December 15, 2019 Reflections on the Jersey City attack
I’m still trying to make sense of the shooting in Jersey City on December 10, where one of the victims was a woman from Williamsburg who was about my age and was fatally shot while tending her grocery store. The shooting lasted four endless hours, and I cannot imagine the trauma inflicted on the survivors who were in lock down for the entire time. The following pictures are just snapshots of the scene:
The video below shows the little Hasidic children after they were cleared to go home. A very stoic police office tells them in English that they have done well, while an old Hasidic man in a Russian kutchma hat translates in paternalistic soothing tones. You know from watching it how terrified the kids must have been, and how many sleepless nights will follow.
Hasidic kids are already so sheltered—they are not exposed to a culture of gore, and they don’t see it in movies or video games. They don’t engage in any of the visual entertainment that introduces non-Hasidic children to shocking violence, so they live very innocent youths. I grew up without ever locking doors and without ever seeing any shootouts, weapons, death. It’s a really sweet part of a Hasidic childhood.
I’ve been worried that this innocence might be shattered by a brutal attack from the outside. It has been brewing. In the last year, there has been so much unprovoked violence in this otherwise extremely peaceful neighborhood. All the attacks were by outsiders, always randomly picking a Hasid to taunt. Most of the attacks were caught on nearby security cameras. Here are some, with links to the original article or video accessible by clicking on the date:
November 2018 in south Williamsburg: a Hasidic man was struck as he was walking home from synagogue with his 11-year-old son on a Shabbat night
December 2018 in Williamsburg: a Hasidic man was attacked while walking home from the synagogue.
January 2019 in Crown Heights:: on Friday night, a Hasid was first hit in the head then in the cheek as he fell to the ground
May 2019 in Williamsburg: for the second time that week, a Hasidic man was punched in the head.
May 2019 in Williamsburg: Hasidic kids were chased by a car and the people inside yelled “DO YOU KNOW HITLER? WE LOVE HITLER!”
May 2019 in Crown Heights: a man chased Hasidic girls.
June 2019 in Borough Park: a man terrorized a Hasidic man who was walking the empty street alone at night
August 2019 in Crown Heights: a Hasid was attacked with a rock
September 2019 in Williamsburg: a Hasidic man stood at a corner when a group approached him and knocked off his shtreimel
November 2019 in Rockland: a Hasidic man in Rockland was jumped and stabbed six times
November 2019: a random man slapped a Hasidic man in the face
November 2019 in Borough Park: a group of people jumped out of a car and chased Hasidim and sucker punched them, then repeated this in several locations
November 2019 in Williamsburg: a 13 year old Hasidic teen was punched in the face.
This list is by no means comprehensive, but it does show a pattern. I cannot emphasize how striking this pattern is, because of how incredibly safe the Hasidic neighborhoods feel, with children and babies fearlessly out and about. People have mentioned to me that Williamsburg isn’t as loud and raucous as the rest of the city, and I think it’s a part of what creates the feeling that the neighborhood is a 1950s bubble where kids play outside until it’s dark. And yet, the above has been happening, and happening more and more frequently. A punch. A hat knocked off. A scooter torn out of a hand. A rock thrown.
The attacks against Hasidim have not been getting much media attention, if any. Only The Tablet treated the subject seriously in a very good article published in July of this year (I very much recommend it).
Many Orthodox Jewish outlets have said that the media is ignoring these stories because the crimes were largely perpetrated by people from other minority groups. I can see that the black and Hispanic identity of some perpetrators makes the reporting touchy. If we publicize the story of a handful of black individuals, racists will hang on to it and transform isolated incidents into an indictment of all black or Hispanic people—especially since the news is so politicized that any story covered in mainstream publication is potential fodder for right-wing propaganda.
But I believe this phenomenon cannot simply be boiled down to sporadic hate crimes being committed by one random antisemitic minority group. It’s much bigger. While the perpetrators this time happened to be black, this is not happening in isolation, and it’s not exactly like the rest of the population has neutral feelings about Hasidim. There is definite widespread animosity. From where? From everywhere. From everyone. From elite media and entertainment media and Reform Jews and former Hasidim and Reddit basement dwellers writing sickening things (I should stop reading those!), and the New Yorkers who, during the measles outbreak, casually declared that they wouldn’t sit near a diseased Hasid. It’s not just a handful of individuals from fringe groups who talk about Hasidim with such incredible disdain, often dehumanizing and depicting them as a “cult,” as fanatics, whose worst elements are the only relevant elements; it’s everywhere.
I follow stories about the Hasidic community closely enough to note that pretty much all rhetoric about it is careless about the implication of such negative portrayals. People don’t realize that if you say the Hasidim take all the money from the government, are all slumlords, and breed until the planet is beyond capacity (all criticism which should be discussed with correct information and put into context), your words can generate dangerous animosity. I am convinced that the animosity and violence are part of a larger situation where an annoying little subculture is being consistently dehumanized.
It’s convenient to look only at the wild “hooligans” who, on drunk Friday nights, inflict some trauma on an innocent Hasidic man on his way home from the synagogue. But I believe these events are happening because a climate of animosity is giving them permission to do so. And when it does, that Jewish community becomes a “safe” target for people who are frustrated and angry, with all sorts of problems.
And there are many people who are full of brewing discontent and itching for someone to take it out on. In New York, with the rising cost of living, we are seeing an escalation in frustration, desperation, and economic precarity. The poorer population is suffering a real decline in quality of life due to the steep cost of living and stagnant income. When people become economically depressed (and we know those hit hardest are minority groups who have the least familial wealth), they often take it out on other minorities. Hasidim are the perfect target, because it is politically okay to revile them, and because, frankly, you can get away with it. Hasidim are largely very nonviolent and they won’t hit back. In fact, when I watch the videos of the random attacks, I’m struck by the response of the people it happens to: some flee, some seem to ask “what’s gotten into you?” as they back away, some run for help. None punch back.
Instead, Hasidim deal with these threats by turning inward and becoming more trusting of one another and more afraid of outsiders. In Williamsburg, they live with a constant belief that the world wants to do them harm. The children are terrified of gentiles. So the Hasidim organize community patrols, like Shomrim—the Hasidic volunteer patrol—to offload the responsibility of keeping people safe, and residents indeed seem to retain a tremendous sense of safety. Their way of dealing with this is to close in tighter, which is an understandable reaction, but sadly only makes the schism grow.
I believe—and have believed this for a long time—that, converse to the current reaction, it would be better to turn outward. To educate, to understand. To have empathy. I don’t want to be all cheesy, inspirational poster, Oprah style “love” and shit. I really mean it. I really cannot live in a world where humans are made out to be villains just because they are part of a group, race, religion, or ethnicity. And that’s a two way street.
I come from a worldview where it’s always been us versus them. I left that. I don’t want that, I can’t live with that. I know Hasidim will keep doing it their way, but I wish my adopted culture, with its values of openness and education, would do better.