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Jewish Community Denounces Anti-Semitic Attacks Fueled by a “White Nationalist Administration”

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Federal prosecutors have filed hate crime charges against the man accused of stabbing five Jewish worshipers with a machete during a Hanukkah celebration at a rabbi’s home in a heavily ultra-Orthodox New York suburb of Monsey. They say the suspect, Grafton Thomas, kept journals that had references to Adolf Hitler, “Nazi culture” and a drawing of a swastika, and his cellphone showed multiple online searches for “Why did Hitler hate the Jews.” His family and lawyers say he is mentally ill. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has called the attack “domestic terrorism,” and several Jewish elected officials in New York have asked him to declare a state of emergency and to deploy the National Guard to “visibly patrol and protect” Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods. It was New York’s 13th anti-Semitic incident in three weeks and comes after a shooting at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City in which two assailants killed three people before police shot them dead after an hours-long shootout. A new Associated Press database counts more mass killings in 2019 than any year dating back to at least the 1970s. We speak with Audrey Sasson, executive director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and Alex Yablon, a reporter who covers guns, extremism and mass shootings.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Federal prosecutors have filed hate crime charges against the man accused of stabbing five Jewish worshipers with a machete during a Hanukkah celebration at a rabbi’s home in a heavily ultra-Orthodox New York suburb of Monsey. They say the suspect, Grafton Thomas, kept journals that had references to Adolf Hitler, “Nazi culture” and a drawing of a swastika. Officials said Grafton’s cellphone showed multiple online searches for, quote, “Why did Hitler hate the Jews.” His family and lawyer say he was mentally ill. This is attorney Michael Sussman.

MICHAEL SUSSMAN: My impression from speaking with him is that he needs serious psychiatric evaluation. And that is the primary focus. I don’t know whether those who are making these charges have spent a moment speaking with him or relating to him, but my impression from what I have read and my conversation with him is these are severe psychiatric issues.

AMY GOODMAN: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has called the attack “domestic terrorism,” and several Jewish elected officials in New York have asked him to declare a state of emergency and to deploy the National Guard to visibly patrol and protect Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods. This is New York’s 13th anti-Semitic incident in three weeks and follows a shooting at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, New Jersey, in which two assailants killed three people before police shot them dead after an hours-long shootout.

This comes as a new Associated Press database counts more mass killings in 2019 than any year dating back to at least the 1970s. These recent attacks have renewed calls for increased security and the right to be armed in places of worship.

For more, we’re joined here in New York by Audrey Sasson, executive director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. Also with us, via video stream, is reporter Alex Yablon. He formerly wrote for The Trace, a news outlet that covers America’s gun violence crisis. His recent analysis for Jewish Currents is headlined “Contextualizing the Jersey City Shooting,” and his article for Slate is “How to Neutralize a Militia: Nearly every state has the legal tools to crack down on paramilitaries. Why don’t they use them?”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Audrey, let’s begin with you. Your reaction to what took place in Monsey against the Hasidic community there?

AUDREY SASSON: So, clearly, we’re outraged and devastated, and the Jewish community, as a whole, is both in mourning and scared. And so, that’s very real. What is really powerful about how our community is also responding right now is that we believe that the answers to what is happening is not more policing, necessarily, or not policing as the only response. And so, our focus is to build solidarity with other groups targeted by anti-Semitism.

So, anti-Semitism is on the rise. It is in the water. It is being fueled by a white nationalist administration. And it is in the water, and it is everywhere. And it is causing a rise in hate crimes across the board. The way it shows up against Jews is different than the way it shows up against other communities, but all communities are targeted by white supremacy and white nationalism. And so, our response is to come together with other communities that are targeted.

AMY GOODMAN: How is it different, when you explain how it’s expressed?

AUDREY SASSON: Yes. It’s different in — you know, simply put, it’s different in that anti-Semitism is a tool that punches up against Jews, in that it portrays Jews as and positions Jews as powerful, whereas a lot of the other oppressions, that we’re used to sort of learning about and teaching about and interrupting, punch down. That’s a sort of like shorthand for saying that it deems those communities as inferior, mostly black and brown communities, and that white supremacy, sort of, and capitalism together are interlocked in a way that needs both of these oppressions to happen simultaneously, so that when oppression against marginalized communities, black and brown and immigrant communities, is happening, they have — they leave — the sort of anti-Semitism is used as a lever to shift the blame onto Jews as scapegoats. And so they are portrayed as powerful, and then anger, rightful anger, about real, real problems, are unleashed against Jews, as opposed to the real sort of sources of the oppression that people are struggling with.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you were a part of and helped to lead a major protest this weekend.

AUDREY SASSON: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: A multicultural protest. Explain who was there.

AUDREY SASSON: Yes. It was — I would even maybe dare to call it not so much a protest as a ritual gathering, a public — this sort of defiant public gathering of Jews of all backgrounds, secular and to ultra-Orthodox, Haredi and Chabad Jews alongside Jews who maybe observe once a year, and our allies, Muslim allies, who showed up in force, and other, you know, POC community allies and leaders that we have worked with as an organization — JFREJ has worked across the board with grassroots groups across the city — that came to show their solidarity and support. And so, we went to Grand Army Plaza on the eighth night of Hanukkah to mark the closing of this holiday, that has been marked by so much violence, with an evening of public ritual. Hundreds of people gathered within hours of a call to mobilization. And they came out to say, “We are here. We’re not going to go underground. We’re going to stand in solidarity with other targeted communities. And that’s what’s going to keep us safe.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, African Americans, Muslims, many people join you.

