Crime or Crisis: Disentangling Mental Illness and Antisemitic Violence

Three years after the Hanukkah stabbing attack in Monsey, NY, both antisemitic attacks and mental health crises are still on the rise.
A courtroom sketch. A tall bearded black man stands in an orange jumpsuit in a courtroom, with a suited man to his right and a woman to his left. On the right side of the image, a judge is seated.

On the cold, snowy night of December 14, New York State officials and Jewish leaders gathered in Ramapo Town Hall to commemorate a grim anniversary: Three years ago, on December 28, Grafton Thomas drove about 20 miles from his home in wooded, picturesque Greenwood Lake  to Monsey, the heart of one of the most populous Jewish communities in the country. With a scarf over his face, Thomas then entered the home of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg, heir of the Kossoner Hasidic dynasty, where many members of his congregation had gathered to light Hanukkah candles, and began stabbing guests with a machete. Five people were injured—one victim, a rabbi, later died from his wounds—before other guests threw chairs at Thomas and forced him to flee. A witness saw the license plate on Thomas’s gray car. He was arrested in Manhattan two hours later, in clothes soaked with blood and smelling of bleach. When law enforcement officials searched his home the next day, they found packaging for an 18-inch machete along with handwritten diaries with references to Jews, Hitler and Nazism.

Within 24 hours, the attack in Monsey had been denounced as an act of antisemitic terrorism by world leaders including then-President Donald Trump, then-Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “They’re trying to inflict fear. They’re motivated by hate. They are doing mass attacks,” then-governor Andrew Cuomo said the day after the attack in the backyard of the Rottenberg house. “These are terrorists in our country perpetrating terrorism on other Americans, and that’s how we should treat it.” The attack was part of an alarming pattern of rising antisemitism in the New York City metropolitan area: the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported 13 other incidents that December, including verbal harassment, physical assaults, and a spate of shootings at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City that killed three civilians and one police detective. Days before the Monsey attack, former NY State Assembly member Dov Hikind had called on then-Mayor Bill de Blasio to declare a state of emergency.

Yet the rise in antisemitic attacks took place amid another, parallel escalation in New York City’s mental health crisis. Police calls related to mental health disturbances had nearly doubled from 97,132 to 179,569 citywide between 2009 and 2018, according to a report released by NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. Of the 13 reported antisemitic incidents in December, mental health problems may have played a role in at least five. According to a New York Times column published at the time, mental illness affects a third of antisemitic hate crimes in New York City. By the night after the attack in Monsey, Thomas’s family had linked his case with this latter pattern, releasing a statement about his “long history of mental illness and hospitalizations.” His lawyer, well-known civil rights attorney Michael Sussman, framed the tragedy as a systemic failure of Thomas and his family to secure treatment—an argument that continues to shape the debate over how New York City should engage with people with mental health problems.

Three years later, the rate of antisemitic violence in New York and elsewhere continues to accelerate. New statistics from the New York City Police Department show a 125 percent increase between November 2021 and November 2022, from 20 to 45 incidents. New York State led the nation with 421 total incidents in 2021, and on December 12 Governor Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams announced the creation of a Hate and Bias Prevention task force to combat antisemitism after meeting with members of the Jewish community to discuss security concerns in advance of Hanukkah week. Meanwhile, a noted shortage of mental health services in New York City and in the nation overall led Adams to cause a stir in November when he instructed the NYPD to involuntarily hospitalize people on the street and subway who appeared unable to take care of themselves, causing an outcry from advocates. Amid these parallel crises, how should the Jewish community best understand and respond to this kind of attack?

 

In April 2020, U.S. District Judge Cathy Seibel deemed Thomas unfit to stand trial for the federal charges, which included hate crimes, and ordered him hospitalized. “The defendant is presently suffering from a mental disease or defect rendering him mentally incompetent to the extent that he is unable to assist properly in his defense,” said Seibel. The order has since been renewed twice. Michael Sussman, his lawyer, is currently attempting to have Thomas transferred to a psychiatric facility in New York State, to be closer to his mother, with whom he lived until his arrest.

