The punch in the eye that Blake Zavadsky received on Monday followed the assailant’s asking, “Why are you in our neighborhood?” The victim was wearing a hoodie with the logo of the Israeli Army while shopping at a Foot Locker in Bay Ridge with his friend Ilan Kaganovich.
“He punched me two times over here,” Zavadsky said, pointing at his left eye in a video shared by Brooklyn Councilwoman Inna Vernikov. “Afterwards he threw iced coffee all over my sweatshirt.” The victims added that the manager and employees of the Foot Locker on 86th Street witnessed the attack and did not intervene.
“I can’t believe this happened,” said Kaganovich, who was warned not to intervene or risk being punched. “We should be able to wear whatever we want to wear. Blake and I are Jewish – we should support Israel without it being a problem. My family moved from the Soviet Union for this reason – to be able to live a better life.”
The attack was quickly condemned by local elected officials, with the NYPD investigating it as a hate crime. Governor Kathy Hochul also instructed the state police to provide assistance in the investigation.
“These boys’ families escaped the former Soviet Union precisely because of incidents such as this one,” said Vernikov, who emigrated from Ukraine as a child. “We escaped to this country for freedom of religion, and here we go again, getting beaten up in broad daylight in the middle of Brooklyn, New York, in the United States of America, in 2021.”
While the suspect remains at large, the broader question is whether it is safe for a visible Jew or Zionist to walk the streets of a neighborhood that has a sizable Arab American community. This past May, a massive crowd marched through the neighborhood to mark the anniversary of the Nakba – the Palestinian term for “catastrophe” as they regard the rebirth of the Jewish state.
The rally appeared spontaneous, generated by social media to disrupt traffic. Participants climbed on buses and lampposts while chanting “from the river to the sea,” and for a third intifada. Although that week there was an Israeli retaliatory strike against Hamas positions in Gaza, the rally was in protest of the very existence of Israel, rather than a specific action by its government.
Unlike the cities of Western Europe, where Jews understand that they would not receive the protection of the police if they walk in certain neighborhoods, in this country freedom of expression is protected in all locations, at all times. “Anti-Semitism isn’t just a problem for Jews. It’s a problem for ALL of us. Where anti-Semitism exists so does hate and discrimination of all kinds.” tweeted Councilman Justin Brannan, whose district covers Bay Ridge. “This is reprehensible and not what our diverse community is about. These actions must be condemned by all.”
In our community, respect for the First Amendment is exemplified at the Celebrate Israel Parade, where there is always a contingent of anti-Israel protesters at the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 59th Street. Raised to support Israel and personally connected to victims of terrorism, our youths may feel tempted to strike or curse these demonstrators, but their teachers and rebbeim taught them to maintain distance and walk quietly past them.
Likewise, when anti-Israel protesters walked through the Diamond District last May, there was no physical retaliation for their presence in this visibly Jewish block of Midtown Manhattan. The opposite happened, with Lawrence resident Joseph Borgen punched and pepper-sprayed by anti-Israel activists.
“I wasn’t wearing anything Israeli, or carrying a flag,” Borgen told the Arutz Sheva news site. “Just my yarmulka. So, when people see a yarmulka, they think Jews and Israel. It goes hand in hand.”
In this country, no neighborhood truly belongs to a specific ethnicity or religion. As there are laws against discrimination in housing and public facilities, freedom of expression also has no borders. That there were indifferent bystanders and local activists who tweet about Islamophobia but are silent on antisemitism shows that our security cannot be taken for granted. Such laws have strength only as long as there are public officials, agencies, and a populace that uphold them.
By Sergey Kadinsky