Talking to Neighbors: Anti-Semitism in Williamsburg

Talking to Neighbors: Anti-Semitism in Williamsburg

Last year saw another spike in reported hate crimes, much of it perpetrated against our Jewish neighbors. So we went out to talk to our neighbors, both Jewish and not, about anti-Semitism, hate, what’s being done and could be done.

According to NYPD reports, by mid-2019, anti-Semetic hate crimes skyrocketed in the city, making up 60% of all hate crimes. The 94th and 71st precincts, Williamsburg and Crown Heights, respectively, have seen a disproportionate amount of anti-Semitic hate crimes.

The residents of Crown Heights are predominately Jewish and Black, in South Williamsburg there are many Latinx and Jewish families. In light of recent hate crimes, the mayor announced the NYPD will increase their presence in these neighborhoods.

Governor Cuomo Visits Orthodox Jewish Neighborhood in Williamsburg
Governor Cuomo Visits Orthodox Jewish Neighborhood in Williamsburg. Don Pollard/Governor’s Office.

Here’s Williamsburg.

Mellisa, 24, Dominican, born and raised on the Southside of Williamsburg, has been living in an apartment building with Jewish families for the last six years. She said she hasn’t seen hate crime on the streets, however, she’s concerned.

“Whenever they [Haredi] see us, different type of people, they act scared, like we’re going to hurt them or do something to them, and I don’t think that’s right — we are humans, just like they are, and I understand they have their own culture and own beliefs, but to pass by someone and act like they’re going to do something to them — no, that’s not right. For example, when I’ll be waiting for the elevator, and they come inside, they don’t get on the elevator [with me].”

Melissa did not know the cause of their fear, but says they don’t communicate or engage with other cultures in the neighborhood. She’s noticed more police activity in the area since the end of summer, including regular patrols around her building between Wythe and Bedford Avenues.

“The only time they do communicate is when they ask me for favors, which has happened a couple of times. One was to help them turn the gas off, since they have certain days they can’t touch things, they can’t be on the phone and things like that, they’ll be outside their apartment waiting for someone to pass by to ask for a favor. They’ve asked me to make a phone call, I helped them dial the number.”

An older Latina woman who remained anonymous, also raised in the area, said there hasn’t been much police activity, except for Bedford Gardens, but said the hate crimes and harassment have gotten worse.

“I don’t know what caused it, but this is the world we live in I guess.”

Iza Isangalieva, 26, a server who works in the area, and is originally from Russia, says that it seems like South Williamsburg is generally a dangerous place to be in the city.

“I respect [Jewish People] so much, I’m not racist, I don’t divide nations, I think the Jewish people are very respectful, very calm, they live their own lives and don’t bother anyone.”

“I haven’t noticed more police activity in the area,” she said, but thinks more police activity would help the Jewish community. “The hate is growing toward specific nations, which is terrible, they don’t want these people around here, I think it’s from people’s inadequacy because America is for everyone, open to all people.

I think the realization that we are all human would help, that we are one people together, we should respect each other and live in peace. There’s only one life, we’re all going to die, we need to live together anywhere in the world.

There should be more [social education] on the topic, for all people, that race, age, immigration status doesn’t matter, because we’re all human beings. The police shouldn’t scare people, they should carry the message that we shouldn’t kill each other and to help each other out.”

Rabbi Heller is surrounded by the congregation and members of the community after the 2019 attack. Todd Maisel/Bklyner

Rabbi Menachem Heller, is co-director and founder of Bushwick Chabad in East Williamsburg and lives in Crown Heights. The synagogue suffered an anti-Semitic attack last February: a rock was thrown at the front window, shattering it, while the Rabbi was inside with his family and approximately 15 community members.

“It looks like the older generation is retraining the younger generations like in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s. It’s everything I was taught: no kids on the street at night, no women walking alone late at night,” he told us. “Six years ago a man with a knife came into my synagogue, saying ‘I’ll kill you’ — it’s very sad, it hurts, to deal with something we thought we didn’t have to deal with anymore.”

Asked if additional police would help, he said police will only help short term.

“Jews being harassed on the streets of Brooklyn has been happening for years… and the mayor, I don’t know what they can do, and I don’t know if they could do anything, and I am not blaming anyone. It has not gotten worse, there’s just one more horrific attack, and no one wants to talk about it. It’s not new that Jewish people are getting harassed on the streets, it’s a cycle, just goes up and down all the time.”

Rabbi said what would actually help is education and not being afraid to express the problem.

“We are afraid to express what the problem is, there’s no way they are going to keep the police troopers here. People are afraid of what the real issue is, people in the community don’t want to talk about it, but as long as we are afraid and ignore the real problem the harassment won’t stop.

“The anti-semitism was always here, it never went away, anti-Semitism in the white community and the Black community, and we should not be encouraging or letting people promote this in the Black community and things like that.

“Black people are screaming anti-Semitic things for the last 50 years, children express what the adults are thinking, this didn’t suddenly happen. Almost every presidential candidate came to ask for the blessing of Al Sharpton. Did anyone call him out? My Black neighbors don’t see these people as their leaders, and we’re not helping the Black community by not calling them out. They’re afraid to call it out, we need to be condemning it openly, not making excuses.”

If people are different from you, think different from you, doesn’t give you a right to hate them.

“Basic education that if people are different from you, think different from you, doesn’t give you a right to hate them, and this has to be spoken about openly. The Black community doesn’t like [the hate] either, they don’t want it, and I trust that, and believe that.”

“Why do we only talk about tensions? And they never call it was it is. There’s no issue between the communities, it’s the bad apples, and we are afraid to call them out, because we are afraid to upset the Black community. My neighbors are Black, there is no tension, no issues here. There’s always been these ups and downs, police on the corners for the last 15 years, it’s not a new thing.”

Maxwell Duggan, 28, originally from Boston, non-Jewish, has been living in South Williamsburg for over a year and now in East Williamsburg for 4 months.

Duggan has been keeping up with the news and local hate crime incidents, and while has never personally seen harassment take place on the streets says “it seems to be pretty common here.” He hasn’t noticed an increase in NYPD, except during Jewish holidays on Marcy Avenue, and does not think State Troopers would help the community.

“You can’t really stop people who are acting irrationally and out of hate, they’re going to express that however they’re going to express that, and that’s obviously awful. Most of those people aren’t really worried about the cops.”

He said their visibility may deter obvious crimes in the streets, but would also cause tension between neighbors that are at odds with the police, and create more division in the neighborhood. So what does he think is causing the rise of hate crimes in New York?

“Across the board, [hate crimes] seem to be going up in this Trumpian era. Trump and all that bullshit trickling down, and probably competition over space, it’s a crowded, expensive city, that will drive people to not like each other, they’ll find whatever way to not like each other if they’re frustrated that they don’t have a stable place to live.”

Duggan thinks communication between communities would help the situation.

“Heightened, cultural, positive dialogue, from the top down. Just to think about each other in a more positive way — the popular notion is based on divisiveness — in society we need more words focused on unity and shared experiences and shared hopes and dreams, instead of the little divisions blown out of proportion.”

While we tried many times, Haredim on the streets of Williamsburg would not make eye contact with us, much less engage in a conversation. We had better luck in Crown Heights (story will come out on Monday) and we will keep trying, as we think it is important to have the voices of regular folks heard in addition to those of their leaders.

This Sunday there will be a march in Solidarity. Details below: