In the last two-and-a-half years, fears about an increase in anti-Semitism have become a primary concern for American Jewry. Long before the horrific shooting attacks in Pittsburgh and Poway, the Anti-Defamation League and other organizations have been voicing concerns about what they felt was a surge of hatred against Jews.
The tragic murder of 11 worshippers during Shabbat morning services at Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh not only horrified Americans, but vindicated the fears of some who said it was only a matter of time before those drenched in hate on the Internet would strike at Jewish targets. Those fears were compounded by the more recent attack in Poway, Calif., in which yet another armed right-wing extremist shot up a synagogue.
But as much as American Jewry has been riveted by the discussion of anti-Semitism, an alarming new report about a shocking spike in such incidents seems not to have elicited much interest, in spite of the fact that it concerns the largest Jewish community in the United States.
The New York City Police Department announced that between Jan. 1 and May 19 this year, it saw an 83 percent increase in the number of hate crimes reported. Of these, 59 percent were anti-Semitic in nature. The total of anti-Semitic crimes more than doubled.
While the raw number of crimes reported is not astronomical, the fact that the number of anti-Semitic incidents more than doubled should, at the very least, prompt some serious questions not only about what is causing the uptick, but also what is to be done about it.
Jewish groups have had a lot to say about extremists attacking synagogues or neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Va., in the summer of 2017, but the situation in New York appears to be flying under the radar of most American Jews.
How is that possible?
The answer is twofold. Most American Jews don’t identify with those who are being victimized in New York. Equally as important, the problem can’t be blamed on President Donald Trump.
The victims in New York are, for the most part, Orthodox Jews. Their problems, including their rates of poverty, are alien to the experiences of secular upper-middle class Jews, who tend to view the lives of the more observant through a lens that bears more resemblance to a National Geographic special than anything else. Though most American Jews pride themselves on their sympathy for the downtrodden, many have little empathy to spare for fellow Jews whose religious practices and lifestyles don’t resemble their own.
Yet even more important is the fact that the perpetrators of many, if not most, of the incidents of anti-Semitism in New York are not right-wing extremists. Instead, the accused are often African-Americans. The spate of unprovoked attacks on Orthodox Jews by a small number of African-Americans is deeply troubling and has resulted in some outreach between the two communities aimed at bridging a wide cultural, religious and racial gap of understanding. But this is the sort of story that makes most American Jews, who are deeply sensitive to issues about “white privilege” and intersectional theories about the struggles of minorities, very uncomfortable.
More to the point, there is no way to connect the dots between these attacks and the bête noire of most liberal Jews: Trump.
The connection between Trump and right-wing anti-Semitism is a matter of faith for most Jews with liberal sympathies, who view the president’s behavior as having unleashed and empowered anti-Semites everywhere. That Trump has condemned anti-Semitism — and was, in fact, reviled by both the Pittsburgh and Poway shooters as too friendly to the Jews — and has been the most pro-Israel president in American history is of no consequence to his Jewish political detractors.
Indeed, Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League were trying to pin a surge of anti-Semitism on him long before Pittsburgh, including a series of bomb threats on Jewish Community Centers in 2017 that were actually the work of a deranged Israeli teenager.
That so many anti-Semitic crimes can be linked to African-Americans, rather than the stereotypical rednecks that liberal Jews assume are being dog-whistled to by Trump, simply doesn’t fit the narrative about hatred that most American Jews think makes sense.
As with other forms of anti-Semitism, including the vicious Jew-hatred emanating from supporters of the BDS movement and other Israel-bashers like Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) or the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan, we don’t have to choose between which kind of hate to be alarmed about. Jews can and should be concerned about all threats, whether from the left or the right, or from whites or blacks.
Yet as we saw with last month’s decision by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism to honor a veteran race-baiter like Al Sharpton — who was directly linked to the 1991 Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn that led to the murder of 29-year-old Australian student Yankel Rosenbaum — some kinds of anti-Semitism appear to be more important than others in the eyes of certain Jewish leaders. The latest numbers out of New York makes the RAC’s disgraceful decision and its failure to push Sharpton, whom they honored as an ally in their political battle against Trump, to take a leadership role against anti-Semitic hate crimes against Jews even more disgraceful.
It’s long past time for American Jewish groups to start treating the epidemic of hate in New York seriously. Still, that may be asking too much as long as its victims are Orthodox and its perpetrators aren’t wearing red MAGA hats.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS.
Copy slightly updated to match printed edition on June 12, 2019.