While it may be tempting for progressives to chalk up a recent upsurge in anti-Semitic incidents to Donald Trump, who has courted nativist and neo-Nazi support, Brooklyn doesn’t conform to familiar patterns. Known for its multi-cultural diversity, and home to hundreds of thousands of Jews, this New York borough would seem to be one of the last places where one would expect to see high levels of anti-Semitism. And yet, just this year hate crimes have spiked in New York by 67 percent, 80 percent of which were anti-Semitic incidents. As of June, 110 anti-Semitic incidents had been reported in the city just this year, compared to 58 at the same time last year. Nevertheless, last year was also quite bleak, with statistics showing that 182 out of 352 hate crimes were directed against Jews.
Brooklyn’s Jews are spread out into discrete neighborhoods and are highly diverse from a religious, ethnic and even socio-economic standpoint. Williamsburg and Crown Heights, for instance, are home to Hassidic and ultra-Orthodox Jews, many of whom live in extreme poverty. On the other hand, Jews living in other Brooklyn neighborhoods tend to be more secular, wealthier, more racially diverse and even more varied when it comes to sexual preference. While many violent anti-Semitic incidents have occurred in more religious areas of Brooklyn, hate crimes have spread throughout the borough and haven’t followed a predictable pattern.
Anti-Semitism Comes to Park Slope
Though I have written extensively about the issue of anti-Semitism in Ukraine, the topic was rather abstract to me. As a long-time Jewish resident of Park Slope, Brooklyn I never encountered any anti-Semitism in the community. Recently, however, I was shocked to read reports about a swastika scrawled on the walls of a tunnel underpass in nearby Prospect Park, where I jog throughout the year. The swastika, which was scrawled in blue paint, was accompanied by the words “No Jews.” A Park Slope woman came across the graffiti and reported it to the authorities, who promptly removed the offensive vandalism. However, the woman was disappointed that another group of people, which walked ahead of her and also saw the swastika, opted to do nothing.
An isolated incident? Unfortunately, such anti-Semitic outbursts are becoming all the more common, even in Park Slope, a serene and tranquil neighborhood which is also home to a largely liberal-minded and affluent Jewish community. In December, 2016 two gigantic outdoor menorahs in Park Slope and neighboring Prospect Heights were vandalized during Hanukkah. Around the same time, swastikas and the phrase “Go Trump” were scrawled in Adam Yauch Park in Brooklyn Heights. The park was named after a late member of the rock band Beastie Boys, who were all Jewish. Fearing the worst under the incoming Trump administration, prominent Park Slope congregation Temple Beth Elohim transformed itself into an “activist hub” by advocating for liberal causes such as combating anti-Semitism.
Sobering Incident in Prospect Heights
But nearly two years later, just a stone’s throw away from where the earlier Menorah vandalism had occurred, another suspect targeted Union Temple by covering hallways with anti-Semitic messages such as “Die Jew, we are here,” “Hitler,” and “Jews better be ready.” The brazen vandalism came as a sobering wakeup call at Union Temple, located in Prospect Heights, just across the street from Brooklyn Public Library and the Brooklyn Museum. The temple not only holds religious services but also hosts weddings, political forums and concerts while housing a pre-school, gym and German language school.
Perhaps, one might have stereotypically expected the suspect to be a Trump supporter wearing a MAGA cap, but the Union Temple incident breaks the mold. In the wake of the attack, police apprehended 26-year old African-American James Polite, who was also suspected of setting fires in Jewish synagogues and schools in Williamsburg. Police charged Polite, who had a history of drug addiction and mental illness, with committing hate crimes and the suspect was taken to hospital for psychiatric evaluation. Jarringly, Polite was raised in part by Jewish foster parents and attended Brandeis University. Reportedly, the youth had previously served as a Democratic Party activist and an intern at City Hall where he worked on initiatives to combat hate crimes no less.
