, I am a Trump supporter! None of those people who were attacked in Brooklyn were attacked by Trump supporters! They were attacked by people who said 'Allah hu-akbar!' They were attacked by people who were Black or Hispanic! They were not attacked by some white Christian! Or white Evangelical! Or white Trump supporter! No way!"
Though 13% of Black men and 32% of Latino men voted for Trump nationally in 2016, Spero may very well be right that Trump enthusiasts are not behind the violence in Brooklyn. This is immaterial, however, because one needn't be a white nationalist nor a Trump voter to be influenced by white nationalist rhetoric seeping into mainstream discourse from the Highest Office in the Land, nor turn to the tweets of Linda Sarsour when one can switch on Fox News and hear daily that wealthy Jews are flooding the country with immigrants to rig elections and destroy the American way of life.
But other, more local factors, are just as likely to explain the spate of antisemitic attacks as the rally's speakers' unsubstantiated claims about the rhetoric of Muslim activists and members of Congress.
One example is the Shomrim, the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood patrols sanctioned by the NYPD. Due to two high profile incidents over the last decade in which Black men were viciously beaten by volunteer patrolmen who faced minimal consequences, as well as a major corruption scandal involving the bribing of NYPD officials, the Shomrim have earned a reputation for racist policing and public impunity, making some People of Color feel unsafe and unwelcome in their own neighborhoods.
Another factor is a perceived discrepancy in the allocation of communal resources to New York's poverty stricken communities. Like their Black and Latinx neighbors, the poverty rate among New York's Jewish community is roughly 20%, with Orthodox Jews having the second highest concentration of poverty among all Jews, at 55%. However, Orthodox Jews often receive a disproportionate share of economic relief, with more than 30% of hassidic residents of Williamsburg alone qualifying for federal Section 8 vouchers that their non-Jewish neighbors have struggled to attain. In 2010, Brooklyn's Orthodox Jewish day schools also received a full sixth of federal stimulus funds distributed in New York state in the form of school lunch grants. While this could easily be attributed to the concerted lobbying efforts of the Jewish community, the disparity in allocations has led to a widespread perception of favoritism towards the Jewish community and discrimination against non-Jewish People of Color, regardless of whether that is indeed the case.
Such matters are further complicated by the perceived outsized role of Orthodox Jews in New York's real estate market. A 2016 investigation by real estate magazine The Real Deal found that a handful of wealthy Orthodox real estate developers were among the greatest drivers of gentrification in Brooklyn's lower-income neighborhoods, spending over $2.5 billion acquiring property throughout the borough between 2006-2016. During the same period, average apartment sales prices skyrocketed by 67%-100% and rents by 70% in those neighborhoods, while average sales prices in other neighborhoods climbed by only 38% and rents grew by only 26%. This is, of course, a pittance of New York's estimated $1 trillion real estate market, and hassidic landlords are likely a minority in the trade, who are following market trends and setting prices accordingly. Nonetheless, stories about Orthodox landlords resorting to shady tactics to drive out lower-income tenants proliferated in New York's media outlets during this period, culminating in a devastating and incendiary New York Post cover bearing the image of slain hassidic landlord Menachem Stark and the headline "Who didn't want him dead?" These circumstances have led to the scapegoating of hassidic landlords for market conditions by which wealthier Jews and non-Jews alike have profited at the expense of poor and working families, which in turn has obscured the fact that poorer Orthodox Jews are also being driven from Brooklyn in record numbers by the surging cost of housing, with many relocating to parts of Upstate New York over the last decade.
Jews are, of course, not responsible for others' antisemitism—which is never to be excused, no matter its rationale—and these impressions are predicated on dangerous misconceptions that are discriminatory and unfair. But the combination of these factors ultimately contributes to a toxic view of Orthodox Jews that simultaneously portrays them as both wealthy slumlords and welfare cheats, supposedly destroying poor communities of color for profit and depriving more deserving communities of needed resources. This perception is clearly harmful and inaccurate, but being thrown out of your apartment by someone with a long beard and a black hat or getting roughed up by an Orthodox Jewish street patrol far better explains animosity towards Orthodox Brooklynites than Ilhan Omar's criticism of AIPAC. Unfortunately, without hard data assessing the views of Black and Latinx Brooklynites towards their Orthodox neighbors, it is impossible to know for sure what is driving the current violence.
One way forward in addressing this situation would be reaching out to the non-Jewish Black and Latinx communities in Brooklyn to hear their grievances and to address them patiently and open-mindedly, taking care not to reactionarily conflate mistaken antisemitic beliefs with anti-Jewish bloodlust. Only by recognizing others' struggles can Brooklyn's Jewish residents begin to forge a common ground and help steer people towards a less distorted perception of Jewish people, and create a united community of Brooklynites working together to address bigotry, poverty, and housing access for all. This is a task that some members of Brooklyn's Orthodox community have undertaken for many years, with some—but clearly insufficient—success, for which they nonetheless should be lauded and supported. Unfortunately, the organizers of Sunday's rally seem to have the opposite idea, faulting and placing demands on Black, Latinx, and Muslim leaders. Such an effort not only fails to take into consideration the true needs of Brooklyn's Orthodox Jews, but is certain to backfire.
Photo by Andrea Karshan, via Twitter.com.