Making Excuses for Antisemitism, Then and Now
“Synagogues in Washington Heights were smeared with antisemitic epithets, vandalized, and set afire”; “Mobs of hoodlums have been harassing Jews”; “Jewish cemeteries in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island were desecrated…”
These harrowing descriptions of attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions in and around New York City sound as if they were taken from today’s headlines. In fact, they come from news reports and eyewitness accounts concerning a wave of antisemitic violence that swept the city in 1943-1944.
Sadly, some things never seem to change — including the excuses that some people make for antisemitic thugs.
In 1944, senior police officials were loathe to admit that the attacks were numerous or antisemitic in nature, either because it made the city look bad, or because they themselves were not terribly fond of Jews.
The city’s police inspector claimed there had only been “a few isolated” incidents, which had been perpetrated by preteens indulging in “boyish pranks.” That hardly squared with the “flood” of complaints about antisemitic attacks which “poured” into the offices of the Anti-Defamation League.
A New York Post investigation into the assaults in Washington Heights found that “every Jewish resident” whom they interviewed “had stories to tell of … relatives or acquaintances beaten by gangs whose leaders almost invariably prefaced the attacks by demanding, ‘Are you Jewish?’” In the Bronx, knife-wielding hoodlums surrounded a 14-year-old Jewish boy, and when he answered their question in the affirmative, they slashed him across the face, leaving him with a scar that ran from his ear to his lip.
In a Brooklyn pool hall, 20 young men shouting “Jew bastard!” and “Dirty Jews!” badly mauled two Jewish teens. One suffered stab wounds to his leg and two black eyes from being kicked in the face. The police nevertheless refused to arrest anyone, insisting it was “just a poolroom fight.”
William Herlands, New York City’s Commissioner of Investigation, denied that the wave of violence was motivated by antisemitism. He said the attackers were just “teenage marauders” with no connection to groups such as the Christian Front and the Christian Mobilizers, whose members engaged in constant antisemitic incitement on street corners.
The New York Post pointed out that many assaults had taken place on the same corners where those groups were agitating. A 15-year-old girl interviewed by the Post boasted of taking part in “Jew-hunting,” and acknowledged that she had been strongly influenced by the street corner speechmakers and leaflet givers. Commissioner Herlands seemed uninterested.
In an incident with strong echoes of our own times, a woman was arrested in February 1944 for shouting antisemitic epithets at a Jewish man throughout a subway ride all the way from the Bronx to 34th Street. The judge dismissed the charge as an attempt by the Jewish victim to extract his “pound of flesh,” an allusion to an antisemitic motif in The Merchant of Venice.
There was a sexual element to some of the attacks in 1943-44, which led to another variety of excuse-making. A non-Jewish teenage eyewitness described to the New York City daily newspaper PM how the antisemitic gangs “beat the [Jewish] boys bloody” and “when they catch a Jew-girl, they’ll rip her clothes off.” Commissioner Herlands responded that most of the culprits were “mentally retarded or sexually perverted.”
Chalking up antisemitism to mental disability implicitly denies that bigotry was involved. That may aid an attacker’s legal defense, but is it a satisfactory excuse for his behavior? It would not explain, for example, why only Jewish girls (as opposed to Irish or Italian girls) were the targets in 1944. Nor does it clarify why the Monsey machete attacker in our times was reading up on Nazism and antisemitic conspiracy theories in the weeks before he struck.
New York Police Commissioner Lewis Valentine offered a different excuse in 1944. He told reporters that “antisemitism is always a problem in a large, heterogeneous city such as New York.” In other words, when different ethnic and religious groups live in close proximity, violence is inevitable, according to Valentine.
We’re hearing that excuse in our own time, too. A news article in The New York Times on January 4, 2020 claimed that unnamed “experts” believe “some of the growth [in antisemitism] could be attributed to changing neighborhood demographics.” So Jews caused the violence by moving into areas where they have not lived previously? And therefore, would African-Americans be to blame for racist incidents that occur after they move into all-white neighborhoods?
The debate over how best to combat antisemitism will not be settled any time soon. Some observers focus on the need for condemnations by public figures. Others look to legislative remedies or educational initiatives. But one thing is certain: making excuses for violent antisemites is never the answer.
Stephen H. Norwood teaches American history and Jewish studies at the University of Oklahoma. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington.
A version of this article was originally published by The Jerusalem Post.