The conspiracy theories behind the antisemitic violence in New York

Orthodox Jews walk through the neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough
of New York City on December 31, 2019. | Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
Author: Jane Coaston

How antisemitic myths and victim-blaming are putting Orthodox Jews in New York at risk.

Over the past few months, Jewish people in New York have endured a terrifying spike in antisemitic violence.

Just weeks after four people were murdered at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, a man brutally attacked a group of Hasidic men celebrating Hanukkah with a machete in Monsey, 35 miles north of New York City.

Attacks on Jewish people in New York, specifically Orthodox Jews, have taken place with frightening frequency over the last two years. In the third quarter of 2019, hate crime incidents aimed at Jewish people made up nearly half of all hate crime complaints compiled by police in New York City. Since December 23, 2019 at least 13 antisemitic attacks have taken place in New York, including one on New Year’s Day, in which a young Jewish man was attacked in Brooklyn by two women who allegedly yelled antisemitic slurs.

In a statement, the NYPD’s Public Information office told me, “The NYPD has zero tolerance when it comes to hate crimes in New York City. We have deployed assets and resources in Jewish neighborhoods, specifically around houses of worship. This includes an increase of uniform patrols, auxiliary units, as well as plain clothes patrols. Additionally, officers from the Critical Response Command and Strategic Response Group are patrolling these areas.”

As evidenced by the Monsey attack, many of the antisemitic attacks aren’t coming from the far-right, but from non-white people immersed in antisemitic conspiracy theories that are just as baseless, virulent, and dangerous as those spread by white nationalists.

For example, in Jersey City, the attackers were part of an extremist wing of the Black Hebrew Israelites that believes Jewish people are imposters (as one acolyte put it in 2007, “Negroes are the real Jews”) and worthy of death. One attacker posted about how Jewish people controlled the government and referred to Jewish people as being part of the “synagogue of Satan,” a phrase derived from the Book of Revelation that has become an antisemitic calling card.

And while violence aimed at Orthodox Jews and people who are visibly Jewish (those who wear kippahs, for example) has been increasing for months, media attention and, more importantly, attention from law enforcement agencies, has been sparse. Some media outlets have even appeared to blame the rise in violence on Orthodox Jewish people themselves, arguing that growing Orthodox communities were causing “predictable sparring.”

But antisemitic attacks aren’t the fault of the community enduring them. While it’s almost impossible to pinpoint an exact origin for the recent spate of violence, many of the attacks are tied to long-simmering antisemitic attitudes based on conspiracy theories and myths that have largely gone unchecked — coupled with political inaction at best and outright antisemitism coming from politicians themselves at worst.

Antisemitic conspiracy theories are more common than you think

I’ve argued before that antisemitism, unlike many other forms of hate, is heavily reliant on conspiracy theories to replicate itself. Jewish people are believed to be secretly in charge — of the government, of culture, of the world in its entirety, forcing people to do their bidding without their knowledge. As Nation of Islam (NOI) leader Louis Farrakhan put it in 2018, “The Jews have control over those agencies of government. When you want something in this world, the Jew holds the door.”

But some antisemitic conspiracy theories have very specific origins — like conspiracy theories tying Jewish people to anti-black racism, slavery, and police brutality. One of the Jersey City shooters, for example, posted online that the police shooting of Alton Sterling in 2016 was part of a “well planned agenda layed [sic] out by the upper echelon of Rosenbergs people” — a reference to Jewish people.

Many of these conspiracy theories heard today can be traced to a 1991 book published by the Nation of Islam, The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews. The book falsely argued that Jewish people were the real force behind the slave trade, and a third volume of the book even stated that Jewish people were secretly responsible for the 1920s rise of the Ku Klux Klan, a famously antisemitic hate group.

None of that is true — but the messaging proved effective and infectious (perusing Twitter on Thursday, I saw a user making those exact points). As the historian Henry Louis Gates noted in a 1992 New York Times article, the book is “one of the most sophisticated instances of hate literature yet compiled,” aimed at fomenting “ethnic isolationism” to drive Jewish people and black Americans apart. Jewish Americans were at the forefront of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s (and targeted by white supremacists for that reason). But NOI leader Farrakhan targeted Jewish people for their civil rights activism, saying in 1998, “Any time the Jewish philanthropists financed the NAACP, they have a stake in what the NAACP does. So the leaders of that organization have to kowtow to those kinds of powers.”

In 1995, the American History Association Council issued a statement that the book’s arguments were part of a historical legacy of antisemitism:

During the past few years there have been a number of egregious assaults on the historical record in institutions of higher learning and at educational conferences. These assaults implicate Jews as a dominant group in the Atlantic slave trade and the enslavement of Africans in the New World. The claims so misrepresent the historical record, however, that we believe them only to be part of a long antisemitic tradition that presents Jews as negative central actors in human history. In such scenarios, Jews are the secret force behind every major social development from capitalism to democracy, every major cataclysm from the Medieval Pandemic of the plague through the French and Russian Revolutions to the collapse of Communism, and now, incredibly, appear for the first time, as the secret force behind slavery.

Farrakhan’s antisemitism has been well documented — he’s been repeatedly denounced by Jewish organizations and the Southern Poverty Law Center. In a 1992 interview from the NOI publication The Final Call, Farrakhan describes the relationship between Jewish people and black Americans as that of a master and slave and even says, “If the Arabs are Semites, and they are, and we have friendly relations with the Arabs, then wouldn’t it be proper to say that we are anti-Jewish rather than antisemitic?”

More recently, he blamed Jews for the existence of transgender people, saying in February 2018 that “Jews were responsible for all of this filth and degenerate behavior that Hollywood is putting out: turning men into women, and women into men.”

