Dec 30, 2019

A conversation with Mark Levine.

A conversation with Mark Levine.

The Jewish New York Council member addresses New York City's anti-Semitism problem.

On Saturday night, a man walked into the home of a rabbi in Monsey, New York, and stabbed five ultra-Orthodox Jews with a machete-like weapon. One is still in critical condition in the hospital. The attack is part of a larger trend of anti-Semitic assaults in New York City and the surrounding area. The alleged attacker, an African-American man, is now in custody. But you’d be hard-pressed to find any Orthodox Jews who feel relieved by his arrest. Many New Yorkers have noted the rise in anti-Semitic attacks and have also pointed out that the perpetrators of these attacks are often black or Hispanic.

Early Monday morning, Tangle spoke with New York City Council member Mark Levine. Levine serves in District 7 of Manhattan, which encompasses parts of Harlem and Washington Heights. The Monsey attacker was caught just east of Levine’s district in Central Harlem. As a Jewish Council member who services in a diverse district, I thought Levine would be an interesting person to speak to about the rise of anti-Semitism in New York City. Below, you’ll find our conversation in full. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

New York City Council member Mark Levine at a local event. Photo: Office of Mark Levine

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Tangle: A good place would be if you can just tell me what the latest is you’re hearing about the crime. It sounds like the attacker is in custody. Was he found in your district? Do you have any updates?

Mark Levine: His car was photographed leaving the scene of the attack. They had his license plate. When he went through the toll on the George Washington Bridge, the alert popped up. And he was apprehended near the bridge in the 32nd precinct, which is Central Harlem. My district is West Harlem-Washington Heights, so he clearly drove through the district and was apprehended just beyond it. He was found with blood, presumably victims’ blood, covering his body. He has made a not-guilty plea, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest strongly that this was the attacker.

He appears to have a history of schizophrenia, including other run-ins with the law, and his family is claiming he’s not anti-Semitic. That raises the question of why he was targeting a synagogue and a rabbi’s home. That’s generally the facts that we have at this point.

Tangle: It just seems like it’s never-ending in the city and surrounding areas recently. I’m curious what your take is on what’s at the root of this and why we’re seeing such an uptick in New York?

Levine: Well, this is a multi-year pattern really since 2015 and 2016. Every year we’ve had double-digit increases in the number of anti-Semitic attacks. 2019 has continued that very disturbing trend. There are now more hate crimes targeted at Jewish New Yorkers than all other categories of animus combined. They have, thank God, mostly been property crimes like a swastika on a synagogue, etc. Those are abhorrent to be sure but thank God the majority of the attacks have been non-violent. But that is changing for sure. As we saw just in the week prior to the Monsey attack, there were nine physical assaults ranging from people being punched in the head or having things thrown at them. Some of those didn’t make the news but reflect this horrible trend.

The question of the motivation and who are the perpetrators needs to get more attention. It’s hard to ascribe a clear political ideology to these attackers as they generally don’t fit the profile of white nationalists. I think that has caused some political figures to stumble in how they have talked about or even the extent to which they’ve paid attention to these assaults. Even our own mayor has generally insisted that anti-Semitism is a phenomenon of the white nationalist right, which it is in part. But I don’t think that’s an accurate frame to describe the majority of the attacks in the New York City area.

We really don’t have accurate data on who these people are and that is itself an inexcusable failing. But to the extent that we can understand, with the exception of the Jersey City attack which had a clear political motive, most of them seem to be people with mental illness. And that reflects a failure of our society in dealing with severe forms of mental illness such as schizophrenia, but it also raises the question, “why is it that these people are going after Jews? And what is it about society’s perception of Jews that is in the bloodstream at this point?” When someone with mental illness is choosing to target people they are choosing to target Jews. That’s a really deep question. And I think to get at that, we are going to have to review our educational system top to bottom. And the extent to which we’re teaching anti-Semitism and the persecution of Jews. We need to do more to build ties between groups of all dividing lines so that we can seek to minimize the kind of alienation and lack of familiarity which drives these attacks.

Tangle: I think the elephant in the room here that you sort of alluded to is that a lot of the attackers in news reports we’ve read about are people of color. You represent a diverse district, you’re also Jewish, how do you handle those two things? I think it’s a fair critique from the right that politicians are avoiding naming the fact that the perpetrators in these attacks are often black or Hispanic, at least in New York City.