Tablet magazine notes, “Polite’s journey through so many of contemporary liberalism’s most vaunted paths—academia, politics, activism—and the kindness shown him by Jews were apparently not enough to prevent him from contracting the mind-numbing virus of anti-Semitism.” “If the left is honest,” the publication continued, “it will spend the coming days and weeks asking how someone educated at a fine liberal university” could turn around and “try to intimidate and incinerate Jews.” “Those of us not beholden to blinding partisan commitments,” Tablet added, “are saddened but not surprised. Anti-Semitism is so pernicious precisely because it eats through ideological convictions, afflicting left and right alike.”
Does the Left Have An “Anti-Semitism Problem”?
The Polite case, as well as other anti-Semitic incidents which have broken out throughout Brooklyn, must prompt a rethink of traditional stereotypes. The New York Times has noted that far right and white supremacist groups aren’t particularly prominent in the city, and so far, in 2019, suspects arrested in connection with hate crimes “run the gamut” from young teens to criminals to the mentally ill, all with a “variety of motivations, some of them rooted in local disputes.”
Predictably, the right-wing New York Post has pounced on anti-Semitic incidents to score points against progressives. One piece noted that attackers come from all walks of life and include blacks, whites, Latinos, Muslim, men and women. “In the wake of President Trump’s election,” the Post wrote, “New York City liberals affixed ‘No place for hate’ signs to their windows, vowing to protect anyone targeted for his beliefs and identity. Today, Orthodox Jews are learning that that noble promise doesn’t cover them.” The left, added the paper, “pretends” to fight against oppression but winds up “mute when the victims aren’t in their special victims’ club and, more specifically, when the attackers aren’t as easy a target.”
Does the left have an “anti-Semitism problem,” and do the Post’s accusations hold up to scrutiny? Sadly, if my own anecdotal experiences are any indication, some leftist Jews downplay and sidestep anti-Semitic attacks in Brooklyn, at best, and at worst engage in the most brazen anti-Semitic statements imaginable without batting an eyelash. Though such posturing is certainly distasteful, it is not particularly surprising given the left’s historical opposition to Israel which can go off the rails and lead to totalizing statements about “the Jews” and their nefarious influence, thus coming full circle with Pat Buchanan. It is unthinkable that the Jews, those oppressors of Palestinian rights, should receive any sympathy, even if they happen to be targeted by hate crimes in Brooklyn. In any case, the argument goes, whatever their grievances Jews have it much better off than African-Americans and minorities, and therefore anti-Semitism is exaggerated.
Interview with Park Slope Rabbi
Curious to get a more insider perspective on such controversies, I caught up with Rabbi Menashe Wolf of Chabad Park Slope. My contact was quick to praise the U.S., remarking that overall Jews had been welcomed and accepted by mainstream American culture and society. “There are minority elements of course,” Wolf remarked, “which may be making more noise now than ever, but anti-Semitism isn’t rooted in such mainstream culture.” Unfortunately, he added, anti-Semitism may have been lurking in the shadows for some time under the surface, and as a result “now, there’s more of an opening and people feel more comfortable acting out.”
On a purely sociological level, Wolf wasn’t sure why Brooklyn had witnessed so many anti-Semitic incidents as of late, and was similarly uncertain whether to pin all the blame on Trump. “It’s not so much the president as opposed to a global movement and push from a right wing and bigoted movement,” he said. “These folk are frustrated with their own lives, feel emboldened and act out against people they see as different, or who they can lay their problems on.” Rather than “point fingers,” Wolf believed that anti-Semitism went “much deeper and bigger than any one person or group.”
Within the rabbi’s congregation, people feel similarly perplexed by what is happening. “There are lot of views and opinions,” the rabbi remarked, adding “you know the saying ‘two Jews, three opinions.’ From my experience, people are confused and have more questions than answers.” When asked whether Jews had been specifically targeted in Brooklyn because they were perceived as being well-off socio-economically, Wolf said this could be a possibility since anti-Semitism tends to emerge in periodic cycles, and “it may be that as Jews get more and more comfortable, there’s a stronger backlash to them.”
