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‘Who’s out protecting us?’: Spate of anti-Jewish attacks in the U.S. draws calls for more forceful response

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti joins civic and faith leaders to call for peace in the city. On May 18, a group of people shouting anti-Israel comments attacked diners outside a sushi restaurant. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

A series of attacks on Jews in the United States in recent days, linked to the conflict between Israel and Hamas, has increased pressure on law enforcement officials, lawmakers and the Biden administration to take more steps to quell antisemitic violence.

Since May 10, at least 26 instances of antisemitism have been reported across the United States, from Los Angeles to New York, according to the Anti-Defamation League and news reports. The cases range from protest signs calling Zionists “Nazis” to several physical attacks. There have also been at least four reported instances of vandalism at synagogues and Jewish community centers.

Among those targeted in the attacks was Joseph Borgen, 29, who was on his way to a pro-Israel rally in New York on Thursday and wearing a yarmulke when he was assaulted by a violent mob, he said in an interview.

“They were calling me a filthy Jew, a dirty Jew,” he said, adding: “They said, ‘Hamas is going to kill all of you. Israel is going to burn.’ ”

Borgen said the men punched him, hit him with crutches and sprayed an irritant in his face, leaving him with bruises, a concussion and injuries to his skin and eyes. “I really thought I could have died,” he said.

Police arrested one man on several charges, including assault as a hate crime, and are searching for other suspects.

Experts said that conflict in the Middle East has often sparked violence in the United States, but they are worried that the recent attacks were evidence of a worrisome trend that has been accelerated by the fighting in Israel and Gaza.

“This does feel quite different,” Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, said in an interview Sunday.

In 2019, he said, the group identified more than 2,100 antisemitic incidents, including assault, violence and harassment, which was more than in any year since the group began tracking such episodes in 1979. And 2020, a year when many Americans stayed home because of the coronavirus pandemic, still saw the third-highest number on record, Greenblatt noted.

Congressional lawmakers condemned the recent violence, saying it was deeply troubling.

“Antisemitism is rising in America. It’s rising all over the world,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

“That is an outrage. And we have got to combat antisemitism,” he added.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens, said in a tweet: “The dramatic rise of anti-Semitic attacks in NYC and throughout the country is deeply disturbing and unacceptable. Any and all perpetrators must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. We will crush intolerance whenever and wherever it is found.”

“The kind of anti-Semitic attacks, like those reported over the last week, are disturbing and wrong,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), tweeted Friday. “Intolerance like this has no place in New York or anywhere else, and it must be confronted and overcome.”

The most recent attacks, some of which were captured on video, were reminiscent of anti-Jewish protests and rallies in Charlottesville in 2017, and recalled grim memories of the mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh the next year.

On Tuesday, a group of people shouting anti-Israel comments attacked diners outside a sushi restaurant in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Police Department has arrested one man on charges of assault with a deadly weapon. Authorities said they are investigating the incident as a hate crime.

That same day, in Bal Harbour, Fla., Eric Orgen said he was walking with his family while vacationing when four men in an SUV began yelling antisemitic comments. Orgen, who was wearing a yarmulke, said the men shouted “Free Palestine” and “Die Jew,” along with threats to rape his wife and daughter. They also threw garbage at the family.

“I was angry. I was worried for the safety of my wife and daughter,” said Orgen, 46, of Teaneck, N.J. “I had a hard time understanding why this was happening because we were simply just out for a walk on vacation.”

He said the SUV drove away after the driver of another car pulled out a gun. Police are investigating the harassment and have strong leads, the Miami Herald reported.

Orgen said he felt Jewish people had not received the same level of support as other religious, racial and ethnic groups that have been victimized.

“Who’s out protecting us?” he said. “Who’s out speaking up for us?”

Two days later in New York, along with the attack on Borgen, a person threw an explosive device that burned a 55-year-old woman. That case — which unfolded in the Diamond District, home to many Jewish-owned businesses — is also being investigated as a hate crime, police said.

On Friday, several of the country’s most prominent Jewish organizations sent a letter to the White House urging President Biden “to speak out forcefully against this dangerous trend and stand alongside the Jewish community in the face of this wave of hate before it gets any worse.”

“We fear that the way the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict has been used to amplify antisemitic rhetoric, embolden dangerous actors and attack Jews and Jewish communities will have ramifications far beyond these past two weeks,” said the letter, signed by the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Federations of North America, the Orthodox Union, and Hadassah, a pro-Israel Jewish womens’ group.

On Friday evening, White House domestic policy adviser Susan Rice wrote in a tweet, “The spike in anti-Semitic attacks around the world & here at home is despicable & must be roundly condemned and forcefully countered.”

U.S. officials have tried to separate the focus on attacks on innocent Americans simply because they are Jews from the debate over U.S. support for Israel and efforts to help broker an end to hostilities with Gaza.

“Look, Hamas is a terrorist, corrupt, authoritarian group of people, and we have got to stand up to them,” said Sanders, who on Thursday introduced a resolution disapproving of the U.S. sale of $735 million in precision-guided weapons to Israel.

“But once again, our job is not simply to put more and more military support for Israel. It is to bring people together. We can’t do it alone. We need the international community. But that’s what I think we need to be doing.”

Sanders drew comparisons between attacks on Jews and other violence targeting minorities in the United States.

“We have to combat the increase in hate crimes in this country against Asians, against African Americans, against Latinos,” he said. “We’ve got a serious problem of a nation which is being increasingly divided, being led by right-wing extremists in that direction.”

Borgen, the New York man attacked last week, likened the assault on him to violence targeting Asian Americans, which appeared to increase after President Donald Trump and other elected officials began referring to “the China virus” as the cause of the coronavirus pandemic, which experts say probably originated with an outbreak in Wuhan, China.

Borgen said one of his Asian American co-workers is too afraid to ride the subway at night and called it “completely absurd” that his colleague should be forced to feel that way.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this,” he added of the attack that sent him to a hospital.

Greenblatt, of the Anti-Defamation League, urged more elected officials to condemn antisemitic attacks, which he argued would help calm tensions and reduce violence.

“I think one of the lessons of the last four years is that it makes a big difference when leaders speak up or when they fail to,” he said.

Amy B Wang, Alice Crites and Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.