The violence in Israel for two weeks has spilled out into the rest of the world. Jews in multiple countries have been attacked for what is perceived as Israel’s crimes. Anti-Semitic violence is back up to pre-COVID levels, and here in New York is no exception. Last Thursday, Joseph Borgen was brutally attacked on the streets of Manhattan, and he joined me for a conversation this week about the incident and what he wants to happen moving forward.
Izzo Zwiren: Joseph, thank you so much for joining me. I know it’s a traumatic time for you. And I appreciate your taking the time to speak with me.
Joseph Borgen: Thank you. Yeah, I appreciate you having me. Now that I’m okay and recovering, the least I can do is to try to bring some positivity to the situation.
Izzo: Walk us through what happened.
Joseph: I was planning on attending a rally as I had done the prior Tuesday or Wednesday, in the same location at 47th and Seventh. The rally was called for 5:30. I finished work approximately 6 p.m., hopped on the Q line at the subway and got off at 57th and Seventh, as I did the week prior. I was in the process of texting my friends, finding out where they were exactly, in order to meet up with them. They were a couple blocks away, at 48th and Broadway. When I turned around, I reacted to someone chasing me, with the arm cocked back looking, and he punched me in the face. Before I got to react, I was surrounded by a crowd of people who proceeded to kick me and punch me with crutches and flagpoles. And then, towards the end, they pepper-sprayed and maced me, which was the icing on top, honestly.
Izzo: Wow. So to be clear, no provocation.
Joseph: I was just wearing my yarmulke walking down the street. That was the only thing. I wasn’t wearing an Israeli flag. I wasn’t wearing an Israeli shirt or any kind of Israeli representation, besides the fact that I was wearing a kipah.
Izzo: There was no way to avoid it. They came on you pretty quickly, right?
Joseph: It’s like glimpses in my head and in patches, but I just remember turning around and seeing someone, and before I could even flee or do anything, there was just a whole herd of them. And then basically, I just fell to the ground, guarded my head and face, and just held on and braced for it.
Izzo: A lot of us have seen that video. We kind of know how long it lasted. From the video it looked like it lasted about a minute, minute and a half. But how long did that feel to you being in it?
Joseph: I’ve only seen the video that you’re referring to a couple of times; it’s very hard for me to watch. Unfortunately, every time I appear on the news, it’s the lead-in, and I try to turn away; it makes me cringe. But the whole experience in itself was, in reality, probably two or three minutes. But to me, it seemed like it was going on for an eternity. I just remember blow after blow and just holding on. Eventually, I guess, an officer picked me up and I realized that, at that point, I was safe, and had some adrenaline and kind of fought back for a second. But then yeah, I collapsed to the ground. And from that point forward, it was very difficult.
Izzo: From that first picture we saw to now, you look a lot better.
Joseph: I’m getting there.
Izzo: Some people go through these traumatic incidents and then decide later on that they want to keep it private. What made you decide you were going to be public?
Joseph: I got such a wave of support when that video came out. My phone was at 1%. When I went to the hospital, I called my parents to let them know the situation – where I was. My father arrived at the hospital, and my phone actually was off from that point forward, till I got home that night. When I got home, I maybe had hundreds of messages from people who were out there supporting me; “we are here for you – anything you could possibly need.” Honestly, feeling that behind me motivated me to come forward and try to make a difference.
Izzo: You had interviews that started immediately the next day. How has your experience with the press been?
Joseph: It has been very positive overall. I haven’t seen any way for them to distort what took place. The proof is in the pudding, you know what I mean? So a lot of times – I’m not gonna say names – the press may take one thing and misconstrue it a certain way. But thankfully, everything I’ve seen has been trying to just get the message out and denounce anti-Semitism.
Izzo: What about your experience with the police?
Joseph: Initially, they just dispersed the crowd, got everyone out of there, and made sure I was okay. From that point forward, honestly, they were by my side. They cornered off the whole street. They brought cop cars everywhere. They called the ambulance. I recall them yelling, “We need it quick! Get him! Get him! Get him!” They were running into the store, getting me water constantly for my face. And then in the hospital, while I was getting worked on, I must have met with 15 to 20 different individuals from the Hate Crime Unit and various other departments. And even today, another detective reached out to me and said, “Before you even hear from anyone else, we caught another guy.” The fact that they’re already pushing the wheels of justice in motion is great. I couldn’t be more commendable of NYPD.
Izzo: Has anybody from the pro-Palestinian side reached out to you and try to bridge a divide?
