On a late June Friday evening, Marc Heinberg, a 61-year old man, was walking home from synagogue along Gravesend Neck Road; Neck Road to the locals. Neck Road is classic Brooklyn; a scattering of modest brick houses along a tree-lined street, but a short walk down “The Neck” takes you to Nostrand Avenue and from there to the Sheepshead-Nostrand housing projects where crime is common and life is cheap.
Sheepshead-Nostrand, where drug deals go down, shots are fired and gruesome murders are a local tradition, and the tree-lined portion of “The Neck” where Marc Heinberg was walking home, are two worlds apart. They are also less than a dozen blocks apart.
As Marc Heinberg walked home from his prayers, the hymns welcoming the Sabbath, the Day of Rest, still humming in his ears, he heard someone yell out, “dirty Jew.” On the old farm road, half-a-dozen African-American teenagers surrounded him, screaming racial slurs and pummeling him with their fists. The two worlds had collided, as they so often did, leaving pain and violence in their wake.
This ugly attack was one of a series of anti-Semitic incidents in Brooklyn; not the first of its kind, nor the last. There are many Jewish New Yorkers of Heinberg’s age who still remember lives and childhoods in Brownsville and the Bronx cut short by similar violence. Farther out the abandoned synagogues of Detroit and Newark tell the same story of a painful exodus from a new life in a new country, as families fled the spiraling racist violence of the community organizers and agitators of the sixties and seventies.
Even though New York State’s African-Americans make up 17.5 percent of the population, outnumbering the state’s Jewish population by 2 to 1, hate crime statistics for 2010 show that while 31.5 percent of hate crimes were aimed at Jews, only 19.7 percent were aimed at African-Americans. There are few statistics kept on the races of perpetrators, but there is an ugly history recorded in ashes, concussions and speeches going back a long way.
In Brooklyn, a Jewish schoolteacher and father of four lost consciousness after being brutally beaten by two minority teenagers who shouted “Jew, Jew.” Upstate in Monsey, four black teenagers sought out a Jewish victim and hit him with a knife. Incidents like this have become part of the fabric of life. An unspoken reality that everyone knows, but few talk about. Sometimes, as with the Crown Heights Pogrom, the violence explodes. Mostly it jabs like switchblades and broken glass.
Brooklyn is the city borough with the largest growing Jewish population, and by the logic of hate, it is also the growth area for anti-Semitic attacks. The Jewish communities of Brooklyn are composed of refugees, not only from Europe, but from lost communities in other parts of Brooklyn and other boroughs. Some grandmothers and grandfathers have stories about childhood homes in Poland and Germany that they can never return to, while others have similar stories about tree-lined lanes full of modest brick houses, just like “The Neck,” in Brownsville, the Bronx or Newark, home to a community of 70,000 Jews before the race riots; now home to nearly none.
After decades of a declining Jewish population in New York City, the Jewish communities of Brooklyn have tilted against the demographics of decline. The growing anti-Semitic violence is a sign that the thugs of decline are pushing back against the families making their private stand for the future on quiet streets in neighborhoods like Sheepshead Bay.
Their war is a quiet and private thing. It is won when a family moves into a new home, when a grocery store stays in business and a school opens for another year. It is won by children playing in backyards and by old men walking home from synagogue. There are casualties in the war. Assaults, fires, vandalism and swastikas scrawled on windows—sometimes by teenagers whom the bearers of the Swastika flag would have considered subhuman. But in Brooklyn, the swastika does not stand for the Thousand Year Reich. It stands for hating Jews.
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