There are hate crimes, and there are hate crimes. Swastikas and cemetary desecration make the news. Housing discrimination doesn't.

 

“911, WHAT’S THE EMERGENCY?” asked the dispatcher.

“There’s a woman who looks like an Orthodox Jew in the park. Please send the police,” the caller implored.

That call was received this past year by the police department in Mahwah, New Jersey. You would think that the police just laughed at the caller. You would be wrong. This past June, the Town of Mahwah, which borders New York’s Rockland County, passed a law intended to stop Orthodox Jews from visiting their parks. You don’t have to take my word for it. According to the New Jersey Attorney General, who filed a law suit against Mahwah six weeks ago, these were “unlawful and discriminatory actions” targeting Orthodox Jews.

Technically, the law bars all non-Jersey residents from using Mahwah’s parks. However, during the Mahwah council hearing, resident after resident testified that the law was meant to target Orthodox Jews. One resident encouraged the council to pass the law because “the Hasidics have been making themselves very comfortable in our town parks.”

After the law passed, a local non-Jewish resident was concerned. His mom lived in New York. On her visits to Mahwah, she often took her grandkids to the park. Wouldn’t she be breaking the law?

There was no need to worry, the Mahwah Council President  Robert Hermansen, the mastermind of this law, allegedly told this resident in an email.  The law was not intended to cover her situation, he explained.

According to the FBI, while Jews comprise just 2.2% of the American population, they are the subjects of 53.7% of religious hate crimes. But there are hate crimes, and there are hate crimes. When a shul is emblazoned with a swastika, it makes the evening news. When a Jewish cemetery is vandalized, the newspapers carry the shocking photos. But when Jews are discriminated against in housing — silence.

Lest you think this phenomenon is limited to towns with small Jewish populations, let me tell you about a story you likely never heard, which happened right here in New York City.

FOR THE LAST FOUR YEARS, I have chaired New York City’s Land Use committee. In short, my committee has the final say on all zoning and affordable housing development in New York City. If you own a gas station and want to knock it down to build an apartment building, you have to come to us. I have worked on over 1,000 projects in that time. Lately, I have witnessed something disturbing: opposition to Orthodox Jewish developers right here in New York City.

Just last month, the Rabsky Group, a respected real estate developer, came to the New York City Council seeking approval to build 1,100 units of housing in Williamsburg. That’s right, Williamsburg, the heart of New York’s chassidic Jewish community.

They offered to build 300 units of affordable housing in return for the council granting them permission to build on a vacant lot once owned by Pfizer. While we heard the usual concerns from opponents about the height and heft of the project, there were no major issues from a zoning standpoint that we couldn’t resolve through standard negotiations.

Apparently there was a different kink we hadn’t foreseen. During the council hearing, the lawyer representing the main group opposed to the project testified that we should vote against it because the developer was, you guessed it, chassidish. He went on to testify that there was secret Jewish money trading hands, which should certainly disqualify the developer.

When I pressed the lawyer on this shocking allegation of financial impropriety and asked him what information he had to confirm his explosive claim, he backed off and admitted that it was just “rumor" and "idle speculation."

After the hearing, when this group realized that they were likely going to lose the vote, they sent me a letter demanding that I recuse myself from the vote because I was Jewish. Of course, they leaked it to the papers first.

Even the New York Daily News sided with me. The News penned an editorial slamming the group titled “A Vast Jewish Conspiracy: An anti-Semitic attack against housing.” We approved the project so that the developer could build over 1100 desperately needed units of housing. That should have been the happy ending. The problem is that the group is not going away.

In fact, they sued the city on another project, the Broadway Triangle, because the city gave a piece of that project to a local Jewish non-profit group to develop. Just this past week, to settle the case, the city took away that project from the local Jewish group and put it up for a re-bid.

SADLY, using real estate and zoning laws to discriminate against Orthodox Jews is nothing new. At Brooklyn Law School, I teach my students about the Tenafly eiruv case, an ugly protracted suit that made it all the way to the United States Court of Appeals. 


It took four years for the court to rule that preventing Jewish residents from building an eiruv is discrimination. Even though that is now the law of the land in New Jersey, townships routinely ignore it. Three towns are currently being sued for refusing to allow Jewish residents to build an eiruv.

Why do local towns fight the eiruv? An eiruv today is barely visible; most use invisible strings and translucent lechis that can hardly be distinguished. The opposition stems from simple anti-Semitism; they know that an eiruv makes a community attractive to Orthodox Jewish families.

Not only is this story not being told, but the one time that it got national press, surprisingly it was in the New York Times. Not surprisingly, the Times blamed the victim. “The influx,” the New York Times wrote of Orthodox Jews who’ve resettled in new neighborhoods, “has provoked tensions with long-established residents.”

Can you imagine if any other ethnic group was blamed for moving into a new town and “provoking tensions”? The condemnation would be swift. Yet not a single Jewish group criticized the Times for blaming the Jews.

Those groups should heed the voice of the brave New Jersey Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino who, when announcing his lawsuit, said: “Of course, in this case we allege the target of the small-minded bias is not African-Americans, but Orthodox Jews. Nonetheless, the hateful message is the same.”


Anti-Semitism is on the rise in the US and the next battle is not over swastikas or cemeteries — it’s over housing.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 689. David G. Greenfield is a lawyer, adjunct law professor, and senior member of the New York City Council. For the past 15 years he has worked at the highest levels of city, state, and federal government. In this column, he explores timely issues from the vantage point of “the Insider.”