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Man subjected to anti-Semitic harangue on Brooklyn subway speaks

'We say "Never Again" but do we mean it?'

Mordechai Sones,

New York Subway
New York Subway
iStock

Yossi Wolfe, the man who last week patiently suffered an aggressive anti-Semitic harangue on a Brooklyn train in an incident that has made ample rounds on social media, spoke to Arutz Sheva about the attack, his life in Israel and Brooklyn, fighting anti-Semitism, and Aliyah.

Wolfe, 31, works as a software engineer for the Wall Street Journal. Raised in Phoenix, Arizona, Wolfe is back in the United States after a stint living in Jerusalem for seven years during which he volunteered in the Israeli Air Force for two. He currently lives in Brooklyn, where he has been for a year-and-a-half.

Wolfe is soft-spoken and cerebral. His answers are weighed and considered, and there is no trace of personal hostility or grudge, even after an attack that would have left many sorely shaken. "This happened sometime last week. I hadn't really mentioned anything to anybody because I didn't want to make a big deal about it.

"An African-American lady got on with three kids, and then another African-American lady got on. I was standing, and no-one was really getting up for this lady with her three kids. So this other lady started screaming at everyone around her, saying 'Why are you guys not getting up? This lady's here with her three kids,' and then she finally said, 'If it was a Jewish family y'all would have gotten up!', at which point I said to her, 'Can we please not make this a racist thing?' And then she started going on a tirade about how it's not racist. She was yelling for a good amount of time, and we were going back and forth and I said, 'We're individual people. You can't say these things apply to all Jews' as she was yelling. Eventually after a while an elderly African-American lady tapped me on the shoulder and she said to just put my headphones back in and it wasn't worth arguing with her about it.

"Before that lady who was yelling had gotten off the train, she said the reason she was in such a bad mood was because her husband had just gotten arrested the day before. I did feel a little bad for her after that, but at the same time it doesn't excuse anti-Semitism, just because you're having a bad day."

Asked whether he personally is aware of such attacks occurring frequently Wolfe says, "There have been recent attacks here in Crown Heights. There have been some attacks on Jews lately; there was one who got attacked in southern Crown Heights when an African-American was upset about something and attacked this totally innocent Jewish man.

"I've heard people mutter things on the train before, but it was never anything definitive that I heard the whole thing that they said, so I've never really said anything in the past. This time I wasn't in the mood to let someone get away with saying something so anti-Semitic."

"We used to have attacks in Arizona when I would walk with my father and brothers to shul, in a mile-and-a-half walk. People used to yell things out at us. That happens a lot, but nothing major or physical ever came out of it."

Being a Lubavitcher Chassid, Wolfe is familiar with the chassidic saying "One doesn't chase away darkness with a stick". Asked whether in his experience groups whose mission it is to "fight anti-Semitism" are effective in light of that aphorism, Wolfe replied, "It's tricky to answer that. I think that a lot of it boils down to education. This isn't just a problem in the African-American community, I'm sure it's also a problem in our communities, because I know obviously racism exists in our communities as well, but unfortunately in the churches and other places of the African-American community I think this hatred has spread, 'The Jew does this, the Jew does that'. That's where I think a lot of this is coming from, I think it's just a lot of ignorance that's being repeated, things that are heard from community leaders that are being taken in and absorbed by people who, maybe they just want to go about their day as well, and then when they're angry there's this hatred that they've been taught comes out.

"As far as defending against anti-Semitism, I think continuing to educate people is an important thing, but I don't think we're reaching enough places with our education as far as the Holocaust and the horrible atrocities that happened, which also affected people of color.

"Then there is the physical defensive part which I think is necessary sometimes, to be prepared. Know some self-defense, because there are some physical situations that happen as well, and it helps to be prepared against that."

Regarding his thoughts and feelings immediately after the incident, Wolfe maintained characteristic circumspection: "I did ask my colleague right after whether he thought what she said was racist after the fact. I had a teeny discussion with him but after that I just let it go and didn't discuss it with anybody.

"This isn't just a one-time incident. This hatred is coming from somewhere. All the things that she said when she got all riled up and she started spewing all that stuff - it wasn't coming from nowhere. It's coming from somewhere, and I think it's deeply rooted in certain rhetoric that's being taught in certain communities. And I think we know who the leaders are who are teaching that in the African-American community, all this hatred. Unfortunately there's not much we can do about it, because we are not part of that community.

"We can do things in our own community to try to be more loving towards people who are not our own, that's something that we can do; it's not easy because unfortunately there are a lot of incidents that make us want to not do that, but I don't know what we can do about other communities and changing those communities. I don't know."

Do such incidents make him think of moving back to Israel? "I love Eretz Yisrael, I think every Jew should try to live there at some point. I had to come back here for various reasons. I do feel that there are things in Israel that make life not so easy, and I don't know if just because there's anti-Semitism here, it's worth just totally dropping everything and going to Israel. I think we should continue to stay where we are if that's where life takes us, and continue to stand up against anti-Semitism. I think it's important to do that, and I think it's important that we have a louder voice.

"A lot of people in Brooklyn have told me 'We always just kind of sit on the sidelines when we hear something like that, and we have this mentality like we don't want to say anything because there could be cameras blah blah blah... But they said 'Thank you for doing this, Yossi; not a lot of people would do that'. And to me it just seems like a no-brainer, when someone is attacking your people you have to do something about it. We say 'Never Again' but do we mean it? That's something that's stuck in my mind."




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