Anti-Semitic Attacks Shine Spotlight on Long-Simmering Tri-State Tensions

Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg stands in front of his residence in Monsey, N.Y., December 29, 2019. (Jeenah Moon/Reuters)
Attacks in Jersey City, N.J. and Monsey, N.Y., bring national attention to political fights between the region’s ultra-Orthodox and their non-Jewish neighbors.

In the wake of the recent anti-Semitic shooting in Jersey City, N.J. and the machete attack at the home of a rabbi in Monsey, N.Y., news of anti-Semitism in the tri-state area has begun to pierce the mainstream-media bubble. But tensions have existed for decades in the Jewish enclaves that surround New York City.

Grafton Thomas, who attacked visitors at the home of rabbi Chaim Rottenberg, has been charged by the Rockland County district attorney with six counts of attempted murder and three counts of assault. One of the victims, Rabbi Josef Neumann, was left in a coma, and his family says he will have permanent brain damage.

On Thursday, Thomas was indicted on federal hate-crime charges.

“I’m begging you . . . please stand up and stop this hatred,” Neumann’s daughter Nicky Kohen said at a press conference at the beginning of January. “It cannot keep going on. We want our kids to go to school and feel safe, we want to go our synagogues and feel safe.”

While Thomas’s lawyer and his mother insist his attack was the product of mental illness rather than anti-Semitism, Ramapo chief of police Brad Weidel said the attack was clearly motivated by anti-Jewish animus, citing the rather compelling evidence that Thomas had searched for “why did Hitler hate the Jews” and “Zionist temples near me” on his cell phone in the days before the attack.

The attack in Monsey came on the heels of the anti-Semitic shooting at a Jersey City kosher supermarket, during which the perpetrators, David Anderson and Francine Graham, killed three people. Anderson was alleged to have followed Black Hebrew Israelite theology, which claims that African Americans are the true descendants of the ancient Israelites and that Jews are essentially pretenders to the faith.

Anti-Semitism has flared up periodically throughout New York City history, especially in areas such as Crown Heights with a large ultra-Orthodox population. During the Crown Heights Riots in 1991, marchers chanted “Heil Hitler!” and “Death to the Jews!” and vandalized Jewish storefronts and homes. The ultra-Orthodox, who dress in distinctive styles for both men and women, seem to be the primary targets of anti-Semitic attacks, many of them by African-American or Hispanic perpetrators. Thomas’s mother said he was born and raised in Crown Heights, and even acted as a “Shabbos goy” for Jewish residents. He was eight years old at the time of the riots, although it is not clear if he and his mother were present during the period of violence.

In any case, Anderson and Graham targeted a budding community of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jersey City, who had moved to the area from Brooklyn for lower housing prices and less-crowded living conditions. Rockland County, where Monsey is located, is another area in which a large ultra-Orthodox population has settled after leaving the city. Orthodox Jews now constitute over 31 percent of the population there, the largest Jewish population by percentage of any county in the U.S. Grafton Thomas and his mother moved to Orange County from Crown Heights.

There is no indication that Anderson, Graham, and Thomas attacked Jewish targets for reasons related to outmigration from New York City to the surrounding region. Yet the attacks have rattled ultra-Orthodox in those areas nonetheless, owing in part to preexisting disputes between some ultra-Orthodox communities and the neighboring non-Jewish population in those areas.

The various ultra-Orthodox denominations that have settled in towns in upstate New York and northern New Jersey have specific religious practices that affect their living habits. They generally live in close proximity to one another due to restrictions on driving during Shabbat and the necessity of the participation of ten adult males in certain prayers. Following the commandment in Genesis to “be fruitful and multiply,” ultra-Orthodox families can regularly reach eight or more children, leading to swift increases in population.

The subsequent population explosion has increased demand for housing development in the area, worrying non-Jewish residents who say they want to keep their rural way of life intact. At the same time, the ultra-Orthodox community typically constructs developments of townhouses, ensuring that community members live within walking distance of one another and that there are enough Jews in the area to form a prayer congregation.

