Envisioning Solidarity

What would a meaningful response to the recent spate of attacks on Orthodox Jews look like?

The Editors
January 6, 2020
Menorah Lighting
Progressive Jewish activists attend a menorah lighting at Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza in solidarity with Orthodox Jews following the Monsey attacks, December 29th, 2019. Photo: David Klion

ON DECEMBER 29TH, the last night of Hanukkah, several of us met at Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza for the lighting of a hanukkiah as tall as a city street lamp. “Brooklyn’s Largest Menorah” belongs to Chabad, a Hasidic movement; it is lit nightly during the holiday at celebrations usually dominated by Chabadniks. But on this cold, rainy evening, a more diverse crowd gathered, brought together by a call from progressive Jewish and Muslim organizations to join in solidarity with the Orthodox community. The previous night, 30 miles north in the town of Monsey, a masked intruder had entered the home of a Hasidic rabbi during a Hanukkah party and stabbed five people. (All the victims lived, but one is likely to be permanently comatose.)

The vigil at the menorah lighting (organized by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice) felt both disorienting and familiar, a surreal performance of intercommunal life in central Brooklyn, where all but one of us live. It was heartening to join with friends and neighbors—Jewish, black, South Asian—to demand an end to the frightening wave of violence currently afflicting Orthodox Jews in the New York area: the stabbings in Monsey, the mass shooting at a kosher market in Jersey City, and the relentless stream of assaults and vandalisms in Brooklyn. At the same time, even as we recited the Hanukkah blessings along with a Chabad rabbi, it was clear that we were witnessing not a single unified event but two parallel ones: a Hanukkah ceremony organized by a particular Hasidic community, and a rally against antisemitism held by outsiders to that community. Huddled together under umbrellas, eating hot latkes distributed by Chabadnik children, we were intimate yet divided, as we are in our neighborhoods.

Unfortunately but not surprisingly, over the days that followed, these gestures at solidarity were counteracted by something darker than mere division: rhetoric from the Jewish right and center that attempted to pit leftist Jews against Orthodox ones. According to right-wing and centrist voices, the Jewish left has fallen silent in response to the tragedy in Monsey. Less than 24 hours after the attack, Forward Opinion Editor Batya Ungar-Sargon accused the left of “staggering, shameful silence” in response to attacks against Orthodox Jews. “For many people,” she wrote, “it seems when they can’t blame the other side of the political aisle, they would rather say nothing at all.” 

In point of fact, we have not been silent, but silenced. Mainstream Jewish institutions have spent years purging and ostracizing progressive leaders and groups from their networks, making any good faith ability to gauge our interests and concerns impossible. From J Street’s continued exclusion from the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, to the Boston Workmen’s Circle being booted from the Jewish Community Relations Council last January for signing onto a statement with Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), to the bright red lines around partnership with JVP and IfNotNow that guide campus Hillels, the establishment has made it clear that they’d prefer not to hear from us. It should come as no surprise, then, that even as Jews on the left spoke out loudly in the hours and days after the attack—on social media, at the menorah lighting, and at a #SafetyinSolidarity action the following day (counter-protested by the Jewish Defense League, which the Southern Poverty Law Center considers a hate group)—the establishment refused to listen.

For their part, the leading Jewish institutions—large, ostensibly centrist organizations like the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League—organized yesterday’s rally against antisemitism, in which an estimated 25,000 people marched from Manhattan’s Foley Square to Brooklyn’s Cadman Plaza, where they were addressed by a series of establishment-approved speakers bracketed by upbeat performances from the Maccabeats and Matisyahu. Few Hasidic faces appeared in the crowd; Israeli flags were omnipresent. Echoing many other speakers, Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the ADL, used his speech to call out antisemitism on the right as well as the left (defined by Greenblatt as “those who deny the reality that anti-Zionism is antisemitism”) and “from some minority communities.” While he did not specify which communities he meant, he added that they should not be afforded “the bigotry of low expectations”—a phrase George W. Bush once used in reference to African Americans. 

