NEW YORK — A pro-Israel protest took place in New York City yesterday after a Jewish man wearing an Israeli military shirt was assaulted. A counterprotest in opposition to Israel organized by a Palestinian solidarity group and an anti-Israel Jewish sect also occurred.
On Dec. 26, Blake Zavadsky and Ilan Kaganovich were walking in the city borough of Brooklyn when they were physically and verbally assaulted by two men. Zavadsky told the New York Post that he was wearing an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) sweatshirt at the time and that the assailants shouted anti-Jewish slurs at them. The New York City Police Department subsequently released an image of one of the alleged attackers. A police spokesperson told Al-Monitor today that they are still seeking the suspect.
The incident prompted several Jewish groups and Republican city councilwoman Inna Vernikov to organize a march against anti-Semitism, which took place yesterday in Brooklyn. A flyer for the event stated that attendees should wear IDF sweatshirts like the victim had on.
Joe Diamond, from Brooklyn, wore an IDF shirt to the march. He said that his issue is not with criticism of Israel, but with Jews being attacked and people questioning Israel’s right to exist.
“Some anger is justified, but not attacking Jews in the street, not saying Israel doesn’t have a right to exist,” he told Al-Monitor at the march.
Diamond said that opposition to Zionism, which holds that Jews have a right to self-determination in the land of Israel, is the same as hatred of Jews.
“Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. Zionism is the dream of a Jewish homeland and safe haven,” he said.
The assault of the man in the IDF hoodie was fresh on many attendees’ minds.
“I don’t think we should be beaten up,” Olga Shraer, also in an IDF shirt, told Al-Monitor. “I support Jews walking freely.”
“The issue here is hate,” former New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind told Al-Monitor. “This is New York. What right do you have to physically assault someone?”
A counterprotest took place across the street. The event was organized by the pro-Palestine activist group Al-Awda and the Jewish sect Neturei Karta. Zack Raja, also from Brooklyn, said he came to oppose “normalizing” people wearing IDF garb.
Members of Neturei Karta and supporters of Al-Awda in New York (Adam Lucente/Al-Monitor)
“We can’t normalize people wearing an IDF hoodie. It’s a symbol of hate,” he told Al-Monitor.
Raja added that some Palestinians feel “trauma” when they see the IDF emblem, a reference to the Israeli military’s actions against Palestinians.
On the assault, Raja said he does not support violence, but that both men were wrong.
“I don’t condone any violence, but both were in the wrong,” he said. “You don’t go around wearing that.”
Many of the counterprotesters were from Neturei Karta, a group of devout Jews who oppose the state of Israel on religious grounds. The group is controversial, even among other religious Haredi Jews who are not Zionists. Neturei Karta is particularly known for attending a conference in Iran in 2006 that sought to “review” the Holocaust. Neturei Karta leadership said at the time that they believe the Holocaust occurred and that they went to the conference to show that not all Jews support Israel.
Joseph Cohen, from Brooklyn, came to the counterprotest with other Neturei Karta members.
“I’m here to denounce the Zionists who came out in support of Israel,” he told Al-Monitor at the event.
Cohen also said he does not condone the assault of the man in the IDF shirt, but that the ultimate blame lies with Israel.
“It’s also not justified to identify with such a military,” he said. “I’m not condoning attacking another person, but who ignited the fire? The state of Israel.”
Neturei Karta often protests at pro-Israel events throughout North America, sometimes alongside pro-Palestine organizations. Raja said he considers the group “allies.”
Yesterday's march and the assault also elicited a reaction from the Israeli consulate in New York.
"In America and in Israel, no one should be violently attacked simply for the clothes they were or for being a Jew, a Muslim, or a Christian," spokesman Itay Milner told Al-Monitor in a statement. "That's what happened in Brooklyn last week and the Consulate General of Israel in New York supports all those who are pushing back against this senseless hate and brutality."
New York City has large Jewish and Arab communities, and some residents are visibly divided over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During the May war in Israel and the Palestinian territories, there were protests in solidarity with both Israelis and Palestinians in the city. The two protest camps clashed at times. The Bay Ridge neighborhood in Brooklyn has a particularly strong Palestinian solidarity movement.