For the time being, Park Slope has not witnessed violent anti-Semitic incidents which have plagued other areas of Brooklyn, and even the latter instances are linked to “lone wolves” as opposed to forming part of any organized movement. As a result, Wolf added, people still feel pretty safe, though there’s underlying concern about what the future might bring. Accordingly, Chabad Park Slope recently added new security measures for its pre-school and Hebrew school. Fortunately, the local police precinct has been supportive as well as both Jewish and non-Jewish mainstream community neighbors.
But if the mood in Park Slope is one of guarded caution, Williamsburg is quite another matter. Located a couple of miles north of the Slope, the neighborhood is home to devout Hassidic Jews, Orthodox and Satmars. Unlike other areas of Brooklyn, Jews here are much more visible with their own commercial thoroughfares and tend to stick out as easy targets due to their garb. Anti-Semitic hate crimes in Williamsburg have assumed a variety of forms, including physical attacks, verbal abuse and even arson. The New York Times reports that anti-Semitic incidents ranging from assaults, slurs and swastikas have become “so common that people are at risk of becoming numb to them.”
Though it’s unclear what may be fueling such hatred, concern over a local measles epidemic has certainly exacerbated tensions. Reportedly, anti-vaccine activists have targeted the Jewish Orthodox community of Williamsburg with their propaganda, and, perhaps as a result, proportionally fewer children in the neighborhood have been vaccinated than children residing in the city as a whole. It would seem at least likely, therefore, that such propaganda accounts for the fact that most people falling ill from measles in New York live in the Williamsburg Orthodox community.
If someone had scrawled an image of a black man getting lynched, there is little doubt that leftists would leap into action against hate. And yet, no one lifted a finger in Williamsburg when swastikas were carved on the sidewalk and languished there for years. Every day, commuters entering a local subway station were forced to gaze at the hate-filled graffiti, until at long last a local woman decided she’d had enough and covered the swastikas with rubber cement and spray paint. However, the resident kept her true identity hidden from the media, for fear of retaliation from city authorities. As it turns out, however, the woman had previously made numerous attempts to contact city authorities about the vandalism, including the NYPD Hate Crimes Unit, Senator Chuck Schumer, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office and others, but officials ignored her until, exasperated, she decided to act on her own.
But in Williamsburg, swastikas are only a minor nuisance compared to more serious offenses. Take, for example, the aforementioned James Polite who, in addition to vandalizing Union Temple in Prospect Heights, was also charged with setting seven fires in the Hassidic area of the neighborhood. In another case, a group of teens threw a metal pipe through a synagogue. The same teens reportedly pushed a 10-year old Hassidic girl and knocked the hat off a Hassidic boy. In yet further instances, a group of men attacked a man wearing religious attire, shouting anti-Semitic slurs before punching him in the face. Three days later, a teenager brutally punched an Orthodox Jewish man. If that was not enough, a passerby repeatedly punched a 9-year old in the face while he was walking with his mother in the Hassidic area of Williamsburg, and a mere half hour later, a 12-year old boy was attacked by five males just one block away.
Having previously failed to remove anti-Semitic graffiti, municipal authorities are now taking matters more seriously. Recently, Mayor de Blasio announced the creation of an Office of the Prevention of Hate Crimes. At the state level, meanwhile, Governor Cuomo declared that he had directed the New York State Police hate crimes task force to help the NYPD. Though the latter has pledged to commit additional resources to Williamsburg synagogues, and patrols have been stepped up, Jewish leaders are still worried about their own security. Indeed, some have remarked that they feel like “sitting ducks,” and are fundamentally concerned about staying safe, even in broad daylight.
What is it like to live within the Jewish community of Williamsburg and contend with such threats? For answers, I caught up with Israel Leichter, secretary of Orthodox Congregation Beth Jacob Ohev Shalom, which has been a fixture of the Brooklyn community for a hundred and fifty years. Sipping coffee with Leichter at his synagogue, I asked him whether he knew of any historic parallels to what we are seeing today in Williamsburg.
