On the evening of Thursday, Nov. 29, a few days before the start of Chanukah, a teenage yeshiva student from Forest Hills was walking along 108th Street, the main commercial artery of the Queens neighborhood, a block from Forest Hills High School.
Without warning he was violently attacked by a group of high school students, about 20 to 30 young men.
Police subsequently arrested two teens in connection with the beating, which hospitalized the teen. The suspects were charged with first-degree felony gang assault and second-degree felony assault.
Despite claims by the Forest Hills-based Alliance for Bukharian Americans that witnesses had heard the assailants yell anti-Semitic phrases, the police have classified the attack as an instance of ill will between rival gangs in the high school, a spillover of an altercation that had taken place there the previous day, rather than a bias crime.
While members of the Jewish community traditionally suspect anti-Semitic motivations when an identifiable Jew is subject to attack — the victim, a member of Forest Hills’ large Bukharian Jewish community, wore a kipa and visible tzitzit — representatives of the neighborhood’s Bukharian Jewish community and of citywide Jewish organizations were reluctant to call the attack a hate crime.
An ongoing police investigation has yet to determine if the attack may be classified in the future as a bias incident, said David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. “If you have clear [hateful] words, then it’s a hate crime,” he said, adding that he has “not heard clear evidence” and that the police investigation has not verified reports of the attackers’ anti-Semitic statements. “The District Attorney has to make an evaluation.”
And a spokesman of the Anti-Defamation League, which offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the assailants’ arrest and conviction, also declined to call the attack a hate crime, while calling for witnesses “who would be helpful in the investigation.”
“It’s not considered a hate crime,” said Officer John Maser, who works in the community affairs department of the 112th Precinct. “The two groups [from the high school] had a problem with each other.”
Increased patrols are “paying special attention to 108th Street,” Maser said.
The neighborhood’s Bukharian community “is upset … they’re afraid,” said Adam Suionov, executive director of the Alliance of Bukharian Americans. “People are wondering what is taking place in the community. People are more cautious when they go out on the street.”
According to Rafael Nektalov, editor of the weekly Bukharian Times, “It’s a [general] criminal activity. We don’t have an anti-Semitism problem” in Forest Hills.
Forest Hills and adjacent Rego Park are home to an estimated 50,000 Jews from Uzbekistan and other countries in the former Soviet Union Central Asia region (they are known collectively as Bukharian Jews), making the area the largest collection of Bukharian Jews outside of Israel.
Members of the Forest Hills Bukharian Jewish community told The Jewish Week that the victim, who does not attend Forest Hills High School, was caught in the crossfire between feuding Hispanic and Bukharian gangs in the school. After a fight in the school on Nov. 28, the Bukharian Jews said, a group of Hispanics was looking for a Bukharian teen on whom to continue the fight after school hours — and the victim of the beating happened to be on the street.
It was “blowback” from the previous day, maybe a “case of mistaken identity” in an ongoing “turf war,” said a well-connected member of the community.
“I don’t think they jumped him because he had a kipa on. He caught something that wasn’t meant for him.”