The Corner

Politics & Policy

Stop Blaming Jews for Anti-Semitism

Grand Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum speaks at a mass gathering of Satmar Hasidic Jews in the Brooklyn borough of New York, December 2, 2015. (Darren Ornitz/Reuters)

There have been a number of repulsive articles over the past few weeks blaming New York’s Jews for precipitating violence that is, um, “seen by some” as anti-Semitic. Yet, this piece by NBC News, which insinuates that icky ultra-Orthodox Jews bring some of this misery on themselves by having the temerity to move to the suburbs, might be the most tone-deaf of them all:

For years, ultra-Orthodox Jewish families pushed out of increasingly expensive Brooklyn neighborhoods have been turning to the suburbs, where they have taken advantage of open space and cheaper housing to establish modern-day versions of the European shtetls where their ancestors lived for centuries before the Holocaust. (The irritated italics are mine.)

I grew up in suburban Long Island, a place where nearly every Italian, Irish, and Jewish family I knew had, at some point, moved out of one of New York City’s boroughs to take advantage of “open spaces.” In those days New Yorkers were fleeing rampant criminality, litter, and mismanagement, rather than gentrification and high prices, but it was always about easier living.

Oftentimes, the refugees from the city would import the ethnic character of their neighborhoods to their new towns. Many suburban enclaves were mostly inhabited by one tribe or another, including the predominately Jewish “Five Towns.” Jews — and especially orthodox Jews who won’t drive on Sabbath — live near synagogues and form close-knit communities around them. This is nothing new. Yet no one, as far as I can recall, ever made the argument that Cedarhurst was a modern-day European shtetl.

Yet there is this from a (now-deleted) tweet from NBC:

With the expansion of Orthodox communities outside NYC has come civic sparring, and some fear the recent violence may be an outgrowth of that conflict.

There is certainly no way any reporter would hold a job very long if they suggested “black expansion” or “Hispanic expansion” or “Muslim expansion” — “expansion” being a euphemism for “moving into a neighborhood” — had somehow engendered violence against a minority community. They would, rightly, fold that resentment against the minority group into the larger problem of bigotry. Framing the spike in violence as an outgrowth of this “civic sparring” intimates that Jews have helped trigger the criminality by their very existence.

Don’t get me wrong, there is clearly resentment against Jews in places like Rockland County. You may remember recent political ads by a local Republican group arguing that an Orthodox Jewish county legislator was “plotting a takeover” and threatening “our way of life.” Haredi communities — ultra-Orthodox — are recognizably Jewish, so they are always more likely to feel the brunt of anti-Semitism, even when they are fighting over zoning ordinances.

Yet, even if we concede that religious Jews in the suburbs north of New York City are making some people uncomfortable, there’s no proof that a machete-wielding anti-Semite who tried to massacre a houseful of Hanukkah celebrants was disturbed about zoning fights over regulations in Monsey. Nor is there any proof that the murderer who walked into the kosher grocery store in Jersey City, perhaps part of a plot to kill Yeshiva students, was upset about tax allocation to Kiryas Joel.

Even if they were, of course, it wouldn’t make it any more rational or any less odious. But it’s clear that most of the spike in anti-Semitism has occurred in New York City proper, where ultra-Orthodox Jews have lived for many decades.

Another problem with framing the anti-Semitism as an outgrowth of “civil sparring” is that it insinuates that Jews are somehow equal participants in this conflict, when all the violence flows in one direction. You may have noticed that these “sparring” ultra-orthodox Jews restrain themselves from attacking walkers-by on the streets of Williamsburg or massacring their neighbors in grocery stores.

Perhaps the media struggles with this story because it undermines a very popular, and convenient, narrative about anti-Semitism being exclusively the bailiwick of confederate-flag waving hillbillies. In many ways it reminds me of how the media treats “anti-Zionism,” the driving ideological force behind some of the most virulent anti-Semitism in world right now: guilty with an explanation.

The majority of recent anti-Jewish criminality in New York have been perpetrated by African Americans. This brand of New York anti-Semitism, around at least since the 1980s when Al Sharpton was ginning up Brooklyn mobs with conspiracies theories about the “diamond merchants,” is always a “conundrum” or “confusing” to people who only worry about hatred when it’s politically expedient. But it’s still victim blaming, plain and simple.

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