Orthodox Jews in the New York metropolitan area alone have been the victims of no less than a dozen attacks in the last few weeks.
Women have been smacked across the face, spat upon, and had their wigs ripped off. Men have been assaulted with chairs and one whacked so hard with a brick that he lost all his teeth. A woman and her child were pelted with eggs, another mother beaten with her child in tow. Jews have been harangued and baited on public transportation. Jews have been targeted in the streets, in their houses of worship and online.
And in the most dramatic attacks, three people were murdered in a Jersey City kosher supermarket, just below a Jewish school, suspected to have been the intended target, where 50 Hasidic children were hiding under tables. In the village of Monsey 35 miles north of New York City, a Hanukkah party was broken up by a machete-wielding intruder, leaving one man without fingers and another in a coma from which he is unlikely to emerge.
This, after last year’s massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue by a white supremacist gunman which left 11 people dead, followed six months later by a fatal shooting by a similarly motivated killer in a Poway, California synagogue. A July shooting again targeted a Miami synagogue.
Individuals with white nationalist and extreme right-wing ideologies committed 73% of all extremist killings, and not just of Jews, in the past decade. From 2014-2017 reported hate crimes against Blacks, Arabs, Latinos, and the LGBTQ community have been on the rise, with the most dramatic increase occurring in 2017. Trump campaigned on vilifying Latinos and Muslims and, having exploited hatred as a tool of political advance and consolidation, he and his enablers undoubtedly reduced the social barriers against all expressions of intolerance.
Attacks on Jewish people in New York — particularly Orthodox Jews — have been on the rise in the past two years. And in the third quarter of 2019, hate crime incidents aimed at Jewish people made up over half of all the hate crime complaints logged in by the NYC police.
But of these violent attacks, white supremacy was largely a nonfactor. The random street assaults have been committed seemingly in sport by young African-American and Latino kids whose motivations, beyond the sadistic schoolyard joy of harassment and humiliation inflicted on a seemingly timid, unworldly and outlandishly attired community, are unknown and perhaps unfathomable. But they too cannot be considered immune from the subterranean ideological and cultural currents that swirl around their own communities.
The deadly metropolitan attacks, in contrast, were in both cases ideologically motivated. And this is something the Left often cannot wrap its collective head around. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib initially reacted to the Jersey City killing with the tweet, “white power kills,” before the facts were known. But this also highlights the shallowness with which the Left engages antisemitism.
When the culprits are white power advocates, the Left characteristically falls over itself in heart-felt solidarity with the Jews. Rarely is the issue what the Jews do to trigger these neo-Nazi rampages. There is, thankfully, little tolerance for this puerile contextualisation in the midst of a crime scene. It is implicitly understood that what needs to be contextualised is not Jews, but the social existence of the Jew-haters.
But much of the Left has an uneasy ambiguity with the larger issues at play. For it is also beyond the imagination of many progressives to see white supremacists as themselves oppressed and powerless, adrift in a vanishing world that they cannot control, improvising a grand explanation for what they cannot understand. For many on the Left, all American whites have colonial-settler privileges. And so Jew-hatred is reduced to an extremist hate-filled ideology in service to the dominant racial order. Jews are often seen as incidental — collateral damage — in pursuit of a larger target: the quest to check black aspirations and reclaim a mythical past where no whites were disempowered. The focus of Jews on Jew hatred is often criticised on that basis for centring and prioritising the plight of Jews above those of oppressed people of colour.
Beyond being callous and unjustified, this also misses something vital. Antisemitism is reaction’s time-honored liberation theology. Whether Christian Identity, Black Hebrew, Nation of Islam or its multiple international neo-Nazi and fascist incarnations and counterparts, antisemitism embodies the emancipatory promise of a hatred capable of jumping firewalls and uniting diverse racial and national chauvinisms otherwise at dagger points. It charges Jews with being imposters, spawns of the devil and whites or Blacks or Arabs with being the authentic lost tribes of the Bible. Jews are neither a people, nor an ethnicity, nor a religion, but a subterranean conspiracy.
It is when Jew-hatred takes root in minority communities that this charge of centering and prioritising reveals its more toxic side and where this suggestion of conspiracy is given tacit affirmation by elements of the Left.
Unlike white supremacists, with whom the Left has no sympathy, Black nationalists here and Arab and Muslim chauvinists abroad — many of whom traffic in the same antisemitic tropes as white antisemites — are celebrated as stalwarts of the anti-imperialist resistance. All the sophistry previously off bounds when dealing with white Jew-molesters is now fair play. Deplorable as these Jew-bashing and killing incidents are, we on the Left are often implored by our comrades to put this lamentable hatred… in context. It’s really about gentrification — about squeezing poor people of colour from their neighbourhoods.
It’s a riff on a recognisable theme — the Jewish occupation of territory that belongs by right to others, the colonialist assertion of a white Jewish privilege. It’s a revolt — sometimes characterised as unfortunate, misguided, even wrong-headed — of the noble uprooted, that is, of the very powerless communities that are seen as the Left’s natural allies from Palestine to San Francisco and on college campuses both elite and modest.
This in the case of Brooklyn is particularly risible. There, the well-heeled hipster residents, catered to by upscale coffee shops and boutique speciality stores inhabiting renovated coops and condos, don’t seem to suffer similar waves of assault against life and limb.
It is also peculiar given the fact that 55% of the Hasidic community falls below the poverty line. But conceding this gives rise to the ever-useful pivot. Hasidic families, it is pointed out, compete with other poverty-stricken communities for Section 8 (government subsidised) housing stock. And with this we come full circle: Jews still occupying someone else’s rightful home.
On the first Sunday in January a massive march against hate was held in New York City. To her lasting credit, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined the 25,000 marchers who stood against antisemitism. But where was the organised Left? Did the Democratic Socialists of America endorse or even acknowledge the march? If so, I can’t find the evidence. Did it deign to offer the usual time-tested weasel word excuses for not marching in a cause, with which in truth they can’t find their footing — a refusal to lock arms with establishment apologists? Did they, like French socialists of the recent past, call for an alternative demonstration?
Can democratic socialists — and by that I don’t only mean DSA members — who never raised any righteous howls against the participation of Stalinists, Assad supporters, and Islamists at the anti-war rallies of the past, or for the ones that will surely come, even raise such objections without shaming themselves?