These incidents are far from isolated: The past several years have seen a resurgence of anti-Jewish hate crimes across the United States, primarily acts of vandalism and harassment.
The perpetrators of anti-Jewish hate crimes seem to have nothing clearly uniting them — race, age, political affiliation — except their anti-Semitic intent. But this lack of a cohesive ideological pattern isn’t any form of consolation; it makes American Jews feel as if we are under attack from all fronts at once. The data shows us that outbreaks of actual violence are still rare, but that’s little consolation. Recent assaults and shootings could represent a change in the nature of attacks on Jews in the United States.
In an October survey of American Jews, 25 percent of respondents said they “avoid certain places, events or situations out of fear” for their “safety or comfort as a Jew.” As Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt recently put it, “mothers and fathers are afraid — and with good reasons — if their children walk down the streets of Brooklyn with a kippah on their heads, they are taking a risk that once would have been unimaginable.”
Only six years ago, the Anti-Defamation League reported one of the lowest instances of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States since it started keeping records in 1979. In 2013, there were 751 anti-Jewish crimes reported nationwide, including 31 anti-Jewish assaults, none of which were life-threatening or required hospitalization. Over the next five years, though, anti-Semitic hate crimes surged. By 2018, there were 1,879 incidents and 39 assaults — including the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in the nation’s history at the Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh, which left 11 dead and six wounded.
And yet, despite these dizzying trends and high-profile attacks that have left the Jewish community with a profound sense of fear, a close look at the data shows that most Jews are still quite safe in America. There have certainly been horrifying incidents of violence — not just in Jersey City, Pittsburgh and Poway, but also in Brooklyn, where Orthodox Jews have been targeted in dozens of assaults in recent years. Such attacks, though, while terrifying, account for a small portion of anti-Jewish crimes.
Anti-Semitism has never been limited to one political ideology, and most recent incidents in the United States aren’t driven by partisanship, either. Nor is any one racial group to blame: The prime suspects in the three anti-Semitic incidents that occurred this month were a Hispanic man, a black man and woman, and a white man, respectively. In my own examination of hate crime data from the New York Police Department and in the course of covering anti-Semitic incidents across the country, I’ve found that the racial demographics of the arrested perpetrators tend to broadly match the demographics of the communities where attacks occur.
In an April call to discuss the rise in anti-Semitic and extremist crime, Oren Segal, director of the ADL Center on Extremism, told me that “most anti-Semitic incidents are carried out by average Joes and average Janes,” not by those affiliated with extremist groups.
It is true that there were more right-wing killings than there were other extremist murders in 2018, and that all three deadly synagogue shootings in our nation’s history — the 1977 shooting at Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel in St. Louis and the two more recent ones — were allegedly committed by white nationalists. It is also true that all 249 anti-Jewish hate crimes the ADL was able to connect to extremists in 2018 were committed by white nationalists. But even most anti-Semitic incidents involving white nationalists are nonviolent. And those crimes were still only 13 percent of total anti-Jewish incidents.
In 2018, “of the 249 incidents attributable to hate groups or extremists,” the ADL’s Hate Crimes Audit explains, “142 took the form of anti-Semitic fliers and/or banners, which are categorized as harassment.” Another 103 incidents were campaign robocalls for the anti-Semitic politician Patrick Little, who ran a losing campaign for Senate in California last year, and two other robocalls that appear to have come from extremists unrelated to his campaign. Another incident, categorized as vandalism, was an Identity Evropa sticker affixed to a synagogue. That means only one violent anti-Jewish incident in 2018 was attributable to extremists, according to authorities — the Pittsburgh shooting.
Why are most anti-Jewish crimes vandalism or harassment? Most Jews are hard for would-be attackers to identify as Jewish, says Jack Levin, co-director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University. But Jewish institutions are easy to find: “offices, synagogues, other places where Jews are known to congregate.”
Violence against Jewish communities unprotected by the guise of anonymity is increasing, though. The figures for assault in 2019 are probably higher than last year, given the recent uptick in anti-Jewish violence in New York City, particularly committed against Hasidic men, whose traditional black hats, long beards, black suits and zizit (ritual fringes) do not permit them the luxury of blending in so easily.
The spate of attacks has prompted some sensationalist headlines, such as one asking, “Is It Safe to Be Jewish in New York?” from the New York Times.
But even most anti-Semitic crime in New York matches the national pattern of a relative lack of violent incidents. Deputy Inspector Mark Molinari, who heads the NYPD’s Hate Crimes Task Force, says 87 percent of the anti-Semitic hate crimes this year have been “criminal mischief,” generally vandalism involving the drawing of swastikas. Physical assaults and other “person-to-person” crimes made up the other 13 percent.
Perceptions matter more than reality, though, and well-organized spreadsheets about hand-drawn swastikas still don’t help American Jews sleep better at night.
In 2017, a wave of bomb threats targeted nearly half of the Jewish community centers across the country. They turned out to have been primarily robocalls set up by an Israeli American teenager with mental health issues. But the impact on morale was still significant. As the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s then-editor in chief, Andrew Silow-Carroll, put it at the time, “The numbers and sociology can’t account for the way Jews feel, and right now many are not feeling good.”
In Hasidic and other ultra-Orthodox communities where men dress in a way that clearly marks them as Jewish from afar — and even in more modern observant communities where the only visible marker for men is a yarmulke — fear abounds. Jews who regularly wear religiously identifying symbols or even a Star of David necklace sometimes feel like they have a target on their backs.
“It’s scary because we live a good life here, and we want to live in peace and tranquility so we can be able to serve God to the best of our abilities,” a Hasidic life coach in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood who is the daughter of Holocaust survivors recently told my colleague. “We don’t want to be disturbed by fears, and it brings back memories of what our parents had to go through.”
Every Jew has heard stories of those who have been targeted in ways large and small: In August, the father-in-law of a popular Hasidic singer was hit in the head with a brick during his morning stroll. In November of last year, a rabbi friend of mine was allegedly harassed on the subway by an acolyte of race-baiting Louis Farrakhan. Last month, a man allegedly yelled “Heil Hitler!” at an acquaintance of mine when they saw Hebraic letters on his tote bag.
Arguments abound for who is to blame. Turn left, where most American Jews fall politically, and you’ll hear that right-wing extremists and white nationalists empowered by President Trump are at fault. Turn right, and you’ll instead hear that anti-Israel politicians, Islamists, black nationalists and their enablers are the biggest threats.
This kind of mudslinging to prove a point based on anecdotal evidence helps no one, and only divides Jews and our allies along predictable political lines at a time when we need unity in the face of fear and evolving challenges more than ever.
The facts show that American Jews are mostly safe in this country, New York City included. But recent violent events also show that we cannot take this safety for granted. We can be grateful that anti-Semitism in America today is primarily nonviolent — and all Americans should work hard to make sure that doesn’t change.