Joseph: I’ve received various random messages on social media from people of all faiths and religions in support. In terms of specific organizations, I can’t cite any. I don’t want to make a generalization for the nation as a whole, because individuals have reached out to me. You know, Palestinians, Asians have reached out to me.
Izzo: What is your message to other Jews? Should we change our patterns of behavior?
Joseph: I don’t think I would stop wearing my yarmulke; I will still wear my kipah out in public. I want to say maybe I’m being a little naive. But the fact that I was attending a rally in close proximity [to where I was attacked] heightened the threat level that I was wearing a kipah. I’ve been back to my apartment on the Upper East Side and I feel a little more secure, but still a little shaken up, looking over my shoulder. People have asked me if I would to go to a rally again, for example. And I would go to a rally again. I would wear my kipah, but I think in hindsight and in retrospect, I’d probably make sure I go with the crowd of people, maybe meet up with friends. Or if I’m walking back from shul on a Friday night, maybe walk with a couple of people. It can’t hurt. I know you never can “totally” [be completely safe], but it’s less of a target and less of a threat if you’re with a crowd of people.
Izzo: Do you have a message for the people who attacked you?
Joseph: Initially, I really just wanted to sit down with the attackers and just figure out, Why do you hate me so much? What did I do? You don’t even know me. That was really my initial impression. I’ve seen some things the past 48 hours that kind of made me reconsider that position, such as lack of remorse, being paraded around on your friends’ shoulders like you’re a hero. Those things have really stuck with me and bothered me. So at the same time, while I really wanted to understand, at this point I just want justice. Whoever partook in the assault should get justice served, because if there’s no remorse, there’s no empathy, no sympathy, then they could just easily do it to someone else.
Izzo: If one of them were to show remorse, would you be willing to sit down with him?
Joseph: Yeah, I would sit down with him if one of them showed remorse. I would. I highly doubt it would happen. Maybe I’m being skeptical and cynical after what took place. But, for example, I saw in the video, the man in the pink shirt appears to be helping me out. I’ve made numerous mentions to him if [he] wanted to sit down and talk to me, have a drink, I would love that. Because if he was helping me out and put himself in harm’s way, that’s amazing.
Izzo: What message do you have for the rest of the world?
Joseph: The rise in anti-Semitism, and even the rise in hate against other ethnicities such as Asian Americans, for example – this all has to stop. This is just not something that can be tolerated in our day and age. I don’t understand how people can manifest hate for other people without truly knowing them, and really developing a sense for what they are and what they believe. I was going to the rally not to bash Palestine or bash Hamas or to go after anyone. I was going to promote Israel. How does assaulting me in the street, unless your goals and agenda are truly malicious and hurtful, how does this promote what you’re doing?
Izzo: What are you looking to do with your notoriety? Are you looking to take your message to other places? Are you looking to broaden your ability to reach people?
Joseph: I’m hoping that, in the wake of this, that the amount of attention that it’s gotten and the firestorm that it’s generated, that hopefully they make some changes. Maybe that means strengthening hate crime laws or something like that, to discourage such violence from taking place. Maybe someone who does a crime like this shouldn’t be allowed to be on the streets afterwards. Don’t even offer him bail. That would be something that I’d recommend in such a case, because you’re telling me that this guy can pay $1,000, be on the streets, and be celebrated for beating someone in the streets until the wheels of justice really take place? Who’s to say he’s not out there now, plotting to hurt someone else? That’s what really bothers me, and I hope I could sit down with the Mayor, who hasn’t reached out to me. I’m a city loyalist. I love the city to death. But when the Mayor’s not reaching out to me, it’s kind of disheartening, to be honest.
Izzo: Did any of the candidates for the upcoming election reach out?
Joseph: I’ve heard from Eric Adams. He reached out to my family. I appreciate that. I don’t want to be cynical. I’ve seen all the tweets and I appreciate the support, but it means a lot more when I hear personally from all of them, and certain people have reached out. I have a conference call with Kathleen Rice on Thursday. So yes, there are certain individuals who have reached out, who come to mind. Bruce Blakeman is my congressman, who stopped by. Yet the people who really make an effort to reach out stand out.
Izzo: Is there anything else you’d like to leave us with?
Joseph: I just want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to spread my message. Hopefully, all your readers can take away that all we want is for everyone to get along. The last thing I want is to go back and get physical revenge on these individuals. I just want everyone to coexist peacefully, and push forward.
We wish much hatzlachah to Joseph on his recovery and once again thank him for his time and candidness in discussing his traumatic experiences. If you would like to hear the entire interview, it is available on the Jewish Living Podcast wherever you get your podcasts. Just check the ad on this page.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.