March 31, 2020

One People, One Voice

Elan Carr, second from left, speaks at the panel discussion hosted by Bnai Zion Foundation. Photo courtesy of Bnai Zion Foundation’s Facebook page

 In the two weeks before I went to hear a panel hosted by Bnai Zion Foundation called “What Will It Take to Combat Anti-Semitism?” a spate of attacks in Brooklyn included a 63-year-old rabbi being hit in the face with a large brick. Assaults also have involved the wielding of leather belts and metal, and kicking baby strollers.

“I’m not sure if there are more anti-Semites today or they feel more emboldened,” said historian Deborah Lipstadt at the panel at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun (KJ). “It’s probably a little bit of both.” She broke down the surge of anti-Semitism into four sources: the radical left, white supremacists, Islamists and sectors of the mainstream Muslim community.

This categorization represented the only false note of an otherwise highly informative evening. In 2019, there already have been 152 reports of anti-Semitic hate crimes in New York City; the vast majority of the suspected perpetrators have been young black males.

Is there a fear of naming this fifth category? How is denial of this category helping the Orthodox and Chasidic Jews in Brooklyn, who are under near-weekly attacks?

KJ’s Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz soon corrected the record. “There are segments of hate in the black community, possibly whipped up by Louis Farrakhan.” 

Yet, “it’s not the 1930s,” Steinmetz said. He pointed out that the headquarters of the German American Bund was one block north of the synagogue at that time, with regular marches down 86th Street. 

According to Elan Carr, U.S. Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism, today Jews have “many friends and allies around the world.”

“We’re not just fighting against anti-Semitism,” Carr said. “We’re fighting for our society. Anti-Semitism indicates a disease of democracy, of civil society.” He mentioned that President Donald Trump refers to it as the “vile poison of anti-Semitism.”

I have to note that, after he said that, there wasn’t a snicker or hiss in the crowd. KJ is an Orthodox shul, but the Upper East Side in general is somewhat of an oasis of centrism —Trump has plenty of detractors, but I hear more about how progressives are destroying the Democratic Party. Three Israeli clothing stores thrive on Madison Avenue, underscoring the point that “philo-Semitism” — Jewish contributions to humanity — has to be part of the fight.

“Instead of coming together, we’re fighting with each other. We are saying, ‘I’m allowing my political identity to take primacy over my Jewish identity.’”
— Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz

Carr pointed out that in the United Kingdom, the problems started on campuses but little was done because the thinking was “It’s only students.” Now, 40 percent of European Jews say they want to leave Europe.

Here, Carr said, we now have “24/7 indoctrination” against Jews and Israel on college campuses. He noted that anti-Israel propaganda — from professors — has even infiltrated math classes.

The AMCHA Initiative released a report this month stating that in 2018, anti-Semitism from the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement skyrocketed on campuses, while instances of classic anti-Semitism declined. Most alarmingly, expressions “promoting or condoning terrorism against Israel” increased by 67 percent, and BDS supporters, including professors, fueled the majority of harassment against Jewish students.

Carr said the Trump administration is creating an “interagency process on anti-Semitism” that will unite the departments of State, Justice, Treasury and Education to confront this swelling scourge, on campus and off.

Carr, an Iraqi Jew, also is very focused on the inculcation of Jew hatred in Arab countries: “What starts in the Middle East never stays in the Middle East.”  But he said that Arab leaders are becoming more receptive because of the fight against Iran. Carr said he would be going to the Gulf states soon to engage Arab leaders specifically on this issue.

A main point of the evening was Jewish infighting — the weaponizing of anti-Semitism for political gain. Said Steinmetz, “It’s a great concern that when we’re coming under threat, instead of coming together, we’re fighting with each other. We are saying, ‘I’m allowing my political identity to take primacy over my Jewish identity.’ ”

Carr pointed out that it’s only because the Jews in the U.K. have been united that progress has been made. “We have to do that here,” Carr said. “One people, one voice, united.”

“Unity is not uniformity,” said Steven Savitsky, president of Bnai Zion. We have to unify on the issue of safety, even with Jews who have vastly different political views.

Then there was a very big “but.” We don’t have to include in this “big tent” — what Journal Publisher and Editor-in-Chief David Suissa has called Big Judaism — Jews who have made it their life’s work to destroy the Jewish people. All the panelists agreed that groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace should be ostracized. “A line must be drawn,” Savitsky said.

On the good-news front, a couple of “Jewish solidarity” events have taken place since the panel discussion: one in Manhattan and one simultaneously in Brooklyn; Poway, Calif.; and Pittsburgh.

Sadly, exactly one week after the panel, a 24-year-old Chassidic man was beaten in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Surveillance footage shows four young black males chasing him; two then punched and kicked him and ran away with his cellphone. The Anti-Defamation League is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case.

“This incident comes at a time when visibly observant Jewish individuals are unable to walk the streets of Brooklyn without feeling fearful that they may be assaulted or attacked because of their religion or faith,” ADL NY/NJ regional director Evan R. Bernstein said in a statement. “This is completely unacceptable and contrary to everything we stand for as New Yorkers. The violence must stop now.”

The New York City Police Department will increase their presence in Jewish neighborhoods ahead of the Jewish holidays, Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Police Department Commissioner James O’Neill announced. “We will not accept hatred in New York City,” de Blasio said.

“This is the fight of our generation,” Savitsky said. “This is a fight we cannot lose.”

Karen Lehrman Bloch is an author and cultural critic living in New York City.