Since the end of the Shoah, Brooklyn, N.Y., has been a bastion of global Jewish life—and its renowned Jewish population, a pillar of political clout. It also happens to be the place where I spent the first quarter-century of my life, so hearing about the swastikas carved into the very sidewalks that I grew up on just this past weekend literally hits home.
In fact, my newly married cousin is currently making his home just blocks away from this latest incident on Newkirk Avenue in the vicinity of both a plethora of synagogues and a branch of Touro College. I know well the streets where my cousin is planting his roots as it is in the apartment formerly occupied by his parents, around whose table I sat many a time on a Friday night reveling in the Sabbath cheer.
I worry about my young cousin. I worry and wonder if the community has changed so much since the more than decade and a half when I took a well-traveled path to the suburbs. I worry about whether the community has changed to the point where his wife, who originates from Florida, will not see this historic Jewish enclave as a safe and secure place to raise their family.
While I may have moved to Englewood, N.J., some years back, I sadly cannot say that moving out of the city has protected me from such demonstrations of hate. Just a year and a half ago, a nearby football field at the Dwight Englewood High School was littered with shaving-cream swastikas just blocks from my home.
I hear both from reports and from personal friends and family in the Five Towns area on Long Island, another destination to which many former Brooklyn Jews have relocated since my childhood, that the situation is no different there. Just last year, the Long Island Rail Road station in Cedarhurst was similarly vandalized along with similarly drawn swastikas in front of local Jewish homes.
This story is not only about Brooklyn, but rather about the continuing challenge to our community’s pledge: “Never Again.”
In my time at the Simon Wiesenthal Center I have learned a great deal about swastikas, and about those who use such hateful symbols in expressing themselves against us who are proud to be Jews.
Sometimes the mostly young perpetrators may not fully understand the significance of the swastika. Others want to intimidate and set the stage for worse. Let’s hope the police catch the perpetrator in the Newkirk Avenue incident, but we at the Simon Wiesenthal Center are also committed to work with community leaders—to make sure the incident becomes a teaching moment for all New Yorkers.
It is not enough for those beyond the walls of our community to know that it is something that makes their Jewish neighbors uneasy. Rather, they must understand that the swastika represents something so much deeper—the desire to threaten world Jewry.
I hope that my young cousin does not look to this incident as something to turn his eyes away from, but rather to understand that there is no running away from anti-Semitism. I hope that in hearing about these other instances throughout the tristate area, he understands that this is exactly the time to stand up and be counted.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center stands proudly on the frontlines each and every day. Our strength, especially in a place known for its deep Jewish roots such as Brooklyn, is to consistently show a zero-tolerance policy toward all forms of hate. It is also to make sure those both among and around our neighborhoods understand the significance of an incident such as the one perpetrated and become our partners in educating all within earshot of the shame that it collectively brings. We must make sure that the mantra of every individual can make a difference in this regard. It is far more than lip service; it is the truth. We urge each and every one of you to join with us to make a difference for our children, our community and our future.
Michael D. Cohen is the eastern director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.