Scores of southern Brooklynites marched in Bensonhurst on Sunday to denounce anti-Semitism in response to a physical attack last week on two 21-year-old Jewish men, allegedly because they were wearing sweatshirts bearing the name of Israel’s military.
The march, organized by new Councilmember Inna Vernikov, brought dozens of people out to 86th Street and Bay Parkway in solidarity with Blake Zavadsky and Ilan Kaganovich, who say they were physically assaulted and called slurs on Dec. 26 while attempting to shop for sneakers 86th Street Foot Locker in Bay Ridge. They say it was because Zavadsky wore a sweatshirt bearing the insignia of the Israel Defense Forces, the Jewish state’s controversial military.
“They didn’t like my sweatshirt so they said I have five seconds to take it off,” Zavadsky, a senior at the College of Staten Island who lives in Brighton Beach, told Brooklyn Paper. “I did not, I wasn’t planning on it.”
“He then called us ‘dirty Jews’ and asked us ‘what are we doing in his neighborhood,” Zavadsky continued. “21 years living in the United States, I never knew we had separate neighborhoods.”
After repeatedly refusing the demands, Zavadsky says the attacker punched him in the face and poured iced coffee on him before fleeing. Kaganovich was not attacked, but was told by the attacker’s accomplice that if he intervened, he would be hit, Zavadsky said.
The NYPD has released surveillance footage and images of the suspect but no arrests have been made.
Vernikov, a Jewish Republican representing Sheepshead Bay, Brighton Beach, Manhattan Beach, and part of Midwood, told ralliers she was disheartened to see such crimes take place considering that Jews came to America in the first place to escape persecution, as her own family did when they left Ukraine for Brooklyn.
“This is why our families brought us to America, and this is exactly what we’re seeing happening in this country again,” said Vernikov, who tested positive for COVID-19 last week but tested negative before the rally and was cleared to attend by a doctor, according to her spokesperson. “We fled to this country for freedom, for safety, to be able to simply walk the streets and not be afraid to be a Jew. To wear whatever garments we want, to freely practice our religion.”
“We stand here today with one united message,” she continued. “We will not be intimidated!”
Vernikov was joined at the rally’s helm by Zavadsky and Kaganovich, as well as firebrand former Assemblymember Dov Hikind, who was one of her earliest and most prominent campaign backers. Hikind led the group in chants as they attempted to drown out a large contingent of counter-protesters mostly aligned with Neturei Karta, an anti-Zionist Orthodox group, instructing them to “sound like 100,000 people.” The group proceeded into chants like “Jewish blood is not cheap” and “Am Yisrael chai,” which translates to “the Jewish people live.”
Also present was new Coney Island Councilmember Ari Kagan, who said he’s been in contact with Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez about the case.
“Both of them should be arrested, both of them should be charged with hate crimes,” Kagan said of Zavadsky’s attackers. “And both of them should never be released, especially the next morning.”
“An attack against one person is an attack against everyone,” he noted. “It was not a disagreement against Middle East politics, it was not a roundtable discussion, who was right and who was wrong. It was pure, pure hate.”
The rally was initially set to take place at the Bay Ridge Foot Locker, but was soon after switched to Bensonhurst. Protesters ended up marching from Bay Parkway along 86th Street to the Bensonhurst Foot Locker, at the intersection with Bay 26th Street.
Vernikov spokesperson Tova Chatzinoff-Rosenfeld said that the protest was moved from Bay Ridge out of respect for the neighborhood’s large Palestinian and Muslim population.
“We didn’t want to inflame tensions,” she said, also noting violent threats Vernikov and the protesters had received on social media, owing largely to the image of people in IDF hoodies, which attendees were encouraged to wear, marching into a Palestinian neighborhood. The IDF is notorious internationally for brutally enforcing Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
Bay Ridge activist group Fight Back Bay Ridge posted on social media that the planned rally amounted to “provocation or even terrorism” against the neighborhood’s sizable Palestinian and broader Muslim community.
“Storming into Bay Ridge, with our large and vibrant Palestinian and Muslim community, wearing IDF hoodies is an act of provocation or even terrorism,” the group said. “GTFOH.”
Zavadsky said that while he wished the rally could have taken place in Bay Ridge, he understood why it needed to be moved. “If there does not need to be a conflict, why start a conflict,” he said. “It’s the United States, everyone should enjoy what they want to believe in. You’re supposed to embrace yourself, not be scared.”
“Whatever is happening between Israel and Palestine should happen between Israel and Palestine, it should not happen in the United States,” Zavadsky said. “We all came to the United States wanting peace. My parents came from the former Soviet Union, they were trying to escape all of this, they didn’t expect this to happen in the United States.”
A significant contingent of counter-protesters, many aligned with Neturei Karta, showed up in Bensonhurst: Bay Ridge resident Jay Brown, who watched the rally from the street, estimated that the crowds of protesters and counter-protesters were about the same size, with the counter-protesters possibly numbering slightly higher. The Neturei Karta contingency followed the pro-IDF protesters on the other side of the street, waving Palestinian flags and bellowing chants like “IDF, shame on you,” “IDF, terrorists,” and “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
— Neturei Karta (@NetureiKartaCA) January 3, 2022
Jews are one of the groups that have borne the greatest brunt of a spike in hate crimes since the onset of the pandemic. The NYPD recorded 144 incidents of antisemitic bias in the first three quarters of 2021 (fourth quarter data is not yet available), according to its Hate Crimes Dashboard. That’s up from 93 incidents recorded in the first three quarters of 2020.
The trend may, unfortunately, continue in 2022: on Sunday, two days into the New Year, a Hasidic man in Williamsburg was shoved to the ground and beaten bloody with sticks, police said. Cops are still searching for two suspects in that case.
Zavadsky says his injuries have mostly healed, though his eye is still slightly bruised and has blood in it. He says going forward, he will not be intimidated from wearing his IDF sweatshirt on the street despite what happened to him.
“No one is going to stop me,” he said. “I’m not going to take it off for anyone. They wouldn’t take it off if I told them to take it off, why should I?”