That speech was attended by Tamika Mallory, one of the organizers of the 2017 Women’s March who has also allegedly suggested that Jewish people were collectively responsible for anti-black racism. (She has denied doing so.)

Farrakhan has also enjoyed close ties to Democratic politicians despite being an avowed antisemite who believes black women become lesbians because they don’t respect black men without jobs. As Steven Lubet wrote in the American Prospect in 2018, “Although he has spouted antisemitism, homophobia, and misogyny for decades, Farrakhan is still accepted in some quarters of the American left, welcome in polite company, and rebuked, if at all, only in the mildest terms.”

The most visibly Jewish communities are facing the most vicious hate

The people facing the brunt of antisemitic attacks in New York have been members of the Orthodox community, which is perhaps part of why an ongoing string of antisemitic violence has gone largely unnoticed until now. I spoke with Tablet Magazine’s Armin Rosen, who told me, “The reason that it took such a long time for this to really become an issue was the fact that all of these attacks were against people from the Haredi Orthodox communities, which are unfairly seen as being outside of the mainstream of city life, in a way outside of the social fabric.”

Eli Steinberg, a writer at the Forward who is Orthodox, told me that permissive attitudes toward harassment aimed at the Orthodox community were contributing to violence. “If it’s okay to talk about people this way, and nobody seems to care, and it’s okay to discriminate against them, and nobody seems to care, and when you see people start attacking Jews and the world doesn’t get outraged about it, it creates a general sense that anyone can act with impunity toward us, with no consequences.”

In New York State, anti-Orthodox sentiments have been a bipartisan affair as politicians blame Orthodox Jews for overdevelopment and gentrification, and commentators even argue that the increasing size of Hasidic communities will “foster prejudice” and antisemitism — in short, blaming antisemitism on Jews themselves.

Republican leaders have accused Haredi Jews of “plotting a takeover” of counties north of New York City and posing a danger to “our homes, our families, our schools, our communities, our water, our way of life” according to a video posted on Facebook by the Rockland County Republican Party. Rockland is the county that encompasses Monsey.

And across the Hudson River, Jersey City councilwoman Joan Terrell Page reacted to the horrific attacks that claimed the lives of four people (one that authorities believe was ultimately targeting an Orthodox school attached to the market) by writing on Facebook, “Where was all this faith and hope when Black homeowners were threatened, intimidated, and harassed by I WANT TO BUY YOUR HOUSE brutes of the jewish community?”

In response to calls for her resignation, John Flora, a Democratic candidate for Congress attended a vigil held in support for Page, saying, “To me her remarks were an invitation for the entire city to discuss honestly what led up to such a horrific event.”

When I reached out to Flora for comment on what he meant, his campaign sent me the following: “The rise of intolerance in recent weeks has shown us that we can’t expect this type of hatred to go away on its own. It will take the intentional effort of the community at-large, and not only politicians, to identify its root causes. There will never be a convenient time to begin doing the sort of work that grows tolerance, but it needs to be done. The ultimate goal is that one day our differences will make us stronger as a city and nation.”

The campaign, however, didn’t explain what events “honestly” provoked a shooting spree aimed at children.

Even mainstream reporting about the attacks in Jersey City and Monsey has appeared to blame Orthodox Jewish people themselves for the violence they are enduring. For example, an Associated Press article on antisemitic violence in New York posted on Thursday argued that Orthodox communities had “taken advantage of open space and cheaper housing to establish modern-day versions of the European shtetls where their ancestors lived for centuries before the Holocaust,” leading to “flare-ups of rhetoric seen by some as antisemitic,” as if antisemitic violence with rocks and machetes logically stems from disputes over housing stock.

Other writers appeared to view anti-Orthodox violence as an almost inevitable consequence of “complex racial tensions” between black communities and Orthodox Jewish communities, tensions that may have existed in some neighborhoods for decades. But such arguments obscure the antisemitic origins of the conspiracy theories that are driving acts of violence while seemingly implying, as Steinberg wrote last week, that “these attacks are emblematic of the communities from which their individual perpetrators hail.”

During our conversation, Steinberg said he was fearful of people “dead set” on making the rise in antisemitic violence a “black versus Jew conflict,” noting examples of antisemitic rhetoric aimed at Orthodox people coming from a wide array of sources, including former New York City mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg.

“There may be a stream of ‘black antisemitism’,” he said, “but I don’t think anyone really knows enough to say there’s some greater driving force behind that, and this is not a ‘black’ issue. It is an antisemitism issue, and that’s just one part of it.”

Antisemitism is not an inevitable consequence of diverse communities. After all, as Elad Nehorai wrote in Haaretz last week, “These attacks are not occurring with any similar frequency in other areas of the United States: they are largely confined to the New York area. Even where other Jewish communities mix with black communities, such as in Chicago, these horrors have not occurred nearly as often.”

The rise in antisemitic hate crimes in New York is taking place in a political context in which antisemitism is believed by many, particularly on the left, to solely be a problem of the far-right, of white nationalists and white nationalism. But antisemitism is a bipartisan cudgel, whether it comes from a Democratic Washington, DC, city councilman who posted a video to Facebook arguing that a well-known Jewish family controlled the weather, or from Republican operatives calling Orthodox communities “the most egregious example of women’s oppression.” And conspiracy theories that purport Jewish Americans are somehow responsible for police brutality aimed at black Americans are just as inane as conspiracy theories alleging George Soros, a Holocaust survivor, was a Nazi.

There’s no clear movement or entity behind the rise of antisemitic attacks in New York and elsewhere — no single group that can be blamed for random assaults on Jewish children. Rather, there is a stew of antisemitic conspiracy theories, coupled with political cowardice and outright victim-blaming, that is putting visibly Jewish people at risk.