These institutions do not speak for Jews on the left; it is not even clear whether they speak for each other. Perhaps most to the point, they do not speak for, and never adequately consulted, the Hasidic communities that find themselves under attack. Because these communities tend to shun participation in US public discourse, the establishment purports to act as their representative on the national stage. But their interests are not always shared. When the establishment uses the attacks on Hasidim as a new occasion for specious, irrelevant attacks on BDS and its proponents, for instance, it must overlook the fact that some Hasidic sects—including the Satmar, many of whom live in Monsey—are themselves anti-Zionists (albeit for religious reasons) with a history of offering tangible support to the Palestinian cause in sometimes controversial ways.

Jewish conservatives believe they have scored a political victory with this wave of violence. As much as they crave narratives of Jewish victimhood, the surge in antisemitic violence over the past few years has often been inconvenient for them because the two most lethal attacks, on synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, were both carried out by right-wing white nationalists. (Overall, 60% of those arrested for antisemitic crimes in New York in the first three-quarters of 2019 were white, while 33% were black.) The right has desperately sought examples of murderous antisemitism to validate their refrain that it occurs on “both sides,” and now—by reading black perpetrators, tout court, as agents of the left—they believe they have found some.

As a result, we have recently seen calls to flood communities of color with even more cops. The day before the Monsey attack, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to step up police patrols in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Borough Park, Crown Heights, and Williamsburg—all three of which include heavily Orthodox enclaves bordering large concentrations of black or brown people who are routinely subjected to harassment and violence from the NYPD. Lee Zeldin, a Jewish Republican congressman from Long Island, has cited antisemitic violence as an argument against New York’s recent and urgently needed bail reform, as has Tablet’s Liel Leibovitz, and more than a few elected Democrats are listening.

Other reactionary voices have proposed taking justice into their own hands. The evening of the Monsey attack, the right-wing Jewish pundit Bethany Mandel tweeted that Jews should start taking advantage of the Second Amendment. The next day, Orthodox Jewish men were photographed openly carrying rifles on the streets of Rockland County. The Guardian Angels, a controversial organization founded by right-wing media personality Curtis Sliwa, have been patrolling the streets of Crown Heights to deter attacks on Jews.

All of this mobilization, both by the state and by vigilantes, comes in spite of the fact that we do not know precisely what is happening, or why; even the widespread claim that these attacks constitute a single phenomenon is provisional at best. As progressive Orthodox activist Elad Nehorai observed in Haaretz, we are operating with a dearth of information; we would add that mainstream Jewish and non-Jewish publications alike have so far failed to do the difficult reporting work necessary to understand these attacks in detail. This failure has aided the right’s casting of antisemitism as an inscrutable, almost metaphysical threat, transcending history and material circumstances—a threat that is frequently displaced onto people of color.

What relevant, if limited, information we do have complicates and ultimately undermines this narrative. We know, for instance, that roughly a third of these recent attacks have been committed by people suffering from severe mental illness, and that roughly two-thirds have been committed by teenagers, many of them residents of a single underserved and overpoliced neighborhood. We know, too, that 55% of Hasidic households in New York City live below the poverty line, and have been extraordinarily organized in applying for social services en masse, creating stiff competition for public assistance (one 2016 report in Gothamist details how Hasidic families in Williamsburg have landed a “large chunk” of the limited Section 8 housing stock, with help from the United Jewish Organization). Compounding this, for historical reasons involving redlining and white flight, many landlords in the area are Hasidim; as a result, members of this community function as the faces, and sometimes the scapegoats, of the ongoing gentrification of these neighborhoods and their worsening housing crisis.

This history of grievance suggests that any long-term solution will have to redress deep civic inequities: it will necessitate strengthening housing protections and public education, homelessness prevention, comprehensive mental health care, and an end to police harassment and brutality. In other words, the answers are likely structural ones that will take significant time and a heroic amount of political will to implement.

It is for precisely these reasons that, in a single sense, claims of left Jewish “silence” about the recent antisemitic attacks are correct: when asked what can be done now to protect Orthodox Jews in these communities, many of us hesitate. We understand that to respond to an immediate need for protection with structural proposals set against a utopian horizon can sound like no response at all, that to answer our Hasidic neighbors’ legitimate terror with calls for a social and economic revolution might seem naive at best, callous at worst. After all, what are those under immediate threat supposed to do in the meantime?

