The Current

Anti-Semitic attacks hard to fight because no single organization behind them, says journalist

A recent surge in attacks on Jewish people in the United States is difficult to fight because there's no single organization or cause to blame, according to Tablet Magazine writer Armin Rosen.

While some Jewish people are trying to hide their religious identity, others are responding with 'defiance'

Members of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg's community gather in front of the house of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg on December 29, 2019 in Monsey, New York. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

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A series of violent attacks on Jewish people in the United States is difficult to fight because there's no single organization or cause to blame, according to a Jewish journalist.

"It's not as if you could tie the attackers together in any way," Armin Rosen, a staff writer for Tablet Magazine, told The Current's interim host Laura Lynch. "In fact, what's made it so disturbing and so difficult to combat is that there's a kind of disaggregated character to the entire wave of incidents."

On Saturday, a man entered a Hannukah gathering at the home of a Hasidic rabbi in Monsey, N.Y., a suburb of New York City, and stabbed and wounded five people. All five were taken to hospital.

In response, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the violence "an act of domestic terrorism."

But Rosen says the terrorism label is misplaced.

"I think terrorism kind of implies a level of organization that's not there — and if it was there, it would be easier to address what's been going on," he said.

A Ramapo police officer directs traffic outside a rabbi's residence in Monsey, N.Y., on Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, following a stabbing at the home Saturday night during a Hannukah celebration. (Julius Constantine Motal/The Associated Press)

In 2018, the Anti-Defamation League recorded 1,879 attacks against Jewish people and institutions in the U.S., "the third-highest year on record since ADL started tracking such data in the 1970s," according to the organization.

At least nine apparent anti-Semitic attacks or incidents were reported last week in the New York City area alone. 

On Friday, one day before the Monsey attack, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said there would be an increased police presence in three neighbourhoods with large Jewish populations. 

Rosen said he hoped more police on the streets may help calm residents' nerves and help them feel the problem is being taken seriously, even though "a visible police presence hasn't been able to deter some of these [previous] attacks."

As more information comes about the man accused of storming into a rabbi’s home and stabbing five people in an Orthodox Jewish community north of New York City, a private security firm receives the OK from local authorities to patrol Jewish neighbourhoods. 2:03

Fear in Jewish-Canadian communities

The rash of attacks is making Jewish people in Canada more fearful for their safety, says Yossi Sapirman, the senior rabbi of Beth Torah Congregation in Toronto.

"Any community that dresses differently, acts differently, talks differently, looks differently, is feeling the same sense of attack now."

"And if you're ultra, ultra Orthodox, you're the most clearly visible version of the story."

Harriette Fleising, an Orthodox Jewish woman in the Greater Toronto Area suburb of Thornhill, Ont., whose parents were Holocaust survivors, said she and her family were alarmed by the recent incidents "because I never really thought that anti-Semitism would rise to this extent in North America and in the entire world." 

Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University and the author of Antisemitism: Here and Now, says some Jewish people are responding to anti-Semitic violence by hiding their Jewish identity. 

Deborah Lipstadt is a professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University and the author of Antisemitism: Here and Now. (Emory University)

Lipstadt pointed to one synagogue in Groningen, Netherlands, which no longer posts the time of prayer services and relies on volunteers to tell congregants by phone and WhatsApp messages.

In her own life, Lipstadt said she knows people who wear kippas who now "just put on a baseball cap when they go out," while other friends are being told by family members not to wear clothing with Jewish symbols on it, or send their children to Jewish schools. 

"It's not like all Jews are going into hiding, but it's little things — thinking twice about expressing your Jewish identity," she said.

Responding with 'defiance'

Instead of downplaying her Judaism, Lipstadt said the attacks have motivated her to make her identity more visible. She just ordered a Star of David necklace, which she plans to wear regularly.

"It's an act of defiance," she said. "You're not going to stop us from being Jews."

Lipstadt said that defiance was in the same spirit that guided Chaim Rottenberg, the rabbi whose home was the site of Saturday's attack, to move the event to his synagogue and continue to lead congregants in song.

"He didn't continue because he said, 'I have to show the non-Jews that I'm going to continue to be a Jew,'" she said. 

"He continued, because on the last night [of Hannukah] ... you light seven candles and you celebrate the festival. And he wanted to go and celebrate the festival," she said.

"I think it was a wonderful, wonderful commentary."

Written by Allie Jaynes. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin, Danielle Carr and Jennifer Chen