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Repeated attacks on Jewish community heighten fears

Hanukkah stabbings
Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg, left, and others celebrate the arrival of a new Torah on Sunday. A day earlier, a man stormed into his Monsey, N.Y., home and stabbed multiple people.
(Craig Ruttle / Associated Press)

First, a gunman targeted a kosher grocery store in Jersey City in early December. Then, just days later, a Beverly Hills synagogue was vandalized. That’s when Natalie and her husband started assessing the danger of practicing their religion: Should he go to synagogue? Are their kids’ schools safe? In the end, they decided to keep their four children away from any public celebration of their Orthodox Jewish faith.

And now, after a machete-wielding assailant terrorized a Hanukkah celebration in Monsey, N.Y., on Saturday night, the Los Angeles woman said she didn’t know where to turn for safety. In 21st century America. On the eve of a new decade. As anti-Semitic violence is on the rise.

“I’m not sending my young kids to synagogue. I’m keeping them at home with me,” said Natalie, who preferred to be identified only by her middle name because she feared for her family’s safety. Those who attack Jews because of their faith “want people to be afraid to go to synagogue. At the end of the day, I have to protect my children and their lives. ... That’s the goal of the terrorist: to instill fear at all times.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the attack “domestic terrorism” and said it was one of 13 acts of anti-Semitism in his state since Dec. 8. He also directed the state police hate crimes task force to investigate, according to a statement on his website. Five people were injured in the machete attack, one seriously; the suspect fled to Manhattan and was later arrested.

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The bloody assault — which occurred at the home of a Hasidic rabbi, where many of the faithful were celebrating the seventh night of Hanukkah — reverberated throughout the country.

In Los Angeles, home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the country, police Chief Michel Moore tweeted Sunday that “out of an abundance of caution, we have increased patrols in and around Jewish communities and places of worship in response to last night’s horrific anti-Semitic attack in New York.”

And Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is Jewish, tweeted Sunday: “The tragic attacks on faith communities in New York & Texas seek to make us afraid in our homes & sanctuaries, the places where we should feel safest. But we refuse to live in fear. We will respond to anti-semitism & all forms of hate & violence with courage, solidarity & love.”

In addition to the attack in Monsey, Garcetti referred to a church shooting Sunday not far from Fort Worth, in which two people died and the gunman was shot to death by other members of the congregation.

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New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also pledged a “visible, strong police presence around the Jewish community” in his city. Interviewed on Fox News, he called growing anti-Semitism “profoundly dangerous.” “An atmosphere of hate has been developing in this country over the last few years,” De Blasio said. “A lot of it is emanating from Washington, and it’s having an effect on all of us.”

When Fox News host Ed Henry accused him of “blaming the president,” De Blasio replied: “Not just the president.”

He added: “But we have to be clear. We need a different tone, starting in Washington.”

Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance, however, does not place the onus of rising anti-Semitism on the White House and a president who has coarsened civic discourse during his three years in office.

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“This is a world phenomenon,” Hier said Sunday. “It has happened for the last decade in Europe. It crossed the Atlantic. It’s right here in America. And the crimes are being committed by fellow Americans, in the last few weeks, by African Americans. I have to tell you, this is really of deep concern. Unless we do something about it, it seems to me it’s going to get a lot worse.”

Hier said the center and the museum had employed armed guards and security cameras since 1999, when white supremacist Buford O. Furrow Jr. scoped out the museum as a possible target, a place to kill Jews. But the museum was too secure. Instead, Furrow shot five people at the North Valley Jewish Community Center and later shot and killed a Filipino American postal worker.

Security cameras also have been installed at Hier’s home and the residences of “all of the senior people” of the Los Angeles institutions, he said.

“Any car or anything that drives around the block is immediately identified,” Hier said. It is a horrible way to live, “but this is America. We have to address this. ... I’d like to see Republicans and Democrats put their bickering aside and deal with anti-Semitism.”

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Hier called for Trump to ask the FBI to create a special task force to address the rising problem, which he called “squarely about Jews.” He said he also would raise the issue during a private audience with Pope Francis on Jan. 20.

“Since 1977 when the Simon Wiesenthal Center opened, we’ve never seen, one after another, such horrific attacks targeting Jews — at night and in broad daylight,” Hier said. “I do not recall any time I’ve been as concerned as I am now. We’re in uncharted territory. Unless we do something, the results will be horrific and unprecedented in American history.”

As Hier noted, the assailants in the two high-profile attacks were African American. In the Jersey City incident, three people inside the store and a police officer were killed. The two crimes were a terrible braid of race and religion.

All of which creates a very particular type of pain for people like Rebecca Pierce. The San Francisco Bay Area writer and filmmaker is both black and Jewish. She spends much of her work and her life dealing with that difficult territory.

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When she hears about attacks such as Saturday’s, “my first reaction as a Jewish person is, ‘It’s horrible,’” Pierce said Sunday. “Any time a prayer space or community space is violated, I’m horrified and heartbroken.”

If the assailant is black, she said, “a lot of time black Jews feel we have to mediate between the communities, when we’re just as frightened and hurt and upset about the violence as anyone else. ... The minute I thought a black person did it, I’m horrified, but I also know that I’ll have to do something about it.”

Pierce said she understood some synagogues’ desire to increase police presence, but she also noted that the question of safety was very different depending on a person’s racial background.

“When you have something like the Monsey attack, people will call for more police presence,” she said. “But for communities on the receiving end of policing, it won’t make you feel more safe. ... When there’s been an attack, any kind of attack, I’m scared. I’m also scared of the police. When you go into a synagogue and you look different from other people, you feel uneasy.”

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The Monsey attack also was front and center on the Sunday morning political talk shows.

By early Sunday afternoon, Trump had still not weighed in on the assault, although he twice took to Twitter earlier in the day to denigrate “Crazy Nancy Pelosi” over his impeachment.

However, a senior congressional ally of the president, Rep. Steve Scalise, said, “Anti-Semitism is wrong.”

Scalise (R-La.), who survived a 2017 shooting attack by a gunman targeting Republicans, said on “Fox News Sunday” that “too often in Washington, you see people trying to figure out somebody’s motives instead of just saying it’s wrong. … Call it out for what it is.”

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Sen. John Kennedy (R-La)., another Trump ally, was asked in a separate televised interview whether there should be legislation that designates attacks like the one in New York as domestic terrorism.

“America is a big, wide-open, pluralistic country. I don’t think any of us want to live in a police state,” Kennedy said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “If I had an answer, I’d go pass a bill. But you can’t legislate hate away from people who have it in their heart. “

Trump finally commented just after 2 p.m. Eastern time, about 16 hours after the machete rampage took place, calling it “horrific.”

“We must all come together,” he tweeted, “to fight, confront and eradicate the evil scourge of anti-Semitism.”

La Ganga reported from Los Angeles and King from Washington, D.C. Times staff writer Sonja Sharp and the Associated Press contributed to this story.


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