NEW YORK — All four of Mitchell Silber’s grandparents immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s to escape the anti-Semitism that stalked Eastern Europe. Now that the scourge is intensifying on the streets of his hometown, he intends to do something about it.
Silber, 49, is the former head of the New York Police Department’s Intelligence Analysis Unit. He was recently named executive director of the Community Security Initiative, part of a $4 million plan by The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and UJA-Federation of New York to bolster security for the region’s 1.5 million Jews and 2,000 Jewish institutions.
“In the United States, unlike other times in Jewish history, we have allies and we have resources,” Silber told The Times of Israel this week, sitting in a conference room overlooking Central Park.
“There are lessons to be learned from the State of Israel that Jews can defend themselves when they put their minds to it and deploy their resources. I’m hoping that’s the story that’s going to be written here with this mission, with this effort – that this will be another example of successful Jewish self-defense,” said Silber.
From January to November 2019, New York City experienced a 17 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents as compared to 2018, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Nationwide there has been a 48% increase in anti-Semitic incidents from 2016 to 2018.
Not including the deadly shooting in Jersey City in early December, there were 13 reported incidents in and around New York City in the days leading up to New Years. Then came the Hanukkah attack in Monsey, New York, when Grafton Thomas, 37, stabbed five people with an 18-inch machete as they gathered inside a rabbi’s home for the candle lighting.
In his new post, Silber will lead a team of seven security professionals to help provide protection for Jewish institutions in New York City, Westchester, and Long Island. This will include developing the infrastructure to support and train professionals in synagogues, Jewish community centers, and schools.
It’s both familiar and uncharted territory for the native New Yorker. As co-founder of the Guardian Group, Silber spent the past two years with former NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly assessing threats to Jewish communities across Europe. Still, the recent increase and severity of the anti-Semitism in the US was unexpected.
“The US situation has been surprising writ large. Certainly in and around 2016, people started to feel that certain prohibitions against saying certain things dropped,” Silber said. “Maybe it’s a confluence of social media and the political environment, but first there was hate speech, then hate social media. You can probably draw a line from that hate speech to Pittsburgh to Poway to Jersey City to Monsey, and now New York City…”
The following interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
Times of Israel: What was your experience with anti-Semitism growing up?
Mitchell Silber: I grew up in Atlantic Beach right outside city limits on the Queens border. I went to public elementary school and public high school. There really wasn’t any anti-Semitism that I observed. But all four of my grandparents were immigrants who left Eastern Europe and my parents grew up in households full of stories about anti-Semitism in what is now Ukraine and the former Austria-Hungary Empire.
Mine wasn’t a particularly observant Jewish household; Jewish identity was more of a political, almost tribal identity. It was like, whether you like it or not, it’s always going to be a part of your identity, and so you might as well own it.
In your recent op-ed for The New York Times, you wrote about the need for long-term police presence to dissuade these kinds of attacks. How do you do this?
The city and the NYPD have responded episodically to this gradual rise in anti-Semitic incidents. At the beginning of a new phenomenon it’s always tough to make the assessment, “Is this a flash in the pan? Or does it need a more sustained effort?” I think the answer is clear now in the wake of Jersey City and Monsey, and I think City Hall and Police Plaza know a sustained response is required to reestablish deterrence.
That said, the solution won’t always be a law enforcement solution. This is a neighborhood community problem. I think — and this is an important piece — the strain of anti-Semitism we’re seeing in New York seems to be different from what we’re seeing in other parts of the country and other parts of the world.
To me this is neighborhood anti-Semitism. It’s people in a neighborhood acting out against their neighbors. Why? Maybe because they look different or they look more vulnerable. I don’t think there’s a political goal that this neighborhood anti-Semitism is looking to achieve.
I think there must be neighborhood solutions in Brooklyn that involve building bridges and finding the source of the anger, the violence, of the hate.
Juveniles who are local residents committed almost two-thirds of the attacks in New York City. In your piece you called on City Hall to develop an age-appropriate restorative justice option for those juveniles who participate in what could be a hate crime.
In videos of the attacks that are out there, you can see what’s happening. There’ll be a bunch of kids walking down the street and they see an Orthodox person. They hit him with a chair, they punch him, or they knock off his hat or his kippah. That element of the violence needs to be addressed, but then what are you going to do?
There’s not going to be a long-term prison sentence. It’s not justified and in this environment of restorative justice you’re not going to have political support for that. Instead, there needs to be some kind of penalty though. Maybe it’s meaningful community service, not just an hour or two, but meaningful in its duration and where it’s directed. There also needs to be education.
You also wrote American Jews must recognize that it’s time to provide for our own defense.
Spending two years in Europe and seeing what measures the Jewish communities have to take to protect themselves was eye opening and depressing, especially given Europe’s tortured history.
For many Jews, the United States has been this safe haven, this Garden of Eden if you will. Unfortunately, some of our naiveté and innocence has now been lost. I do think it is time that the community takes on this obligation to better protect itself. We need to change our mindset.
What are some of the lessons you learned while in Europe? Where do you see success in combating violent anti-Semitism?
I think the best examples of success in Europe are in the UK and Denmark, where you’ve had the government step up and match words with actions.
In the UK, for a Jewish community of 275,000, the government allocates $25 million for security. It’s a relatively secure community from a physical standpoint. The whole Jewish community is involved. Obviously, there has been this whole other political dynamic with [Labour leader Jeremy] Corbyn and the Labour Party. But in the UK we’re not dealing with the violence on the scale of Germany, Belgium and France.
As an expert on terror fueled by Islamic fundamentalists — you wrote a book about al-Qaeda’s role in terror attacks against the West — do you agree with the assessment that, when it comes to committing violent anti-Semitic acts, the far right represents a larger threat?
In the role that I’m coming into, it’s very important for me not to politicize the direction from which the anti-Semitism is coming, because if you get attacked by a machete or an automatic weapon it doesn’t matter whether it was a right-wing extremist, an Islamist, a community person, or a Black Israelite. The results are the same.
When it comes to NYC, I am trying to figure out what’s triggering this and as an intelligence analyst, this is one of those things that gnaws at me. Is there someone or some entity that’s stimulating this? Is it just organic?
The most important thing about knowing where anti-Semitism comes from is not to make it a political issue. It’s because if you can put an address to it, maybe you can address it.
Since Pittsburgh some Jews are wondering if they should go armed to synagogue or to community events. What’s your advice?
My personal view — and this is not a policy view from JCRC or UJA — is the threshold for having a firearm is extremely high. The person wielding that weapon needs to be highly trained, not only on the range, but they have to have experience handling that firearm under pressure in a firefight, where there are civilians around. I would discourage anyone who doesn’t meet that threshold.
So for self-defense, that’s more in the realm of Krav Maga or other martial arts. It’s situational awareness. It’s emergency preparedness training. As we saw in Monsey, throwing a table at an assailant was effective.