AUDREY SASSON: Immigrant, Muslim and — yes, and African-American, and from a lot of grassroots organizations that do a lot of this work with us, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Alex Yablon, I wanted to bring you into this conversation. This is New York’s, it’s estimated, 13th anti-Semitic incident in three weeks, following a shooting at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City in which two assailants killed three people before police shot them dead in an hours-long shootout. You wrote specifically about this in talking about contextualizing this. Respond to this latest attack, before we also then talk about Texas and this new report out that hate crimes are up this year, higher than at any time in half a century.

ALEX YABLON: Sure. So, what I see the two recent attacks on ultra-Orthodox Jews having in common is that, you know, they both seem to have been committed by fairly isolated, disturbed people. There’s not an indication like there is — like we’ve seen in more explicitly white nationalist anti-Semitic attacks, like the Poway synagogue shooting in California or the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in 2018, that these people — you know, the perpetrators were enmeshed in networks, an online subculture of really fleshed-out anti-Semitism that valorized acts of mass violence like this. In both cases, these appear to be people — in both the Jersey City case and the Monsey case, the incidents appear to have been carried out by people who seem to have been, for lack of a better word, self-radicalized or, you know, not necessarily part of a movement that advocates this kind of behavior. That stands in stark contrast to the white power movement, which, you know, has a kind of a playbook for carrying out these kinds of attacks.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Texas. The man who shot and killed two people at Sunday services at a church in the town called White Settlement has been identified as Keith Thomas Kinnunen, and he had a criminal past dating back more than a decade, including arrests for assault, battery, theft. His victims identified as Anton Wallace and Richard White. The shooter was killed by an armed parishioner. A pair of state laws adopted since 2017 authorize armed security details at houses of worship and also allow parishioners to bring their own licensed concealed weapons to church. This is Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaking Monday on Fox News.

ATTORNEY GENERAL KEN PAXTON: This church was prepared. And they are an example of what can be done. And within six seconds, they dealt with the issue and saved potentially hundreds of people. I hope that other churches around the country will adopt policies like this, and we can stop losing so many people when these incidences occur.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Alex Yablon, if you can respond to this and the AP report, this new database that’s being compiled that’s showing hate crimes increased this year more than any time in half a century?

ALEX YABLON: Sure. So, it’s certainly true that this shooting in Texas could have been much worse if people did not respond so quickly with deadly force. And I don’t want to denigrate the quick thinking or the courage of the parishioners who responded. But, you know, it has to be said that that’s the sort of the end of a long line of policy failures. The fact that the suspect in the Texas church shooting was able to get a gun at all is outrageous. He had a really extensive list of violent criminal history. He had been accused, in a filing for a restraining order by his ex-wife, of really disturbing behavior, frequent arsons, and emotional abuse of his son, who lived in terror of him. And yet he was able to get a shotgun.

And, you know, that’s the — the burden that is placed on the parishioners, who have to come into church armed, or believe they have to come into church armed, and respond in this way, they only have to do that because they live in a state where the flow of weapons is so poorly controlled. You know, this is — it’s sort of like praising — you know, I tweeted it’s sort of like a slumlord in the 1970s South Bronx praising the firefighters. You know, yes, they’re behaving heroically, but why do they have to respond to these horrible incidents in the first place?

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to clarify this AP database. This new Associated Press database counts more mass killings in 2019 than any year dating back to at least the 1970s. Audrey Sasson, if you can also respond to this issue and how you feel hate crimes need to be dealt with today? And in the case of the Monsey attack, the machete attack on the Jewish worshipers, the lawyer for the alleged attacker says that he is mentally ill, that he suffers from schizophrenia.

AUDREY SASSON: Yes. I think that we have to look at hate crimes in a very holistic and comprehensive way. People who might be suffering from mental illness, living in a society in which anti-Semitism and racism and all of these oppressions are mixed in, that is a dangerous combination, you know, clearly. We’re seeing it now because anti-Semitism has risen to the surface with the sort of bigoted rhetoric coming out of the highest offices of the land, giving permission, in a sense, to those who might be unstable to unleash.

And so, our approach and the approach of grassroots community organizations to hate crimes is actually to think about what our preventive and restorative and repair approach is. So we’re part of this coalition of grassroots groups, nine groups across the city, representing all targeted communities — Muslim, Jewish, LGBT and beyond — who are seeking together a way to decriminalize — to reduce our reliance on police, which right now is the only answer.

And I think, like Alex was saying, what is the source of the issue? So, you know, if you ask someone — of course, everyone wants to be safe. We all need to be safe, and we all need to be able to not have to look over our shoulders. That is everyone’s right — black communities, Jewish communities, black Jewish communities, where this overlaps. And so, bringing more police into communities of color, where there are also largely more white Jews living alongside black people, is going to overcriminalize — continue to overcriminalize that community. And we think that that will actually reduce our security and our safety.

So, for hate violence, the Hate Violence Prevention Initiative is looking to think about hate crimes from the perspective of what is the root of it and how do we bring Teshuvah, which is a Jewish term of repair, so enacting more restorative justice, more community control and bringing a whole other lens to hate violence. We don’t want to increase the punishment; we want to actually change the paradigm as we think about it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. I want to thank Audrey Sasson, who is the executive director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, JFREJ, and Alex Yablon, who reports on guns, extremism and mass shootings.

When we come back, media legend Pat Mitchell on Becoming a Dangerous Woman, as she talks about leading activists and artists and political figures, from Mary Robinson to Ava DuVernay to Ai-jen Poo. Stay with us.

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