Anti-Semitism Grows in Brooklyn as Its Roots Remain Misunderstood

A young Orthodox Jewish man walks on the Williamsburg Bridge in New York City in 2017. (Joe Penney/Reuters)
City leaders and national commentators have blamed white nationalism for an uptick in hate crimes targeting the borough’s Jews. The truth is much different.

In 2019, the Jewish communities in the Williamsburg, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Crown Heights neighborhoods of Brooklyn experienced a wave of anti-Semitic violence. Much of it was captured on cellphones or security cameras, and local news covered several individual incidents. “It’s happening at a rate that we are not used [to],” one Orthodox community leader in Williamsburg told National Review.

The crimes have ranged from the harassment of individual Jews on the street to more-coordinated assaults. In September, a group of teens smashed the windows of a synagogue in Williamsburg as congregants prayed on the night of Rosh Hashanah. The attacks eventually prompted an outcry among Jewish media outlets, including Commentary, Tablet, and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, especially after statistics from the NYPD confirmed that anti-Semitic hate crimes in the city had risen markedly since 2017.

Yet the trend has been covered only occasionally in the national media, and such coverage often misses the mark. Take MSNBC commentator Joe Scarborough’s suggestion during the November 15 edition of his TV show, Morning Joe, that the attacks were related to the rising tide of white nationalism. “We’ve seen anti-Semitic crimes skyrocket,” Scarborough said. “If we could just see what’s happening in Brooklyn every week. . . . The anti-Semitism is fueled by the promotion of white nationalism, and the refusal to call it out.”

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has made a similar argument. “I want to be very, very clear: The violent threat, the threat that is ideological, is very much from the right,” de Blasio said at a June press conference. National politicians have echoed the theme. In a November 11 article in Jewish Currents, Senator Bernie Sanders asserted that anti-Semitic hate crimes in New York, just as in the rest of the United States, are “the result of a dangerous political ideology that targets Jews and anyone who does not fit a narrow vision of a whites-only America.”

This explanation is problematic. For one thing, Jewish-community leaders dispute it. “We don’t see white extremism as the enemy here in NYC,” David Pollock, director of public policy and security at an umbrella organization for New York Jewish groups, told National Review. For another, the perpetrators of hate crimes against Jewish targets in the city are virtually all black or Hispanic. “These crimes [were] committed by either young people of color or people with evident psychiatric issues,” Pollock said. Mayor de Blasio eventually admitted as much in September. What’s more, while hate crimes against Jews in New York have risen since 2017, the current pace of attacks is average when compared with the past decade: In 2010, there were 70 instances of physical or verbal anti-Jewish hate crimes in New York, compared with 35 in 2018. And debates over anti-Semitic hate crimes have cropped up before, as the archives of city publications show.

Indeed, anti-Semitism in Brooklyn is an enduring phenomenon that has little to do with white nationalism. A look back at the history of the borough offers an explanation as to why and how it became widespread in a corner of the most diverse, cosmopolitan city on Earth.

*    *    *

Hey, Jew boy, with that yarmulke on your head / You pale-faced Jew boy — I wish you were dead / You came to America, land of the free /And took over the school system to perpetuate white supremacy

These lines come from a poem written in 1969 by a 15-year-old student at Junior High School 271, in the Ocean Hill–Brownsville school district of Brooklyn. The student’s teacher, a black-power sympathizer named Leslie Campbell, was asked to read the poem aloud on a radio show in January of that year. The reading caused an outcry among New York Jews and the first major rift between them and the city’s African-American population.

Then-mayor John Lindsay, speaking at a Queens synagogue soon after the reading, vowed to fire Campbell. But the principal of J.H.S. 271, Albert Vann, defended his subordinate against charges of anti-Semitism. “In his hurry to appease the powerful Jewish financiers of the city,” Vann told the New York Times, the mayor had played “fast and loose” with Campbell’s reputation. (Vann declined to be interviewed for this article.)

While largely forgotten today, these two figures played an important role in the history of anti-Semitism in New York City. Their influence, both overt and subliminal, on Brooklyn is key to understanding the crisis now unfolding in the same neighborhoods that were once roiled by Campbell’s poetry reading.

