I felt compelled to attend a conversation on anti-Semitism that Rabbi Shmuley Boteach was hosting Monday night because I still don’t understand the sudden eruption of black Jew hatred in the tri-state area. I was hoping Rabbi Boteach could offer the fresh insights for which he’s famous.
Brett Stephens, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, was present, and he was magnificent. But it was from his black colleague, journalist Peter Noel (who has primarily written about African-American affairs for The Village Voice and other publications) that I finally learned the true reason behind the sudden backlash. According to Mr. Noel, it all boils down to two words: real estate.
I am paraphrasing (you can probably watch his remarks online) but, basically, this is what he said: “The Jews pushed and are still pushing us out of Crown Heights. They took over our turf and don’t allow us to conduct normal activities in our own strip. We can’t have weddings on Saturdays because it disturbs their Sabbath. We’re not allowed to go down certain streets – they belong to the Jews. Why can’t we have the same rights as everyone else?”
Now, no one in the audience was from Crown Heights. I don’t live there either, so I have absolutely no idea if any of these accusations are valid, but they certainly sound delusional to me. I can’t imagine that the police, politicians, or leaders in the area would designate any geographical area in Crown Heights “off-limits” to any segment of the population, and it’s hard to believe that West Indians and African-Americans are prohibited from conducting weddings, festivals, and carnivals (as Mr. Noel staunchly claimed) whenever and wherever they’d like. (I assume that 770 is off-limits, but hey…)
Secondly, I don’t think Mr. Noel is familiar with the history of Crown Heights. It was actually the Jews who were chased out of Crown Heights in the mid-’60s, with everyone but Lubavitch fleeing as their hold on their property – and lives – grew less secure. Crown Heights had been a jewel of a neighborhood – a haven for Holocaust survivors who had fled Brownsville and East New York for the same reasons that made them leave Crown Heights. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l, however, insisted that his chassidim not join the exodus, and it was solely due to his efforts that Crown Heights still remains on the Jewish map.
Before the mass flight, Crown Heights was known as “Doctors Row.” Many famous and successful Jewish physicians lived in the stately homes that lined its streets. One of the major groups that relocated en masse from Crown Heights to Boro Park was Bobov. I was a very little girl when my father took me to a groundbreaking ceremony in Queens, where a project called “Bobov City” was to be inaugurated. Some things remain perennially the same: The non-Jewish populace heavily objected to this initiative, and Bobov had to scrap the project and move to Boro Park instead.
Mr. Noel said the second factor underpinning rising Jew-hatred in Crown Heights is the heinous way Shomrim are harassing and physically assaulting innocent blacks, beating them up, and constantly engaging in “stop and frisk” activities, Also, Jewish shopkeepers are picking them up and literally throwing them out of their stores.
Again, I don’t live in Crown Heights, but I can’t imagine that the police would allow the Shomrim such “liberties.” Maybe the Jews of Crown Heights are a different breed, but in Boro Park, where I live, I have never, ever witnessed a shopkeeper refusing service to a black patron, and I certainly have never seen anyone being physically assaulted or thrown out of a store.
Mr. Noel’s rants were utterly preposterous, yet some of the very bright and intelligent members of the mostly secular audience took his remarks seriously as chassidim were once again demonized even though Rabbi Boteach tried valiantly to challenge Mr. Noel’s assumptions and accusations.
I believe that, lamentably, some people walked away with a lot of misinformation that was irrevocably damaging and made them look at the tensions in Crown Heights through a different lens.
I applaud Rabbi Boteach for bravely hosting the dialogue, but we must have knowledgeable and articulate representatives of the frum community present at future such dialogues, both as members of the audience and as participants in the dialogue itself, if we wish to effectively counter these charges.
I tried to approach Mr. Noel after the presentation, but he was surrounded by throngs of people, and when I finally reached the front of the line, he apologized and said he had to go.
During his presentation, Mr. Noel asserted that incidents of young blacks knocking off hats and yarmulkes of Orthodox Jews were indicative of hooliganism, not Jew-hatred. These “random” incidents carried no anti-Semitic overtones, he maintained, and were being misinterpreted.
One brave young woman raised her hand and asked, “Mr. Noel, what is your definition of anti-Semitism?” Mr. Noel became flustered and couldn’t really respond coherently. For once, he was speechless.