“Statistically speaking,” he responded, “it’s been a long time since we’ve seen anything close to these numbers.” However, my contact conceded that maybe, in the past, people viewed hate crimes differently, or perhaps such incidents are getting more reported now because residents are increasingly aware of anti-Semitism, or the community is simply more connected now through use of smart phones. As a result, people may share stories and information to a greater degree than before.
For Leichter and his synagogue, the recent upsurge in anti-Semitic attacks has been particularly unsettling as the congregation itself is located on Rodney Street, a thoroughfare where hate crimes have occurred. “These incidents do come literally very close to home,” Leichter remarked, adding that people had called his synagogue to complain about local vandalism. What’s more, right up the block, thieves made off with pushkahs, boxes traditionally used to collect money for synagogues.
Like Menashe Wolf, the Rabbi from Park Slope, Leichter lacked a coherent explanation as to why anti-Semitic attacks had proliferated. “I would say this isn’t a straightforward issue,” he told me, adding however that the most recent wave of incidents over the past three to six months was probably linked to the measles scare. The offenders, he said, are under-educated people “who don’t have correct knowledge about measles.” “If a cab driver kicks a Jew out of his vehicle,” he explained, “this fails to recognize that measles is a child’s disease.” On the other hand, Williamsburg has been experiencing anti-Semitic incidents for a longer stretch of time, let us say the past eighteen months or so, even before the measles scare, and this suggests that the disease merely constitutes a “partial factor.”
What’s Causing the Attacks?
When asked if he thought hate crimes were related to Trump, neo-Nazis and grisly attacks in San Diego and Pittsburgh, Leichter paused before remarking, “No, I wouldn’t make that connection.” My contact believed the incidents had little to do with wider politics but were rather linked to local teens and students enrolled in public schools, in certain cases. Other offenders, however, weren’t students or linked up with Williamsburg schools. Whatever the case, “This is not an organized movement, and we know who the perpetrators are. I would argue that high-profile anti-Semitic attacks occurring outside New York are different from what we are seeing here. This is the problem with anti-Semitism, which targets Jews from distinct directions.”
Does the fact that some of the attackers have been minorities represent a controversial challenge to leftists, who tend to view minorities as societal victims? In future, Leichter hopes that leftist or more secular Jews will take anti-Semitism more seriously while condemning all forms of bigotry. “Judaism comes with an old burden,” he remarked. “For five or six hundred years, going back to the time of Spain, Jews across the board had this issue about not appearing ‘too Jewish’ or hiding their true identities.” In more recent times, some secular leftist Jews have become stalwart critics of Israel while studying at university, but this can morph into an overall attack against Jews as a whole, since it’s “all one big balloon and one big thing which they fail to differentiate.”
Climate of Fear
Attacks in Williamsburg have specifically targeted Hassidic Jews, which isn’t so surprising since the latter dress in particular garb and “as a result, they have a target on their backs, so to speak.” Sadly, Leichter personally experienced anti-Semitism at a local public school. As he walked by, a couple of kids screamed “measles, measles!” at him and then jumped away. Leichter, who is immunized, noticed there was an adult standing next to the children who failed to restrain the minors or speak up. “That’s too bad,” Leichter declared ruefully, adding “I have to assume the adult was a parent.”
Historically, anti-Semites have blamed Jews for being greedy capitalists, and I wanted to know if such tropes had played a role in fomenting hatred against Jews in Williamsburg. Leichter’s synagogue is located just a short walk away from Bedford Avenue, epicenter of Brooklyn’s rapidly gentrifying hipster scene. My contact, however, thought my hypothesis was a red herring. In fact, while Jews used to live in hipster Williamsburg, they have been moving out of the area for some time. “It always comes back to ‘oh, the Jews have the money.’ But this ignores the fact that about fifty to seventy percent of Jews in Williamsburg are living in large families at or below the poverty level, so this is nonsense.”