In 1969, Campbell and Vann left J.H.S. 271. Campbell changed his name to Jitu Weusi, meaning “Big Black” in Swahili, and established a black community center called the “EAST” in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. The EAST played host to numerous cultural figures, including jazz musicians such as Pharaoh Sanders and Sun Ra. At the same time, Weusi edited and produced a community newspaper called Black News, an outlet for black-power–influenced writing that sold for as little as 10 cents an issue.

Black News was not averse to giving ink to famous anti-Semites. The notoriously anti-Semitic Louis Farrakhan, now the head of the Nation of Islam, visited the EAST in the early ’70s to give a speech, which was reprinted approvingly in the paper. The poet Leroy Jones, who later changed his name to Amiri Baraka, also spoke there and had his speech reprinted. Later, in a 2002 poem, Baraka suggested that Israel might be behind the 9/11 attacks.

The paper also published multiple anti-Semitic articles and cartoons of its own. An unsigned article from 1970 bears the title “The Unholy Sons of Shylock” beneath a cartoon depicting smiling Jews holding a chained black man to the ground. “Jewish usurers and petty merchants need black consumers to exploit to make a living,” it reads. “Marginal businesses of Jews need to hire blacks as wage slaves in order to remain in profitable business and the entire race of Jews need [sic] blacks as a physical barrier between them and other whites.”

Another issue from 1970 boasts cover art depicting Arabs with rocket launchers forcing Israelis to drown in the Mediterranean Sea. The first article in the issue, titled “Zionist Bubbles from the Deep,” is also unsigned. “The same Jewish racist attitudes that many of us saw used against Oceanhill-Brownsville [Weusi’s and Vann’s former school district],” the article reads, “is only an extension of the racism they carry to Israel.” The same issue’s back cover carries an advertisement for an event whose guest speaker was Albert Vann.

Vann’s association with Weusi did not hurt his political fortunes. In 1975, Vann was elected to the New York State Assembly representing Bed-Stuy. He continued to hold that position until 2001, when he was elected to the New York City Council, where he served until 2013. Along the way, his own writing sometimes appeared in Black News. In September 1976, the paper reprinted a letter he’d written on the subject of a local political alliance in New York State government. The letter appeared in the same issue as an anti-Semitic screed by Weusi accusing “the Zionist (international Jews), especially the Hasidic religious community in Brooklyn,” along with the Italian Mafia, of taking money from a program that provided cheap lunches for Brooklyn residents and redirecting it to “the Zionist community for shipment abroad.”

Weusi’s anti-Semitism didn’t prevent him from establishing a reputation as a powerful community organizer. In 1989, he became co-chairman of African Americans United for David Dinkins, a get-out-the-vote group for Dinkins’s mayoral campaign. In the midst of the campaign, the Anti-Defamation League unearthed “The Unholy Sons of Shylock.” Weusi, who sometimes wrote under the pen name “Big Black,” denied writing the article, claiming that a different author had used the same pen name. (The version of the article in the Black News collection at the Brooklyn Public Library does not have a byline.) He sent a letter to Dinkins’s campaign manager, Bill Lynch, in which he wrote, “I harbor no anti-Semitic views now, nor have I in the past.” Weusi eventually decided to resign, but as late as 1998 maintained that he was not an anti-Semite. He never explained why, as the editor of Black News, he allowed the article to be printed, even if he hadn’t written it.

Weusi’s decision to leave the Dinkins campaign came only after the ADL exposed his involvement with Black News, but the controversy did not make him persona non grata in New York political circles. He subsequently worked on Al Sharpton’s campaigns for U.S. Senate, and between 1985 and 2006 was a public-school teacher in various districts. Upon his death in 2013, current New York assemblyman and former Black Panther Charles Barron lionized Weusi as “our comrade in struggle, a master organizer [and] a superb institution builder who had an undying love for Black people,” calling him “an unassuming, humble, legendary icon.”

Weusi and Vann had ties to other figures in city politics with accusations of anti-Semitism hanging over them. Robert “Sonny” Carson, a black-power activist from Bed-Stuy, led violent protests against police as part of the conflict surrounding Weusi’s and Vann’s former school. It was reported that in 1967, Carson’s gang illegally entered schools and threatened teachers, many of them Jewish, saying: “The Germans did not do a good enough job with you Jews.”

The 1988 Dinkins mayoral campaign was dogged by the revelation that it had paid Carson $9,500, allegedly as “insurance” against starting violent protests during the campaign season. As these revelations came out, a reporter asked Carson if he was anti-Semitic. “That’s absolutely absurd, ‘anti-Semitic,’” Carson said. “And so that you don’t ask the question, I’m anti-white. Don’t limit my antis to just one group of people.”