The right has the advantage of easier answers: Calls for more police or armed private militias are alluring in their sheer superficial strength and in their claim to efficacy in the short term; indeed, these strategies may very well prevent attacks and make some Jews feel safer. But given the NYPD’s demonstrated history of violence and harassment against communities of color, and the fact that at least some of the existing Orthodox patrols have themselves been charged with beating and bullying their black and brown neighbors, it is almost certain that such measures will come at great cost to people of color in these neighborhoods—some of whom are themselves Jews—and that this will inflame existing tensions, ultimately leaving Orthodox Jews no safer.

Though the right has suggested that non-Orthodox Jews who resist responding to antisemitism with militancy are abandoning the Hasidic community, many Hasidic Jews share our concern about these proposals. Despite the call to bring in the National Guard from Orthodox legislators who do not belong to Hasidic communities, many voices from within these communities are raising past and present statements from their own rebbes, who do not and did not wish to solve problems with guns. One extraordinary call from within the Satmar community, originally written in Yiddish and published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), describes emerging practices of mutual aid between the Satmars of Monsey and neighboring minority communities, rooted in the affinities that bond the marginalized. “The natural friends of Orthodox Jews,” Shimon Rolnitzky writes, “are other minority communities next to whom we live. A large part of the black, Latino and Muslim communities, our neighbors, look at us religious Jews as their natural allies against a world of enmity and hate.”

Though he does not use the word, what Rolnitzky is describing is solidarity, which, despite the frequent dilution of the concept, refers not to vague gestures of sympathy and support, but rather to the hard work of cooperative action, organized around shared points of vulnerability and common interests, and directed toward common goals. 

This answer can still feel like a dodge—not because it’s unsound, but because of a failure to fully envision and articulate its avenues, coupled with the difficulty that implementing these proposals will present. Our task now is to imagine ways this solidarity can manifest. How can Hasidim and neighboring communities of color come together to address one another’s needs? We can imagine Hasidim organizing to monitor the police who surveil and threaten their black and brown neighbors, and those neighbors forming an unarmed security force to stand guard over Hasidic synagogues and homes during Jewish holidays and other community events. We can imagine Jewish resources that assist Hasidic communities in accessing public housing and other social benefits opening their services to the broader community. Instead of the current zero-sum game, which puts these communities in direct competition for the same scarce resources, we can imagine them co-organizing lobbying groups to fight for more affordable housing stock, social services such as welfare and child care support, and funding for integrated community resources, like a homeless shelter operated by members of both communities.

We can imagine, too, how we—Jews of the left, most of whom are not Orthodox—can work to cross the divisions between ourselves and our neighbors. What points of shared interest have gone ignored in the face of deep divides? As Yaacov Behrman suggested in JTA last year, we could partner with Hasidim to research trends in local antisemitism that affect both communities. Chabadniks have modeled what it looks like to generously offer religious resources; we could respond with an offer to tutor Orthodox students in secular subjects, should they so desire. What common cause can anti-Zionist Hasidim make with leftist Jews in the age of a creeping criminalization of critical speech regarding Israel/Palestine? Further, what if the Jewish left made an active effort to welcome and accommodate Orthodox Jews in our events, spaces, and actions?

All of these things are possible—but are they plausible, or merely utopian? We would argue that our times are themselves implausible, eliciting both new terrors and new opportunities—that it may, in fact, be a form of pragmatism to offer radical solutions in a moment of radical upheaval. We can help envision and enact a meaningful practice of solidarity—and thus an investment in lasting security—beyond tweets and rallies and conversations: a real, substantial alternative to the right’s vision of endless guns, omnipresent state security, and the further entrenchment of deep-seated racial divisions. Solidarity is not the thing we do in the meantime, while we solve pressing questions of security. The building of a better world is the security strategy itself.

It has come to the editorial team’s attention that the term “ultra-Orthodox” is considered pejorative by some members of the community it describes. This editorial has been updated so it does not include the term. We are currently researching and evaluating a change to our style guide.

The editorial has also been updated to clarify that Chabad events are not primarily for the Chabad community; rather, they are for all Jews.

The editorial previously identified the victims of the Monsey attack as members of the Satmar movement. In fact, they are members of the Kosson movement. This has been corrected.