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The New Anti-Semitism

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From the January 11, 1993 issue of New York Magazine.

On a cool, sunny Saturday near the beginning of October, 12-year-old David was in synagogue studying, singing, and hanging out with his friends. At around 5:30, having spent the entire afternoon indoors, he desperately wanted to get some air. David grabbed his coat and two friends, and they took off into the streets of Riverdale to salvage the last piece of a perfect fall day. Just before six, his companions thought they should get back, but David hesitated. He wasn't quite ready. The early-evening air felt too good on his face, and the streets looked too inviting in the soft twilight. "Go on," he told them. "I'll meet you at the synagogue in ten or fifteen minutes."

David had barely walked one block by himself when he approached the intersection of 236th Street and the Henry Hudson Parkway. It was quiet. Though it wasn't quite dark yet, David noticed that some streetlamps were just beginning to flicker purple. At the corner, a black Toyota Camry was parked by the curb, and five teenage boys were sitting inside—three whites, one Asian, and one black. When David reached the car, one of the whites got out. "Hey, Jew boy," he yelled. David kept walking. "Hey, don't ignore me, you dirty Jew." David walked a little faster and told the teenager who was following to leave him alone. David didn't panic—he had been taunted and even chased before. Quite a few times, in fact. Still, this was the first time he'd had to face it alone.

When he crossed the street, the teenager ran after him, grabbed him, and hurled him against the wall of an apartment building. "F---ing Jew," he screamed as he started punching. David began to fight back, and three more teenagers jumped out of the car. They dragged him into an alley between two buildings and beat him—punching and kicking him in the face, the stomach, and the ribs. "You're not so tough now, are you, Jew boy?" said the original attacker. When they'd had enough, they turned and walked away, leaving David in the alley, badly bruised but not seriously injured. The shirt and tie he had on for the Sabbath were soiled and torn, and his black suede yarmulke was on the ground next to him.

On the morning of that same day—October 3—someone had burned Nazi symbols into a hallway carpet in a Roosevelt Island apartment building. On October 6, a man was leaving a Brooklyn synagogue with his wife and daughter when they were approached by two men. One of the assailants slapped the man's yarmulke off his head and yelled, "Gotcha." He "yoked" the man and cut him before running away down Avenue H when the man's wife shrieked. On October 10, at 5 P.M., a 24-year-old woman was walking near the Henry Hudson Parkway with her 7-year-old brother, who was wearing a yarmulke, when a car with six men inside pulled up. The men screamed, "F---ing Jew!" and threw a lighted cigarette at the woman. Later that day, a Hasidic man was walking in the Westwood area of Staten Island when two men tried to drag him into the blue Jeep they were driving.

The next night, the attacks continued. A 27-year-old woman was stopped at a traffic light in Greenwich Village when four people in a BMW pulled alongside her, yelled anti-Semitic epithets, and threw a tire iron through her rear window. Two days later, a 23-year-old Hasidic man was walking on Carroll Street in Brooklyn when someone asked him for a cigarette. When he said he didn't have one, the man knocked him to the ground and pummeled his face, calling him a "dirty Jew." Indeed, during a three-and-a-half-week period that began on September 27—the day that marked the start of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar there were nineteen criminal acts of anti-Semitism recorded by the Police Department's Bias Unit.

For many, the hatred reached its dénouement at the end of the month in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn. At 5:20 on October 29—following a delay of more than two hours so that several hundred police officers could be brought in—a jury of six blacks, four Hispanics, and two whites announced that they had found 17-year-old Lemrick Nelson Jr. not guilty of killing Australian Hasidic scholar Yankel Rosenbaum during the rioting in Crown Heights (sparked when Gavin Cato, a black child, was accidentally struck and killed by a Hasidic driver). And in that singular moment, when the results produced by the criminal-justice system disappointed and devastated so many people, Jews in New York suddenly knew that what they had sensed for so long but rarely talked about was true: Attitudes were changing, intolerance was on the rise, and they were becoming strangers in their own city.


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