Carson went on to lead the Family Red Apple Boycott of Korean grocers in Flatbush, and took an active part in the 1991 Crown Heights unrest, as did Weusi and Sharpton. That conflict was set off after a driver in the motorcade of leading Chabad rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson accidentally ran over and killed the seven-year-old son of Guyanese immigrants. Crown Heights residents rioted for several days after the boy’s death, smashing Jewish shop windows and vandalizing Jewish homes, identifiable by the mezuzot on their doors. Carson and Sharpton led a march from which rioters broke off and burned an Israeli flag in front of Chabad headquarters. At other times, protesters carried anti-Semitic signs, in one instance chanting “Heil Hitler” and “Death to the Jews.”

Albert Vann, along with Charles Barron, eulogized Carson in 2008.

Yet another prominent figure accused of fomenting the Crown Heights riots, the Reverend Herbert Daughtry, gave an extensive interview to Black News in the summer of 1979. In 1978, the paper had printed a letter by Daughtry calling on then-president Jimmy Carter to investigate the Crown Heights Jewish community. “We are charging the Hassidic Jews, in collusion with the City of New York, with violating the Human Rights of Black people in Crown Heights, Brooklyn,” Daughtry wrote.

Far from losing political influence, Daughtry went on to become a special assistant to Jesse Jackson on Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign, during which Jackson was infamously forced to apologize after he referred to Jews as “Hymies” and New York City as “Hymietown” in an interview. Daughtry was later part of the Dinkins-led delegation that traveled to South Africa in 1991 and met with Nelson Mandela. In 2009, he was joined by anti-Semitic U.K. politician George Galloway for a pro-Palestinian event at the reverend’s House of the Lord Church on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, where he has been the head minister for 50 years.

*    *    *

Being an anti-Semite or associating with one does not seem to be a hindrance to obtaining power and influence in New York City, which boasts the largest Jewish population in the world outside of Israel. Anti-Semitism becomes a story only after major events such as the Crown Heights disturbances, in which Sharpton, Weusi, Carson, and Daughtry participated, or during the periodic media outcries that follow especially vicious attacks against Jews.

Indeed, that such men survived and even thrived in the cauldron of city politics despite their indulgence of anti-Semitism is itself telling. Weusi and Carson are remembered as forceful community organizers. Vann held office for decades. Daughtry is revered as a “civil-rights activist.” Each of them has, or had, a constituency looking up to him for guidance. Like Sharpton and Farrakhan, they built formidable reputations as political operators and as advocates for social justice despite exhibiting or ignoring flagrant prejudice. (Scarborough, who blamed the Trump administration for fomenting anti-Semitism in Brooklyn, regularly hosts Sharpton on Morning Joe. Representatives of the show did not return National Review’s request for comment.)

Still, to this day, word does not spread, even among the targets of this wave of hate. I interviewed several Jewish residents within blocks of the Rivnitz synagogue in Williamsburg, whose windows were smashed in this year’s Rosh Hashanah attack. Several had not heard that the attack occurred, or even that there was a two-year rise in anti-Jewish hate crimes in their neighborhood at all. In Crown Heights, the same ignorance pervaded among shop owners and workers on Utica Avenue, whose residents are mostly of Caribbean descent. Those whom I spoke with had no inkling of any increase in anti-Jewish attacks in the neighborhood.

One African-American business owner based on Eastern Parkway had a different take on the situation: Any increase in attacks on Jews or in media discussion of those attacks was because someone powerful wanted to stir up trouble in the community. “Somebody does not want any peace,” he said, asserting that community relations between blacks and Jews in Crown Heights were quite good. His business partner was in fact an Orthodox Jew, and the two had been friends since childhood.

When I brought up the teenagers who smashed the window of a synagogue on the Jewish new year, he said the crime was probably not attributable to an anti-Jewish motive. “Kids are kids,” he said. But then he suggested their education may be part of the problem: “What they’re learning right now is nothing but hate.”

It is possible that a future cohort of political activists will take stronger measures to curb that hate in their communities. But for now, attacks on Jewish targets in the city continue apace, still poorly understood by the public, its elected leaders, and the political players who orbit them.

Zachary Evans is a news writer for National Review Online. He is a veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces and a trained violist.

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