Brooklyn Boro

The anti-Semitism of Brooklyn

December 2, 2022 William A. Gralnick
Head shot of writer William Gralnick
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It has been a busy year for antisemites in Brooklyn. Before we get to them, let us understand a few things about antisemitism. According to the National Jewish Encyclopedia, Moritz Steinschneider coined the term in the year 1860. But it existed long before that. YIVO, the heart of Yiddish in America, lists Steinschneider as a bibliographer, historian, and linguist, a founder of modern Jewish studies. It would be easy to start with the death of Jesus. The Romans hated Jews. Going back to Egypt, one would have to say, but I’m not a historian. I am betting that once there were Jews in evidence, there was antisemitism. The International Alliance on Holocaust Remembrance, as reported by the Jewish News Service, as called on Twitter to adopt its definition of anti-Semitism. Doing so, it says, would give Twitter a yard-stick with which to measure the Jewish and anti-Israel postings that abound on its platform. That definition is: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

There are other definitions, actually several. Messrs. Merriam and Webster give us this one: Hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group. The UN has one, New York State has one, as do others. But for the inclusion of Israel in some, they all incorporate the dictionary definition.

Antisemitism is known as the “canary in the mine shaft” of hatred. Miners would lower a canary into the mine shaft. When they pulled it up, if it were alive, they mined. If it had died from poison gasses, they didn’t. Using that analogy, anyone “different” by race, religion, color, or culture should leap to denounce antisemitism when it rears its ugly head. Inevitably, they could be next. Antisemitism is a rich soil for the growth of hatreds, hatreds almost as plentiful as the number of flowers in a garden, and I don’t mean Eden.

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I had my own personal experiences. We had a neighborhood 39th parallel. It was Coney Island Avenue, right behind PS 217. The calm and peaceful Italian-Jewish neighborhood on my side turned abruptly into a rough Irish-Catholic community. There was no reason to cross, but we chickens knew why we crossed the road. It was for the lure of the Siren-like smells of the Irish deli that made its own potato chips. ‘best in the land. And for me, there was also LeAnne’s Pet Shop, where I sustained my growing tropical fish hobby. I ran to the deli like I was affixed with a CO2 cartridge. I went to the pet shop with my dad.

Here’s another. One Easter weekend, mother sent me to the mailbox (remember them, the big blue ones?). Out of nowhere, three guys jumped me, knocked me down, pummeled me, and said, “That’s for Jesus.” I wasn’t even sure who Jesus was or what I had done to him. After all, I was eight. Then too, there were the random taunts and insults. They didn’t turn into assaults but struck terror into my heart. 

Things have gotten worse. According to the ADL, New York is number one in the country regarding gross antisemitic incidents, with Brooklyn having the second-highest number. Let’s go to the statistics.

The number of antisemitic incidents in New York increased by 24 percent last year to the highest level in decades, including a surge in the number of assaults, as well as both criminal and noncriminal incidents targeting Jews, this from ADL’s annual report.

The group said it counted 26 antisemitic incidents across the state, including 51 assaults, the most physical attacks since it began compiling this data in 1979. The report was based on information collected from local law enforcement agencies, Jewish community leaders, and individuals.

The New York Times reported that the surge was part of a nationwide trend that saw 2,717 antisemitic incidents across the country. They included 88 assaults, an increase of 167 percent from the year before. That violence came after a yearslong string of antisemitic killings, including in Pittsburgh; Poway, Calif.; and Jersey City, that has left Jewish communities on edge. The week of November 22, New York mayor and former Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams decried a Twitter posting that threatened to shoot up a synagogue.

The UJA/Federation of New York City points out that the last two years have seen a significant proliferation of hate incidents both nationwide and in NY State. Rooted in part in widespread campaigns of disinformation and conspiracy theories, these incidents have animated extremists and fueled antisemitism. The result has been unrest and violence, from the Jan. 6 insurrection to white supremacist activism, to a spike in hate crimes, and rising are increasing. Here’s another “increaser.” Former President Donald Trump invited antisemites of Qanon and the former Kanye West to dinner at Mar-A-Lago. Nice, huh?

Over half the 51 assaults recorded in New York took place in Brooklyn, where 34 antisemitic attacks were recorded last year, against people wearing traditional religious garb that identified them as Orthodox Jews, such as skull caps, black suits, or long beards. 

According to the report, the victims in Brooklyn included several Jews punched or slapped in the face, including a three-year-old child. An Orthodox woman’s wig was ripped off her head and thrown onto the ground. A group of Hasidic males, ages 11-82, were struck by a driver who backed a minivan into them. Then there was the Jewish man beaten with a fire extinguisher, so the ADL report that antisemitic incidents had dropped in 2023 is not particularly encouraging. Additionally, the figures are always under-reported. Some departments take a lackadaisical attitude toward reporting. Some LEOs aren’t in tune with hate crimes, feeling an assault for any reason is a crime, and the extra paperwork is a pain. Some don’t report at all. Most importantly, ADL’s compilation of statistics runs about 3-4 months behind, so the 41 incidents in Brooklyn this year is a partial figure. The final one won’t be known until March or April 2024.

In addition to the assaults, the report also recorded 183 incidents of harassment in New York, along with 182 vandalism cases and 161 incidents involving swastikas. The swastika is particularly unnerving to Holocaust survivors. The New York Times said there was a 41% increase in reported incidents at Jewish institutions, which were targeted 62 times last year in New York. 

Antisemitism is a virus, and like a virus, it will never disappear; we can only manage it. Since 911, almost every synagogue in America has put some form of protective security in place, many with armed guards. The staff and the Jewish schools practice active shooter drills like we rehearsed “take cover!” drills in the ’50s and ‘60s. 

Europe has another form of management—armed soldiers. It is shocking to see soldiers and/or SWAT team members standing in front of synagogues armed for battle. When there are no services, you could be Moses, but you’re not getting in without an appointment approved by the rabbi.

I’ve outlined an almost impossible problem to get one’s hands around. Folks like have to deal in your own way with your antisemitic friends and neighbors and urge local precincts to take a “not in my backyard” approach to it. Write to your Congressperson to have the same attitude in that person’s district. Do the same for state legislators. If you don’t, like those who don’t take the vaccine, you become part of the problem. Remember, when you fight antisemitism, you are protecting the diversity of our democracy.

William Gralnick served as SE Regional Director of the American Jewish Committee for 33 years. He has 40 years of volunteer experience with law enforcement and worked for eight years for the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Department.

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