Saturday, March 6th | 23 Adar 5781

November 25, 2019 6:30 pm

Crown Heights Through a Looking Glass

avatar by Harold Brackman


Police in Crown Heights arresting a teenager who assaulted a Jewish man with a stick. Photo:

Reported anti-Jewish hate crimes in New York outnumbered anti-black hate crimes almost threefold during the third quarter of 2019. The city’s politicians and media are, belatedly, taking notice of the uptick in “knockout attacks” on Brooklyn’s Lubavicher Jewish community.

To understand this disturbing trend, it’s necessary to cut through obfuscations and phony explanations. Conspiracy theories are very much in vogue today, with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion even debunked at the House impeachment hearings. However, if there is a real playbook used by those explaining away today’s bigotries, it’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland where Humpty Dumpty instructs Alice: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less … The question is, which is to be master — that’s all.”

The phenomenon of “hate crimes” is much manipulated and distorted today.

When Brooklyn’s Crown Heights erupted in three days of antisemitic rioting in 1991, the media initially headlined it as a black-white clash without highlighting Jews as victims.

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The New York Times ultimately settled on the alternative strategy of consistent under-reporting further attacks on Hasidic Jews. Since the 2016 presidential election, the strategy has shifted to blaming President Donald Trump and New York’s army of mostly imaginary white Klansmen. Graffiti artists who deface subways, we are told, don’t really understand what a swastika is!

During 2018, antisemitic hate crimes in New York remained under-reported. This is what happened when Farrukh Afzal jumped out of his car shouting “Allah” to beat up an elderly Jewish man walking to synagogue in Borough Park. WABC soon omitted his invocation of “Allah” from its reporting. Afzal was first charged with a hate crime, later reduced to second-degree assault or “road rage” or mental illness.

Here are some unfiltered reasons for the new eruptions in Crown Heights:

  • Mayor De Blasio’s “decriminalization” policies have begun to bear unwanted fruit. The overall decline in crime rates since the 1990s has not yet been reversed, but violent crimes have begun to spike. Are we headed back to the 1970’s when Jules Feiffer’s “Little Murders” satirized a sniper on every rooftop? Historian David Nirenberg shows how medieval violence against Jews during Holy Week was usually stylized and circumscribed. Are we moving toward a “postmodern” world in which antisemitic acts will be more spontaneous — spreading like a contagion by internet copycats?
  • Birth rates of males, who are responsible for most violent crimes, have been declining for decades. However, there was a jump during the good economic times before the 2008-2009 Financial Collapse. Now, these youngsters of all ethnicities are entering their crime-prone teenage years. Jews should be concerned.
  • In 1991, Crown Heights’ “turf wars” involved Orthodox Jews assailed by African Americans and Caribbean immigrants. Now, a new wild card — antisemitic Muslim immigrants — are involved in some New York neighborhoods.

The last explosive factor is the internet’s impact. Antisemitism is accelerating as it’s being globalized, while old-fashioned pogrom-era mobs are being replaced by “flash mobs” of haters mobilized in minutes. Thrills today matter more than booty. This may be why assailants swoop in-and-out to attack without even stealing wallets or purses — rather like Native American warriors exultantly “counting coup.”

Whenever Simon Wiesenthal would speak to college students, inevitably this question would be posed: Could the Holocaust happen again? Wiesenthal would answer: “The only difference between the Nazi Genocide and the Inquisition was technology. Had twentieth century technology been available, no Jew would have survived in Spain; no Catholic in England, no Protestant in France.” He would add this warning: “Hate+Crisis+Technology can set the stage for a new genocide.”

Unless changed, our future may be taking shape in the experimental test tube of Crown Heights.

Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).

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