One of the most crucial features of these communities is that ultra-Orthodox Jews vote en masse as a bloc in elections for candidates agreed upon by community leaders. This can transform the local political landscape in their favor. Rural and suburban towns have fought against what they see as development for one specific religious group out of fear that the ultra-Orthodox voting bloc will render longtime residents politically powerless. This can be seen particularly in the realm of public education: Non-Jewish residents question why ultra-Orthodox representatives may sit on a public-school board when ultra-Orthodox children generally use private yeshivas, and only use public-school funds for busing and special-education purposes. (New York state law requires the public-education budget to provide busing services for private schools.)

The ultra-Orthodox population is also a heavy user of government resources such as Medicaid and food stamps. This is due to the fact that many of the men either don’t work or make low salaries, choosing instead to devote their time to studying religious texts.

“Many in the community look at the Hasidim as locusts, who go from community to community . . . just stripping all the resources out of it,” said a Jewish, but not ultra-Orthodox, resident of upstate New York. The resident, who vociferously objects to ultra-Orthodox development and asked not to be named for fear of retribution by the ultra-Orthodox community, added that “nobody here doesn’t like them because they’re Jews. People don’t like them because of what they do. Rural, hardworking people also want to live our lives too.”

Because opposition to new residents is directed toward ultra-Orthodox Jews, small towns that resist development risk running afoul of anti-discrimination laws. In only the latest instance, the town of Chester in Orange County has been waging a years-long battle to prevent a development of townhouses that residents charge will be populated only by ultra-Orthodox Jews. In December, New York attorney general Letitia James filed a motion alleging that the town was engaged in discriminatory housing practices, calling the town’s actions “blatantly anti-Semitic.”

“If town officials brainstorm in public about how to ‘keep the Hasidic out’ and then go ahead and fabricate the text of documents to create unprecedented restrictions on a fully approved project, you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out what’s going on,” Livy Schwartz, one of the developers of the project in Chester, told National Review.

The Rockland County GOP created controversy in August after airing an ad titled “A Storm is Brewing in Rockland County.” Using ominous music and footage of storm clouds, the video accused ultra-Orthodox politician Aron Wieder and his supporters of “plotting a takeover” with a bloc vote and driving overdevelopment in the county.

“This video is absolutely despicable,” the Republican Jewish Coalition, a nation-wide advocacy group, wrote on Twitter. “It is pure anti-Semitism, and should be immediately taken down.”

Other instances of conflict between ultra-Orthodox and non-Jewish residents have cropped up in the past, along with accusations of anti-Semitism.

Shulem Deen, a former ultra-Orthodox Jew who lived in Rockland County for a time, criticized the county GOP ad as having “a flavor of classic anti-Semitism.” Deen also pointed out that he had experienced anti-Semitic incidents in his former town of New Square, when teenagers would sometimes drive through the town shouting slurs at ultra-Orthodox residents. However, he said that the issue of ultra-Orthodox development can lead to legitimate concerns.

“Whether people have a right to say, ‘you cannot change my environment:’ that’s an interesting question,” he said. “Do others have a right to settle in a certain vicinity, in a region, and make that place their own?”

State assemblyman Colin Schmitt, a Republican whose district in Orange County includes Chester, argues that the allegations of anti-Semitism are unfounded and are meant to conceal the attorney general’s more cynical motive for interceding in the Chester lawsuit, namely that she wants to protect politically potent special-interest groups.

“The attorney general, by her action here, is not representing the residents of Chester,” Schmitt told National Review. “All of a sudden there’s an interest shown by her to benefit one private developer. Now that is what this is about.” Schmitt emphasized that the town of Chester is a rural, “long-time agricultural” community that would be altered by the proposed development.

“There have been longstanding tensions within the community, in Chester and in the larger region . . . many dealing with housing issues,” Schmitt went on. “We have . . . a welcoming, loving community here that has for years worked on preservation efforts — land preservation, natural-resource preservation, preserving the character of the community.”

The attacks in Jersey City and Monsey may fade from the national conversation over time. But one thing seems certain: These simmering local conflicts, which have existed now for several decades, are not going away.

Editor’s Note: This article includes a quote from an upstate New York resident characterizing harsh attitudes toward Orthodox Jews among some residents. The inclusion of the quote “obviously does not constitute an endorsement of its language or its argument,” as the author explains nearby. An unrelated sentence in the article, on poverty and employment rates, has been emended, as has the incorrect claim that Grafton Thomas moved to Rockland, rather than Orange, County.

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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