Yale, Al Sharpton and the Attacks on New York’s Jews

Disdain for the ultra-Orthodox leads the elites to tolerate hatred, which turns into violence.

By Abigail Shrier

Jan. 3, 2020 6:18 pm ET

  • My entering class at Yale Law School in 2002 had one Jew who might be called “ultra-Orthodox.” He traveled some two hours to campus each Monday from Brooklyn, N.Y., and before the weekend, as far as I knew, he headed back. On Fridays when Sabbath came in early and he needed to get home, he could be seen racing white-faced for the exit, one hand pinning a velvet yarmulke to his head, the wheels of his tagalong briefcase crying out.

Yale Law School was about as secular a place as I had ever been—an institution where God seemed not only absent but strangely irrelevant. I sympathized with his need to chase spiritual renewal somewhere else. But the open snickers of our classmates surprised me. They imitated how he raised his hand in class (palm a little too rigid and tilted slightly forward). They joked that it looked like a Nazi salute. They rolled their eyes whenever someone mentioned his name.

In an institution pledged to champion the downtrodden, contempt coalesced happily on his head. Most surprising to me was how readily and wordlessly our classmates seemed to have agreed on their target. How did they know whom to kick around? Their defense of minorities stopped at his feet. So many unspoken rules of communication arranged themselves in a target on his back.

I thought of him this week, and the week before, and for many weeks before that, as the frequency of assaults in the New York area targeting ultra-Orthodox Jews rises from alarming to commonplace. The beatings in Brooklyn; threats hurled at ultra-Orthodox Jews on all manner of public transport; the brick bludgeoning in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood; the machete attack in Monsey, N.Y., north of the city; the shooting in a Jersey City, N.J., supermarket meant for the yeshiva upstairs filled with children.

Videos of the Brooklyn assaults seem borrowed from another time and place: of Jews attempting to mind their own business in black hats and dark suits, beaten by street thugs. The black hats and dark suits, provocation enough. The ghastly silence of the elites—or worse, intimations that the Jews themselves are responsible.

The AP tutted in a tweet that has since been removed: “The expansion of Hasidic communities around New York City has led to predictable civic sparring, but also flare-ups of what some call anti-Semitic rhetoric.” This came days after a madman charged the home of a Hasidic rabbi, hacking at Jewish heads with a machete. NBC New York tweeted from the same script: “With the expansion of Orthodox communities outside NYC has come civic sparring, and some fear the recent violence may be an outgrowth of that conflict.” Some fear . . . what exactly? That the Jews got what they deserved? That the attacks are a logical response to gentrification? Good people on both sides, is it?

This is Bill de Blasio’s New York, but it could just as easily be David Dinkins’s. And perhaps that is why we are seeing this again: the demon of hate, never exorcised, floats freely around. Our sin was to have whitewashed the Crown Heights pogrom of 1991 and lavished its instigator Al Sharpton with respectability.

After a car crash involving a Hasidic driver resulted in the death of Gavin Cato, the 7-year-old son of Guyanese immigrants, Mr. Sharpton led a three-day riot in Crown Heights. He blamed the accident on “diamond merchants,” and his followers chanted, “Kill the Jew.” They did. The Jew they killed was Yankel Rosenbaum, 29, a doctoral candidate from Australia. Nearly 200 more were injured in the melee.

The political and media elites forgave Mr. Sharpton. Democrats called no harm, no foul. The ultra-Orthodox vote Republican anyway. Mr. Sharpton rose to the Democratic debate stage in 2004 and now hosts a show on MSNBC. This year’s Democratic candidates for president have kissed his ring.

And so the ultra-Orthodox Jews find themselves sitting ducks again in a New York hostile or indifferent to their fate. Their values have never been so out of step with the city where they live. They have many children in a time when most Americans have few. Global warming doesn’t rate on their lists of top concerns. They lead traditional lives, directed toward God, and maintain traditional families. They don’t know the meaning of “genderqueer.”

They are, in other words, of increasingly little use to the Democrats in charge of the city, who now withhold law-enforcement protection. Perpetrators of anti-Semitic assaults have been quickly released on bail, or not arrested, or have had their verbal assaults deemed “not a hate crime.”

And this is what Martin Niemöller got wrong in his famous poem we can all recite from memory: “Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” Other people don’t worry that they are next when ultra-Orthodox Jews are beaten each week—because they aren’t. There is no practical, selfish impetus to protect these Jews.

But there is a moral imperative. Because an America that allows its religious minorities to be harassed, assaulted and murdered in the streets is not a free country at all. If religious liberty means anything today, then it must be something we afford those peaceful minorities whose political views have become unfashionable, whose customs appear to be throwbacks, who remind us more of another place and time, where they were hunted and killed in unspeakable numbers. At stake isn’t merely the lives of these Jews, but the soul of a nation that once welcomed and embraced them.

Ms. Shrier is author of “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters,” forthcoming in June.