Levine: Well the world is full of people who are willing to call it anti-Semitism when it comes from the opposite political camp. And that’s really easy to do and that’s not heroic. The truth is it’s coming from people left, right and center and from people with no political ideology at all. And we desperately need more people who are willing to call this out. The people on the right who are pointing to the fact that these recent attacks are coming out of communities of color are in no way heroic. Many of them are silent when Trump and his allies are making [anti-Semitic] comments. The truth is we have a ton of work to do in building relationships between the African-American community and the Jewish community and I would add the Latino community as well. Even in neighborhoods where we live very close to each other as we do in upper Manhattan, there are precious few deep personal relationships crossing this line. And that’s a failing that we all have to own. We all have got to move out of our comfort zone and build those relationships. That has to be the work of synagogues, of churches, of mosques, to break these barriers and build friendship and build familiarity across these lines.

As for why we see the preponderance of people of color committing these attacks, they seem to be people who are suffering from mental illness who are in crisis and in a few cases people who have been homeless. And tragically that does disproportionately emerge out of low-income communities of color. This reflects a failing of our society in dealing with mental illness but it also reflects a fact that when people on the margins strike out they are attacking communities that they see as “other” and that is often the Jewish community. That reflects very ancient phenomena as Jews being seen as other and as an alien force amongst us.

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Tangle: I think building bridges and community work is obviously going to be a part of the solution, but I think a lot of people are going to hear that and think it’s just empty political platitudes. On a practical level, one of the things that has been thrown around is increased police presence in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn. There have been mixed reactions to that proposal. I’m curious what you think about it? What’s a real answer here? How do we protect the Orthodox Jewish community here in New York City?

Levine: I think we need to be honest about the level of fear and I would even say panic in the Jewish world and the Orthodox world right now. It is so real and so visceral. There are people who are questioning whether they can go on the subway wearing a yarmulke. There are people who are asking the question of whether they need to consider leaving the country. It’s terrifying but it’s real. And they are crying out for more law enforcement protection at their houses of worship and in their neighborhoods and I do think we need to step up the presence of law enforcement around identifiable Jewish targets in heavily Jewish neighborhoods.

But Isaac, this attack Saturday night was in someone’s home. It happened to be the home of a rabbi next to a synagogue but it was a residential structure. We’re not going to be able to station a law enforcement officer outside of every [Jewish] home in America. That’s not a practical solution. That points to the more difficult long-term work at stopping these attacks before they occur. And that’s going to require the kind of investments in resources that I’ve been talking about. It’s a much longer-term proposition, but in the meantime, yes, we do need to step up the presence of law enforcement in these communities.

I also think there have been wildly irresponsible voices calling for the return of stop and frisk who are really calling for the return of Giuliani-esque style policing tactics. And I reject that. I don’t think that made us safer and I don’t think it’d make us safer now. I do think there are balanced proposals at increasing police presence that would help reassure vulnerable Jewish communities without returning to those kinds of tactics, without dividing us, and I think that’s what we need as a sane response.

Tangle: Another idea I’ve been seeing a lot of on Twitter and hearing people talk about is giving some Orthodox Jews or Jewish security guards the right to carry a concealed weapon in New York. Is that an idea you’d ever entertain?

Levine: I absolutely oppose the proliferation of firearms as a response to this crisis. I believe and the data supports that would only make us less safe. It’s one thing to call for the increased presence of professional law enforcement officials who are trained and accountable in the use of firearms or should at least be held accountable, but it’s another to have the mass proliferation of firearms in the hands of civilians. As we see in communities around the country with looser firearm laws, it only escalates the risk of violence. I believe it would make us less safe. That’s the kind of policy response we need to avoid making in the midst of these very raw emotions.

Tangle: From a personal perspective for you, what’s next on the agenda for what you’re looking to do in the coming weeks to respond and address this crisis?

Levine: We need to take our fight against anti-Semitism to the next level on every front. In our schools, to re-boot curriculum on anti-bias training, on Holocaust history, on the oppression of Jews and all people. We need to up our effort at inter-group relations and the city government has a role in that, in bringing groups together. Some of this is not the work of government, though. Some of this is the work of synagogues, of churches, of mosques, of civil society, who need to push their constituents out of their comfort zones and into collaboration and partnership with people of different backgrounds. That work needs to be redoubled. I’m going to do everything I can with the power that I have to advance this in the days and weeks ahead.

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