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Queens Chronicle

Leaving anti-Semitism in 2019

Jewish leaders refuse to fear spike in religious intolerance

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Posted: Thursday, January 9, 2020 10:30 am | Updated: 11:44 am, Thu Jan 16, 2020.

Of the 345 hate crimes recorded throughout the five boroughs in 2019, 234 were motivated by anti-Semitism.

“It seems to be coming from all corners,” said Rabbi Moshe Saks of the Chabad of Eastern Queens in Flushing. “We expect it from the neo-Nazis and white supremacists, but now it comes from other people ... from the community. It’s chilling.”

Anti-Semitism accounted for 55 percent of recorded hate crimes in the past year, and experienced a 26 percent increase from 2018. The margin between the religiously intolerant hate crimes and anti-black hate crimes, which followed in frequency, was substantial — 37 anti-black hate crimes were committed in 2019, making up 9 percent of hate crimes for the year.

The hate crimes range from graffiti of swastikas to verbal attacks to physical assault, but the question of motivation haunts Jewish communities and their leaders.

“Why do they feel emboldened to attack?” wondered Saks. “It’s coming from all sides. Going down the street, you can’t even narrow down [who will attack you].”

A Dec. 11 attack on a kosher deli in Jersey City claimed four victims, including a responding police officer. Just a few weeks later on Dec. 29, multiple people were stabbed while praying inside a Rockland County synagogue. During the week of Chanukah, New York City witnessed at least six reported attacks on Jewish citizens.

Saks has cracked down on security in both his synagogue and its accompanying school, which has an armed guard at all times.

“We’ve upgraded,” Saks said. “Nobody can just walk in, we have a code. Now the doors are never unlocked. We just put up a fence. We’re carrying pepper spray. It’s a whole different reality.”

Despite implementing the haunting upgrades for protection, Saks urges his congregation to “focus on the positive,” saying, “the light is the best way to fight the negativity.” He also wishes the government would continue to crack down vigorously before the crime, which mostly occurs in Brooklyn and Manhattan, spreads to Queens and beyond.

Eighteen percent of hate crimes motivated by anti-Semitic bias in the first three quarters of 2019 occurred in Queens. The NYPD continues to compile information for the final quarter.

One crime occurred at PS 139 in Rego Park in February, where a plethora of swastikas were drawn on the school’s playground. “Hail Hitler” and “no Jews” were also sketched into the basketball court. Juveniles allegedly were responsible, as Rabbi Eli Blokh of the Chabad of Rego Park suspected.

“Why would a tween do something so heinous? They’re not known for making the best decisions,” said Blokh, suspecting that the graffiti may have been inspired by widespread intolerance.

Despite the proximity of the anti-Semitic graffiti to his congregation, Blokh says the community is more upset and frustrated than afraid.

“They know that this isn’t new,” said Blokh, who had experienced such prejudice during the time he lived in Crown Heights.

“I had a teenager ask me to sign a petition or make a donation. When I refused, he hit the hat off my head. He didn’t say anything, he walked away, he was angry. It escalated, but no, it wasn’t new.”

In response to the statewide and state-neighboring attacks, Gov. Cuomo signed, on Nov. 25, legislation establishing a hate crime recognition training program for local law enforcement. A month later, he announced that over $10 million had been awarded to make security enhancements at nonpublic schools and cultural centers, including religious-based institutions, to protect against hate crimes. Cuomo later raised that amount to $45 million, which he announced at the city “No hate. No fear.” solidarity march against anti-Semitism and discrimination on Sunday, Jan. 5.

Assemblyman Daniel Rosenthal (D-Flushing) described the march as encouraging and beautiful, but acknowledged that more needs to be done beyond demonstrations.

“There’s always more [the government] can do — to allocate more resources,” said Rosenthal. “Its foremost responsibility is to make the community safe and right now we are not safe. We need more resources in the budget. They need to put their money where their mouth is.”

Mayor de Blasio launched new crime prevention efforts to combat anti-Semitism on Dec. 29 following Cuomo’s action. The initiative sparked the creation of new multi-ethnic interfaith Neighborhood Safety Coalitions to identify and address issues that drive hate crimes. It also called for an increased NYPD presence at houses of worship and within historically Jewish neighborhoods, as well as new Department of Education lesson plans to prevent hate crimes and anti-Semitic attacks.

“It’s hard to diagnose,” said Rosenthal. “I don’t walk around the streets scared. It has come up in the back of my mind ... but I’m proud to be a Jew. It is what it is. We have a deep history in New York.”

“We ran away from dictatorship, and we still believe that America is a place of tolerance,” said Rabbi Yitzhak Yehoshua of the Bukharian Jewish Communtiy Center in Forest Hills. “We need to open a dialogue, involve the community more because at the end of the day we are all proud New Yorkers in this beautiful and wonderful state.”

Yehoshua implemented 24/7 surveillance during the holiday season, but says his congregants remain unafraid of becoming victims. The attacks on visibly Jewish individuals have not deterred the Bukharian members from wearing their religious garb.

“It’s really disappointing that we are not just confronting anti-Semitism, but experiencing its growth,” said Councilmember Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows), a worshiper of the faith who presides over a historically Jewish district, and is a member of the City Council’s Jewish Caucus.

Lancman says he does not fear falling victim to a hate crime because he is not identifiably Jewish and does not wear a yarmulke, but feels tension when he visits Jewish institutions, synagogues and schools.

“Being a Jew in New York, one is constantly reminded they are under threat,” said Lancman.

Anti-Semitic violence perpetrated by black citizens has been widely publicized, but the NYPD’s arrest statistics by bias motivation from the first three quarters of 2019 show that it is largely committed by white people.

“The paradigm for the threat against the Jewish community has [historically] been alt-right or neo-Nazis or Palestinian terrorism — this kind of anti-Semitism doesn’t fit either paradigm,” said Lancman. “It is important not to turn this into negative African American ... anti-Semitism does not have any political motivation.”

“Live your life loud and proud,” Lancman advised Jewish New Yorkers facing hate. “Keep your eyes and ears open, but this is our city just as much as it is anyone’s.”

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