In the meantime, Leichter’s congregation has been living in a state of fear, with elderly members in particular wondering whether it is safe to come to synagogue. Though members don’t want to take additional security measures, sadly the congregation is thinking about upgrading its systems. While Leichter praised the local non-Jewish community, which brought flowers after an anti-Semitic shooting in San Diego, my contact was somewhat critical of the authorities, which needed to take matters more seriously by erecting a police booth and deploying more patrol cars. On the other hand, investigators say victims of hate crimes are frequently reluctant to report such incidents. “The situation requires more from within our own community and we must speak out just like other groups,” Leichter remarked.
“Uprising” or “Pogrom”?
Like Williamsburg, Crown Heights is home to a substantial community of Hassidic Jews. In tandem with other areas of Brooklyn, the neighborhood has been targeted by anti-Semitic hate crime from vandalism to physical assaults to verbal abuse. But perhaps the most jarring incident occurred at the Jewish Children’s Museum, which hosts student groups and seeks to promote a vision of tolerance and understanding between Jewish and non-Jewish children. Outside the museum, a bulletin board encourages children to leave messages describing how they intend to change the world. Reportedly, however, one teenage visitor left a Post-it note reading “Hitler is Coming.”
What is fueling such hatred? WNYC reports that in “Crown Heights, with its unique diversity and history of violence, answers aren't simple or singular.” In 1991, long-simmering tensions between Caribbean residents and African Americans, on the one hand, and the Hassidic community, on the other, boiled over after a black child was killed and his cousin injured by the last car traveling in a motorcade carrying a Hassidic rabbi. The leading car in the motorcade belonged to the NYPD, which provided escorts to the rabbi during the latter’s cemetery visits. The police escort was just “one of many privileges police afforded the Jewish community in Crown Heights that raised resentment among black residents, who had a much more turbulent relationship with the NYPD.”
While circumstances surrounding the collision have been contested, the driver claimed he was attacked by a mob when he got out of the car to help the victims. Later, police told Hatzolah ambulance personnel from the Jewish emergency medical service to get the Hassidic driver to safety, rather than bringing the children to hospital. Rioting between blacks and Jews ensued for three days, during which time one Hassidic man was stabbed and killed and Jewish shops were looted. Hassidic Jews complained the NYPD didn’t do enough to protect the community, while blacks felt they had been singled out for harsh police punishment. While some black residents refer to the riots as an “uprising,” Jews frequently label the events as a “pogrom.”
Rapidly Gentrifying Crown Heights
Today, community leaders say Crown Heights is not in danger of returning to the dark days of 1991 as police are in regular contact with both black and Jewish residents. And yet, there are unfortunate parallels between the recent spate of anti-Semitic incidents and earlier history. Indeed, though police have not broken down the offenders by race, several recent incidents have involved black boys and men. Meanwhile, the two communities seldom interact socially, and few black kids have visited the Jewish Children’s Museum. What is more, blacks question why Jews have their own ambulance service and auxiliary police force. To this day, vehicles associated with both are visible along Eastern Parkway and neighboring streets, and may bring back uncomfortable memories from 1991 or reinforce the notion that Hassidic Jews comprise a kind of “state within a state.”
But even more than ambulances and patrol cars, what seems to have fueled recent friction is a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, “hipsterization” and housing crisis which have made black people feel victimized. Stories have proliferated about Jews evicting black tenants or pressuring black owners to sell, all of which dovetails with historic anti-Semitic tropes. Meanwhile, unemployment amongst black youth is quite high, which may encourage scapegoating or venting onto others. However, the idea that all predatory landlords are Orthodox Jews is false since gentrification has affected Jews as well. In fact, hundreds of Jewish families have been forced in recent years to leave Crown Heights because they can’t afford to live there.
From White Supremacist Attacks to Brooklyn
In an effort to get behind these vexing historic conflicts, I contacted the Jewish Children’s Museum and Hassidic synagogues in Crown Heights, though unfortunately neither responded. At long last, I caught up with Matt Carl, a rabbi at East Midwood Jewish Center. Though Midwood lies several miles from Crown Heights, the community has experienced many of the same types of anti-Semitic incidents ranging from swastikas to physical assaults. Though he works in Midwood, Carl calls Prospect Heights home, and we met at a local hipster-like café for coffee.
