CROWN HEIGHTS, N.Y.—The mood in Crown Heights was a surreal mix of fear, angst, and indifference. Police officers and emergency vehicles lined the main street in the Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood as Jewish school buses carrying children drove in and out.
Scores of Hasidic Jews walked past each other along the street, barely glancing up at the ramped-up security around them, which is now a recurring presence in their life. Scattered groups spoke among themselves, some in hushed, muted tones.
But soon another picture emerged, one not only of fear but also of defiance, as dozens of violent anti-Semitic attacks have taken place in recent months across the wider New York metropolitan area, including Crown Heights.
About 25 percent of the population in Crown Heights are Hasidic Jews. The neighborhood is also home to Caribbean immigrants from Jamaica and the West Indies, in addition to some African Americans.
Members of the Jewish community, including local store owners and longtime residents, told The Epoch Times in interviews that for the first time in recent memory, they are becoming frustrated and inflamed over the uptick in anti-Semitism, which has become increasingly violent in nature.
They said members are increasingly talking about starting grassroots movements to defend the community and for Jewish residents to be armed, through concealed carry and other means, in response to perceived inaction by the government. At the same time, many in the Jewish community remain fearful, some having become too afraid to be out often in public.
This rising defiance is part of new rhetoric that’s spreading within the community, one with more focus on personal action. Some described the new security added across Jewish communities in New York as akin to “putting a band-aid over a gaping wound”—a short-term solution that plays no part in solving the root of the issue.
Jewish residents, some of whom only provided their first names for fear of retaliation, also blamed new bail-reform laws—which let offenders out of prison without paying bail—as being too lenient, saying it encourages attackers to re-offend. In December alone, there were at least 13 anti-Semitic incidents.
Some said a handful of other factors have contributed to the rise in anti-Semitic attacks, including general ignorance, divisiveness between the different communities, and socio-economic issues within the neighborhood.
“It’s unbelievable. This is Brooklyn, this is New York in 2020 and we’re literally defending ourselves,” 24-year-old Esther Gopin, who was born and raised in Crown Heights, told The Epoch Times. “I think this is the first period that I can remember where the Jewish people here are actually really getting fed up.”
‘They want to take a stand for themselves and are starting these grassroots movements to defend the community, protect the community.”
Her father, Abraham Gopin, was attacked and beaten with a rock in August while jogging.
In one recent case, Tiffany Harris, a woman accused of slapping three people in an apparent anti-Semitic attack in Crown Heights, was charged with attempted assault as a hate crime. A day after being freed without bail, Harris was arrested again for a second alleged assault.
Anti-Semitic incidents in New York have continued into the new year. Jose Bard-Wigdor, the owner of Bardy’s, a local jewelry and accessories store in the neighborhood, told The Epoch Times that Jews have to “learn from history.”
“The first things that the Nazis did in Germany were to remove the weapons of the general population, especially the Jewish people,” Bard-Wigdor said. “I think the Jewish people should increasingly buy weapons and carry-ons.”
The 64-year-old said that he doesn’t believe members in their community should be vigilantes, but that everyone has the right to defend themselves. Some of the more violent incidents in recent weeks involve a 37-year-old suspect accused of stabbing five people celebrating Hanukkah at a rabbi’s home, and a shooting at a kosher supermarket in New Jersey that left two Hasidic Jews dead.
Jewish people should conceal carry even without a permit, Bard-Wigdor says, “because if the government doesn’t do the job, we have to do our job.”
Residents in New York state who want to conceal carry must pass basic requirements and approval from local law enforcement, which “has discretion in determining whether or not to issue a concealed weapons permit to an applicant.” In New York, the possession of a loaded handgun outside of the home or place of business without a permit is prohibited.
Bard-Wigdor cast some of the blame for the growing anti-Semitic rhetoric on politicians.
“Unfortunately, some Democrats in Congress, two or three people, are very anti-Semitic, and the population will start to react to their political agendas.” Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tliab (D-Mich.) have previously been condemned and criticized for anti-Semitic rhetoric.
Bard-Wigdor said both the New York City mayor and the state’s governor don’t do enough in combating anti-Semitism and said the youth in the community also need more education on respecting different cultures. In statements over the past few weeks, both Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have pledged to boost the police presence in Jewish communities across the city.
Bard-Wigdor was born in South America, where he said he was victim to two anti-Semitic attacks, with the second incident leaving him badly injured, after being punched in the face. He said his father was “in the camps in Europe,” which he survived, and later relocated to Argentina to start a new life.
Yuda Berg, a 47-year-old father who was born and raised in the neighborhood, told The Epoch Times that he’s afraid to send his children out into the community. He says he’s had verbal anti-Semitic slurs directed at him in the past, but indicated that he’s had enough.
“I ignored them. Most of the time, I ignored them,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m going to ignore them anymore.”
