Leaders of the Orthodox Jewish community in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn on Thursday called on the New York City Police Department and other local authorities to “thoroughly investigate” the factors underlying a spate of antisemitic violence that began last year.
The community is again reeling after two separate assaults took place within minutes of each other in the early hours of Wednesday morning. In the first incident, a 22-year-old Hasidic man who was walking in the street and speaking on his cellphone was punched in the face and then kicked while on the ground by a group of youths. The same assailants then attacked a 51-year-old Hasidic man just minutes later, dragging him to the ground and beating him severely.
Two suspects — 18-year-old Navar Walters and 20-year-old Teshon Bannister — were arrested on hate crimes charges later on Wednesday, while police continued to look for a third suspect believed to have been involved in the attacks.
Both the victims were subsequently discharged from hospital after receiving medical treatment.
Rabbi Yaacov Behrman, the founder of the Crown Heights-based Jewish Future Alliance, told The Algemeiner on Thursday he was urging authorities to probe more deeply into the circumstances behind the attacks.
“We’ve had many instances over the last two months, and when you see a spike in this kind of hate crime, you have to assume something deeper is going on,” Rabbi Behrman said. “Maybe someone is preaching hate.”
Praising local law enforcement for its determination to protect the Jewish community, Behrman added that he nonetheless expected city officials “not to just arrest the perpetrators, but to do a thorough investigation and determine why there has been a spike in Crown Heights specifically targeting Jews.”
He continued: “They need to assess whether there is something more going on here.”
Rabbi Eli Cohen — executive director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council — similarly expressed concern over the attacks on local Jews. “I think there have been a dozen similar attacks since last summer, thankfully most of them without serious injury,” Cohen told The Algemeiner.
Cohen said that the attacks could be divided into two categories. “A few of the people who carried out these attacks serious mental health issues,” he said. “Then we have what is maybe the more troubling problem of small groups of young people, teenagers and those in their early 20s, attacking random people on the street.”
Asked whether there had been a return of the poisonous atmosphere that fostered the infamous riot in Crown Heights in August 1991 — during which Australian yeshiva student Yankel Rosenbaum was stabbed and beaten to death by a group of African American youths — Cohen emphasized that relations between the two main communities in the neighborhood had improved markedly in the intervening period.
“At the leadership level, the hostility that existed 25 years ago has gone completely,” Cohen said. “Back then, we had people preaching open antisemitism, we had the Rev. [Al] Sharpton and others stirring the pot. Our relationship with the leadership of the black community now, with church leaders and lay leaders, is phenomenal.”
Behrman reported that, especially among younger members of the Jewish community, patience was wearing thin in the wake of the latest attacks.
“I speak to the young people, I hear them talking in the streets; our youth are angry,” he stated. “Jewish kids feel violated and targeted. They have the right to defend themselves, but if it escalates, we’re going to have a serious crisis on our hands.”
Behrman also pointed out that any boost in the number of uniformed police officers on duty had to be seen clearly. “We want more cops, but we want more visible cops,” he said. “Detectives sitting in their cars doesn’t work, we need a visible police presence.”
He added that other members of the community were becoming “afraid to walk two blocks to visit a friend or relative, they are anxious when their kids are coming home from school.”
Rabbi Cohen said he was not aware of antisemitic speech being reported in public forums in Crown Heights, suggesting instead that the roots of the recent violence lay in current political controversies, rather than historical grievances in the neighborhood.
“We’ve seen a rise in identity politics, a focus on oppressed minorities, and there has been backlash to that,” he said. “There has been a rise of anger and resentment in the black community at the grassroots level. That affects Crown Heights particularly, because here you have a racially-integrated community with blacks and Jews living side by side, so there is more opportunity for that kind of negative interaction.”
Both Behrman and Cohen spoke about their personal involvement in programs aimed at bringing the two communities closer together. Berhman serves as director of Operation Survival — a drug prevention program that works in both the black and Jewish communities — while Cohen has participated in several cross-community initiatives, among them the unveiling of a 2017 mural celebrating the neighborhood’s diversity that was created by local children.
The Algemeiner (c) 2018 . Ben Cohen