It seems like forever ago, but think back to a time before COVID. The biggest scourge facing the Jewish community was a rise in anti-Semitic incidents. The major attacks at the end of 2019 resulted in the deaths of several people. There was a march against anti-Semitism across the Brooklyn Bridge. President Trump signed a law protecting Jews on college campuses. Once COVID began, we started dealing with a whole new crisis.
But the disaster that still is COVID has brought out a brand-new issue similar to what Jews face in another population. COVID’s impact has been felt by the entire world for its medical, economic, political, and social implications. But there is one aspect of COVID that has had an outsized effect on one community in particular. No group has suffered more physical violence as a backlash of COVID than the Asian community. In case you have only awoken to this story in light of the horrific attacks in Georgia last week, let me paint a picture. Since the arrival of COVID, attacks against Asian-Americans increased by 1,900% in New York City in 2020. Similar increases have been shown in major cities with large Asian-American communities, such as San Francisco and Oakland.
This increase prompted US Representative Grace Meng (D-NY) to sponsor a resolution that denounced the anti-Asian sentiment that occurred as a result of the pandemic, a resolution that was put forward in March of 2020, but not passed in the House until September. While Representative Meng made special note that then-President Trump and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy referred to COVID as the “China Virus” or the “Wuhan Virus,” the bill does make it seem that the hatred against the Asian community is a one-sided issue.
Upon closer examination, anti-Asian violence is eerily similar to anti-Semitic violence. Let’s first look at who is committing these egregious acts. Yes, many of these crimes have been committed by white attackers such as the murder of at least eight people in Georgia. But there are members of other communities committing these attacks, as well, such as the assault and robbery of a 64-year-old Vietnamese woman in San Jose, or a 61-year-old man who was slashed with a box cutter on a New York subway, or a 91-year-old man being thrown to the ground in Oakland. By the way, we do not know the individual political affiliations of the attackers, but these perpetrators belong to cities and populations that consistently lean heavily blue. Like the Asian communities, Jews face violence from all sides of the political aisle. And like anti-Semitism, the only consistency in anti-Asian hate crimes is the target, not the perpetrator.
As the pandemic has worn on, the attacks have gotten progressively worse. At the beginning, we were witnessed to an elderly man who was viciously attacked and humiliated while collecting bottles in San Francisco. We saw the violence escalate very quickly to where there have been full-blown murders of innocent Asian people. And this is where the similarities to the anti-Semitic attacks of 2019 continue. If you recall back to 2013-14, a trend of the game “knockout the Jew” began playing out in New York. Passing by a random Jew in the street and trying to knock him unconscious was an actual game being played. The escalation over the next several years led to the aforementioned 2019 rampages.
The next similarity is the motivation for the violence. Whether it is anti-Asian or anti-Semitic, the motives are the same. People are looking to blame a segment of the population for the problems they face. “I am poor living in a rundown apartment with little job prospects and my entire neighborhood is in terrible condition? Must be the Jewish landlord’s fault.” So they go and attack a Jew (not even the actual landlord). “We’ve been on lockdown for a year because of a pandemic that originated in China? Must be the fault of the old man right over there.” Again, just picking on a random person who fits the racist description. “I don’t have as much of an important role in society as my grandfather enjoyed? Well, what’s changed in the last 50 years? Jews and Asians have risen to prominence. It must be their fault.”
And this leads to the final similarity. Asians and Jews are widely seen as successful segments of the American population. Asian-Americans are actually the highest earning community by race in this country. Jewish-Americans are thought of as having a high income, as well. Aspiring for the high-paying careers like doctors and lawyers, high value on education, and a strong familial connection are common in both cultures. But this doesn’t describe everyone. We all suffer. How does punching a random person walking to synagogue solve problems? Why does taking away the bottles collected by a man win the day? They don’t. They are coming from places of hate perpetrated against innocent victims. And it’s time that the Jewish community allies itself with the one community in this country that shares many of the same values, as well as the same enemies.
The Jewish community must open its eyes. While we tend to think of ourselves as the most targeted group in the country, know that this is only because those perpetuating the violence are only waiting for an excuse to attack others they see as the cause for their troubles. As our society and culture continues to promote victimhood mentality as the cause for all suffering, and stray away from personal responsibility, many will be looking to scapegoat different populations as the cause for their individual or group issues. Yesterday it was the Jews. Today, it’s the Asian community. As soon as another community becomes easy to identify as the cause for suffering, they will become targets, as well, and we should be there to defend that group. For now, we must stand with our Asian neighbors and perhaps have the communities grow closer as a result.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.