On Jan. 5, thousands of people marched across the Brooklyn Bridge as part of a “No Hate, No Fear” rally in support of the Jewish community. During that march, Cuomo said he wants to pass a law labeling hate crimes as domestic terrorism; he’s also released $45 million in funding allocations to protect at-risk institutions. The grant is made available on a statewide basis, through the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services.
Meanwhile, four Orthodox Jewish lawmakers are urging Cuomo to declare a state of emergency over the recent spate of anti-Semitic crimes and to deploy the National Guard to patrol Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods.
In another example of Jewish residents taking a more proactive approach, Gopin described an initiative she started where a large amount of pepper spray was distributed for free to the community. She said somebody else has taken over the initiative and that a few thousand dollars have been raised to distribute the products across the state.
A new bail law that’s been criticized by some Jewish leaders officially went into effect on Jan. 1. New York passed bail reform legislation in April 2019 that was estimated to cause at least a “40 percent reduction overall in the state’s pretrial jail population,” according to the Vera Institute of Justice.
Under the new laws, some suspects in the recent anti-Semitic attacks have been quickly released without bail. Judges can no longer set bail for many misdemeanors, including assaults without serious injury, and other non-violent felonies.
Mendy, who works at a local Jewish store in the neighborhood and declined to give his last name, said the new legislation is one of the factors contributing to the increase in anti-Semitic attacks.
“I think a lot of it could be bail reform. There are no consequences for what these people are doing,” he said. Mendy has been working at the store for almost a year and a half.
Jewish leaders have told The Epoch Times that the law needs to be revamped to ensure there are no loopholes. They said they don’t believe the purpose of the legislation was to help criminals.
It doesn’t mean eliminating the new bail reform legislation entirely, said Mendy, who suggested that it just needs some adjustments.
“I think a re-examination [is needed]. At least for people who do things multiple times,” he said, citing the case involving Harris. “They shouldn’t be able to just do something, get out of jail, and do something again.”
Prosecutors under the new bail reform laws are now also required to hand defense attorneys pretrial access to a list of personal information, according to the New York Post, “including potentially the names and contact details of witnesses in their cases.”
“In a situation like this, you’d imagine that the community leaders and the politicians would be taking a stand against this and enacting legislation that would stop, prevent, or penalize such behavior,” Gopin said. “Instead, they’re literally doing the opposite.”
Gopin referred to the case with her father, who was in the hospital with permanent physical damage and trauma after being attacked with a rock.
“I can’t imagine that my father would have wanted to file a report had this law been enacted so that his attacker could find out all his information,” she said. “It’s literally a danger to the victims, after everything they go through.”
“It’s not only adding insult to injury, but adding injury to more injury.”
The suspect in her father’s case is facing charges of assault as a hate crime and criminal possession of a weapon. The man allegedly had yelled anti-Semitic slurs at the father as well.
Esther Gopin said she was “enraged, frustrated, and furious” over the new legislation. She said her father was able to fight off his attacker, although had it been someone weaker who was attacked, they might have died.
“I lose hope from things like this. It’s literally not just counterproductive, it almost rewards this negative behavior,” she said. “It’s almost like insurance that it’s going to continue.”
The suspect wasn’t caught until a few weeks after the attack, and he was back on the streets “within days,” according to Gopin.
“How do you think that makes me feel? I don’t feel safe here, and that was before the bail reform. So imagine now after the bail reform when it’s physically impossible to keep people in [prison].
Other Jewish residents, such as Gopin and Berg, all called for the state to enact stricter legislation, specifically for hate crimes.
The president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, noted on Twitter in December that “attacks on Jewish New Yorkers were reported almost every single day this past week.”
There are multiple factors that contribute to anti-Semitism, with ignorance and a lack of respect being mentioned often by members of the Jewish community.
Gopin said that the socio-economic issues within the neighborhood and a general “lack of education” have also led to a “lot of juvenile delinquents on the street.”
“There is a small number of ignorant youth who are getting their information from people who are trying to incite them into doing bad things,” Berg said.
Bard-Wigdor, meanwhile, said that young people, who are often the perpetrators in anti-Semitic attacks, have to be educated “not only in anti-Semitism, but also in general respect for society.
“They have to learn to respect Jewish people,” he said. “Without respecting one another, society goes downhill. Respect is very important in order to survive in any society, in any country, and in any town.”
One Jewish resident, who goes by Menachem and declined to give his last name for security reasons, said the community must deal with the increase in anti-Semitic attacks “by standing strong and not being afraid.”
The best way to combat hate crimes, according to Gopin, is to address it as firmly as possible.
“If we don’t stand up for ourselves and make a fuss and demand better, we won’t get it. I think that responsibility falls on the Jewish community and Jewish community leaders,” she said. “It falls on everybody in New York because it’s not just affecting the people who are directly being attacked, it affects everybody.”
“It affects the whole fabric of our society and it starts with us,” she said, “but it ends with everybody else.”