For Carl, the recent spate of anti-Semitic attacks in Brooklyn has stirred up uncomfortable memories. Growing up in Long Beach, California my contact observed how his friends’ lockers got plastered with swastikas at school, while his grandparents’ synagogue in Sacramento, B’nai Israel, was firebombed by white supremacists in 1999. In comparison to what he observed in California, attacks in Brooklyn would seem somewhat milder in tone, though Carl certainly doesn’t downplay what is happening in and around his community. Carl, who identifies as a political leftist, remarked that while he certainly had no interest in “being fair to Trump,” nevertheless it was difficult to pin all recent violence on the president.
Anti-Semitism in Everyday Life
Though Jews in Crown Heights and Williamsburg have found it difficult to survive economically, just like other disadvantaged minorities, Carl suspects that what we are seeing could be a backlash against some Orthodox and Haredi Jewish property owners. The Midwood rabbi remarked that while anti-Semitic outbreaks aren’t rational in any way, they might be triggered by real problems in people’s lives. Though he was at pains to condemn all anti-Semitic acts, Carl nevertheless believed there were some Jewish slumlords who might have given a bad name to their communities. “It’s a small number of people,” Carl remarked, “but if the top twenty list of slumlords has eight Jewish names on it, one begins to notice.”
Jews have a “corporate identity” as opposed to an individual identity, and as a result, “if you see just one name on that list which is Jewish,” you may take the next leap by acting out against people on the street who are noticeably Jewish. Throughout history, the rabbi added, Jews have frequently occupied a kind of buffer strata between the powerful and oppressed classes, and perhaps minority youth had taken out its frustrations on the most convenient and nearby targets.
While living and working in Brooklyn, Carl has personally observed how people project this corporate identity onto Jews. During our meeting, Carl wore casual summer clothing, but in the colder months he wears a hat and more traditional garb. Once, while he was riding the bus, Carl held a box which hit someone’s shoulder by mistake. “I happened to look down,” the rabbi explained, “and the woman was texting her friend and saying ‘I'm so annoyed, some Jew has a box.’”
In other cases, while riding the subway, Carl has found that he is singled out as a Jew. “People will get on the train and start yelling about ‘the Jews’ and stuff like that,” he said. The anti-Semitic slurs come disproportionately from African Americans and people of color, though Carl is quick to add that the numbers are “disproportionate in relation to the number of people in the United States, but proportionate to the number of people who ride the subway in New York.”
“If a person comes through the subway asking for handouts,” Carl said, “and the first eight people don't give that person money, and they aren’t wearing yarmulkes, and the ninth person, who is wearing a yarmulke, doesn’t give money, then it’s suddenly ‘how come you Jews never give me any money!’” Carl paused for a moment, reflecting “is that anti-Semitic? Of course. Is it highly consequential to my life? No, but it upsets me nonetheless. I also feel bad for people living in poverty and I do think it's important to give money. I assume in certain cases we’re talking about people dealing with significant mental issues, which is not to dismiss this but to sort of understand it.”
Security Environment in Midwood
To be sure, Carl told me, most everyone offers condolences in the wake of anti-Semitic attacks, but it is unfortunate how reactions can break down along predictable political lines. So, for example, after an African-American scrawled anti-Semitic slurs on the walls of Union Temple in Prospect Heights, “this brought out a lot of right-wingers who said ‘see, we told you: this isn’t only coming from the political right and white supremacists.’” While leftists have never made such claims, the latter “justifiably said, okay, we agree but the difference is you’re talking about one individual in contrast to white supremacists who go out and shoot people, which is a significant and noteworthy difference.”
Amidst such charges and counter-charges, Carl worries about his own congregation’s security measures. Unfortunately, there are no “good answers” when it comes to figuring out how to provide such comprehensive measures, since the Midwood synagogue forms part of a larger Jewish center housing a pool. The center hosts and provides for many community services, and so there could be “a million people coming in and out of the building at any given time.” As a result, it’s difficult to logistically keep track of who is a member, and who is not.
