The Crown Heights Jewish Community is reeling from a spate of assaults, and law-enforcement personnel are vowing to crack down on a rise in hate crimes in that community.
There have been 11 assaults on Jews in the past month alone, according to a Crown Heights Shomrim spokesperson.
In the latest incident, a gang of three young men, aged 18-21, assaulted a 51-year-old Jewish man around 1:00 a.m. last Wednesday, in an attack captured on surveillance video. A few minutes later, one of the gang punched a 22-year-old yeshivah student from behind.
“The force of the punch knocked me down, and knocked off my yarmulke and glasses,” the student, who asked to be identified only as Mendel, told Hamodia. “The attacker didn’t say a word or try stealing anything.”
By Wednesday afternoon, all three attackers had been arrested and charged with hate crimes.
Earlier in the week, a 32-year-old believed to have randomly punched and pushed Jews in Crown Heights was arrested and charged with attempted assault and harassment.
Crime statistics released by the NYPD Tuesday show a significant increase in hate crimes in New York City, even while overall crime has dropped. From Jan. 1 to Feb. 3 of this year, there were 42 reported hate crimes in the city, compared with 19 in the same period of 2018. More hate crimes were anti-Semitic – 14 out of 19 last year, 28 out of 42 in 2019 – than against all other groups combined. Hate-crime statistics include property crimes such as etching or spray-painting swastikas. At a press conference Tuesday to discuss the crime statistics, NYPD Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea said that one perpetrator accounted for 10-15 of the incidents.
In response to the recent attacks in Crown Heights, the NYPD has greatly expanded the numbers of officers and patrols on the street of Crown Heights, particularly between the hours of 5:00 p.m. and 1:00 a.m., when these assaults have generally been occurring.
In an interview with Hamodia, Det. Vinny Martinos of the NYPD’s Community Affairs Bureau in Crown Heights highlighted law enforcement’s strong response to the recent incidents, noting that all three perpetrators of the last attack were arrested within hours, and that high bail amounts ($75,000) were levied, making it all but certain that “none will get out anytime soon.”
“I want to assure the community that we understand, that we are out there, and we want the community be safe,” said Martinos. “No one should live in fear, regardless of their race.”
Communal leaders who spoke with Hamodia praised the police response but said that the most important work is getting at the root cause of the attacks.
“I hope that police get to bottom of this and find out if there is a link, if perhaps the attackers are from the same school or the same house of worship,” said Rabbi Yaacov Behrman, a community activist.
“I believe there is a lot of hate being preached regarding gentrification and displacement, and Jews are being blamed for rising property costs in Crown Heights,” said Rabbi Behrman. “The truth is that Jews are suffering just like everyone else; gentrification is about economics, not race. And regardless, even if you have a landlord who happens to be Jewish and raises your rent, and you go and beat up Jews randomly, that is the very definition anti-Semitism.”
Rabbi Shea Hecht, another community activist, says that he believes the problem can be traced back to 2014, when then-Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson stopped prosecuting low-level marijuana offenses.
“I am afraid to say it, but it seems to be the truth: that with the availability of marijuana and the rise of its usage, there has also been a rise in crime,” said Rabbi Hecht. “There are certain drugs that sedate the user. But it seems that using marijuana increases a user’s chutzpah, and they may be doing things that they would not be doing if they weren’t using.”
Though he believes patrols can be increased further, Rabbi Hecht generally spoke highly of the police response. “But personally,” he says, ““I think it’s time for some type of town-hall meeting with the mayor’s office.”
Rabbi Hecht believes that when discussing the issue with authorities, the Jewish community should focus generally on the increase of crime in the neighborhood, rather than pushing law enforcement on the hate crime issue per se, because it is “too early to say whether it is specifically a hate-crime issue.”
“My message to City Hall is give us more police; my message to the community is to let the police do their job.”
Others, including Brooklyn’s chief law-enforcement officer, do not doubt that the recent spike in crime is driven by hatred.
“This issue of hate crimes has creeped back into our communities, and it’s something that as a DA I’m committed to stamping out,” Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said Sunday, in an interview on 770 WABC.
In November, Gonzalez briefly came under criticism from some in the Jewish community for initially declining to bring hate-crimes charges on a car-service driver who assaulted Jewish men in Boro Park. Gonzalez defended his actions then, in an op-ed published in Jewish media, by saying he was being deliberate in ensuring there was a strong case before pressing a hate charge. The suspect was eventually indicted for a hate crime.
Gonzalez has since been outspoken on the issue of hate crimes. In December, he created a new Hate Crimes Bureau; it had previously been a unit in the Civil Rights Bureau.
Gonzalez vowed in the radio interview Sunday that his office would “vigorously prosecute” hate-crimes cases.
“We’re going to hold people accountable,” said the DA. “We’re going to make sure that these cases result in very stiff penalties for anyone who commits a hate crime, because these crimes are horrendous. They not only impact a person who’s been assaulted, but they impact a whole community. They create fear in an entire community.”
But the District Attorney’s office won’t just be prosecuting these crimes, said Gonzalez. Rather, he will seek to be “forward-facing,” by meeting with, and bringing together, leaders from various communities to try to find the causes and motivations of these crimes.
One cause, believes Gonzalez, may be the lack of interaction among races.
“A lot of our schools are, in fact, segregated,” said Gonzalez, who recalled, “I did not meet a white classmate until I went to high school … That should not be allowed in a place like New York City.”
Gonzalez will bring organizations like the Anti-Defamation League into schools to meet with students. He believes that race-motivated crimes are less likely to occur “if people actually get to know each other.”
Martinos, the Community Affairs detective, is working to arrange visits to five local schools by the NYPD’s Youth Safety Division. The officers speak to the children about youth-on-youth violence, bullying and diversity.
Rabbi Motti Seligson, director of media relations at Chabad, said that “educating and instilling a sense of responsibility and purpose in our young people” is vital to ensuring a reduction in crime. “A moment of silent reflection each morning in our public schools is a good place to start.”
At least one African-American activist is seeking to arrange school visits on his own.
Geoffrey Davis, a district leader in Crown Heights, told Hamodia he is organizing what he calls a “listening tour” of local public schools, “to ask the students, ‘What’s wrong, what’s bothering you? Where are you getting this angry feeling toward the Hasidic community?’”
Davis, Executive Director of the James E. Davis Stop Violence Foundation — named after his late brother, a City Councilman who was murdered — is seeking to have black and Jewish leaders join this listening tour.
“We are one community,” said Davis, who has lived in Crown Heights for more than 50 years. “When Hasidic men and women are attacked, these are my neighbors and it affects me as well. And I can’t sit around. There have been 15 to 18 attacks in a three-month span — that is an emergency. And as a peace activist, I and my organization have to do something about it.”