Whereas Hassidic Jews in Crown Heights have turned to the shomrim or “guards,” unarmed Jewish patrols which receive some public financing, Carl is decidedly leery about resorting to such measures. To be sure, genuine Jewish police officers have held meetings at Carl’s synagogue, but the rabbi added that his congregants and other liberal Jews might feel slightly uncomfortable with shomrim or non-professional police forces. Over time, he added, there have been problems with these types of outfits, which can descend into glorified vigilante mobs acting outside the law. Such groups have even targeted Jews themselves in acts of anti-Semitic violence.
From the Old Country to New Lands
Though anti-Semitism has existed on the margins of American society for some time, it is only recently that hatred has broken out into the open in a more systematic fashion. For American Jews, anti-Semitic violence may evoke uncomfortable memories from the Old Country, and specifically Ukraine, a country with its own horrific record of crimes. And yet, has the situation come full circle? Ukraine is currently the only country in the world outside of Israel where both the heads of state and government, that is to say Volodymyr Zelensky and Volodymyr Groysman, respectively, are Jewish. This raises the ironic question of whether Kyiv might be better when it comes to anti-Semitism than the United States itself.
Back in my own Brooklyn neighborhood, I put the question to Menashe Wolf of Chabad Park Slope. Wolf, whose grandparents were Holocaust survivors, was reluctant to equate anti-Semitism in Europe with the recent upsurge of anti-Semitic incidents closer to home. “I view it differently,” he said. “A lot of the anti-Semitism in Europe and Ukraine over the centuries has been a very deep-seated distrust and hatred for the Jewish people which goes very deep into the roots of the culture.”
In Williamsburg, Israel Leichter was similarly skeptical that the United States would somehow become even more anti-Semitic than Ukraine. Leichter, who frequently travels to Ukraine as part of a Jewish pilgrimage to the town of Uman, was cautious about recent political developments in Kyiv. “We’ll have to wait and see as this is totally new,” he said, adding that it was too early to make an assessment of the president’s actual policies. There are still some Ukrainian cities, Leichter remarked, where attitudes towards Jews remain decidedly backward, and furthermore vandals have desecrated Jewish cemeteries.
“Buffer” Social Position of Jews
Carl, the rabbi from Midwood, was concerned about an anti-Semitic backlash in Ukraine. Returning to the notion of Jews occupying a kind of “buffer” strata within society, my contact remarked that historically, within Central and Eastern Europe as well as Russia, the nobility, princes and Czars feared the peasant masses. Jews, by contrast, represented a smaller portion of the population. “Basically, the idea was ‘we want to tax the hell out of the peasants, but we don't want them to fight back against us because there are a lot of them. So, we’ll have the Jews collect the taxes, and then the peasants will fight back against the Jews rather than harming us.’”
Even though Jews occupy top political leadership in Ukraine now, the country will find it difficult to get rid of such deeply ingrained historic anti-Semitism, and there might be an exceptionally high bar for the new president to climb. “He will have to make some difficult decisions which won’t please everyone,” Carl said, “and if something goes wrong, it might be easy for certain elements to simply claim ‘it was the Jew who did it.’”
Coming full circle, Carl believed there might be some disturbing parallels between the Zelensky and Obama presidencies. That is to say, even though it appeared as if the United States was making social progress by electing an African-American president, these political shifts encouraged a backlash in the form of Trump and increased nativism. In Kyiv, meanwhile, many may take comfort in the fact that Ukraine has seemingly buried anti-Semitism, but this may prove illusory or unleash a similar counter-reaction.
Not stopping there, Carl made some other ominous comparisons. In the Old Country, Jews never formed part of the power elite but rather got targeted as convenient scapegoats, and in the U.S., Trump has unleashed a comparable dynamic. “If you look at the Pittsburgh shooter,” Carl remarked, “what you need to remember is that he was actually upset about Latino refugees. But he lives in Pittsburgh, so he’s not going to travel all the way to the border to shoot people. Rather, he’ll just go out and find Jews who he associates with this other thing that he’s so angry about.”