Determining whether an attack is fundamentally motivated by  antisemitism or powered by mental illness can have serious implications for government response, as well as for  a community’s ability to heal in the wake of tragedy. In some respects, the Monsey attack was reminiscent of one two years earlier, in France, when in April 2017 a retired kindergarten teacher named Sarah Halimi, who was Jewish, was brutally killed by a neighbor. The alleged killer shouted antisemitic insults during the attack. But because of the assailant’s years of cannabis use, French authorities deemed his judgment so impaired that, like Thomas, he remains at a psychiatric facility and has never been to trial.

Halimi’s murder and the ongoing lack of closure caused outrage within France’s Jewish establishment and has been the source of ongoing bitterness and skepticism, both in France and in the United States. Without a trial, says Anne-Sophie Sebban, Paris director of the American Jewish Committee, the victim’s family has no sense of justice. Yet she says her research suggests that rising antisemitic violence is at least partly a mental health issue. “People with mental health issues are also reflections of society,” she says. “Their delirium is nourished by the ideas that are circulating in society. So you can come to the conclusion that some who have this antisemitic delirium one day may attack a Jew.”

Approximately a third of recent anti-Semitic attacks in New York are committed by people with histories of psychiatric problems.

Some hold a similar view in Monsey. Yossi Gestetner is a founder and leader of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council. He also is friends with the family of the man who was killed. “What otherwise normal people would view as just policy or politics or just discussing something, people with behavioral challenges may hear and feel and see differently,” he says. “When you mix that with inflammatory language, it can be toxic.”

Yet, he says, dismissing Thomas’s actions as purely the result of impaired mental health is insufficient. Gestetner notes that Thomas reportedly was able to formulate and execute a plan. “I don’t think it’s fair to take a situation where someone was competent or smart enough to apparently look up online locations of Jewish shuls, drive with his vehicle from one county to the next, and then go and attack a place of visibly Jewish people to say, ‘Okay, it’s mental challenges,’” says Gestetler. “He was looking for synagogues in Rockland County.”

However, the legal standard for this kind of case does not hinge on premeditation but “competence,” a legal term dating back to Victorian England. “No psychiatrist, unless they’re paid to go into a courtroom, will use the term incompetence,” says Sander Gilman, a cultural historian and author of Jewish Self-Hatred and Are Racists Crazy?. “The definition goes back to a murder in the 1860s in Britain, which says that you have to know the distinction between good and evil” to be considered sane for purposes of criminal liability.

Gilman’s takeaway is that “mentally ill people can incorporate racism into their overall paranoid delusional systems, but that not all racists are mentally ill.” He says that Grafton Thomas in Monsey is a good example of the former category. “This man evidently had a very long history of mental illness,” says Gilman. “He had built his experience of day-to-day life into his [mental] system. And part of that was hatred of people who were visibly, actively Jewish.”

 

In a New York Times op-ed published days after Thomas’ attack in Monsey, former NYPD intelligence chief Michael Silber noted that “approximately a third of the recent anti-Semitic attacks in New York are committed by people with histories of psychiatric problems.” When perpetrators have a psychiatric history, Silber wrote, their arrest in a violent attack, antisemitic or otherwise, should be seen as a indicator of mental instability. “Rather than being released immediately, those arrested should be formally evaluated to determine whether other intervention is necessary,” he wrote. “To be sure, this doesn’t excuse crimes of heinous anti-Semitism but helps further combat a condition under which antisocial behavior like anti-Semitism thrives.”

Some attacks in the lead-up to Monsey conform to this pattern. The day before Monsey, on December 27, an unhoused man had walked into Chabad Headquarters in Crown Heights and “threatened to kill Jews,” according to the ADL. His behavior during his arraignment led the judge to order a psychiatric exam. A different assailant, Tiffany Harris, was also held for psychiatric evaluation after slapping three women she believed to be Jewish on the same day. December 26th, in another part of Brooklyn, Ayana Logan was charged with a hate crime after yelling at and assaulting an Orthodox woman walking with a small child. She was released under the supervision of a mental health group. In all, at least six of the 14 incidents listed by the ADL for December 2019 involved some form of subsequent psychiatric evaluations or treatment, according to contemporary news accounts.

People with serious mental health concerns are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, and when they do act out, it usually is not against strangers. Yet the rise in antisemitic violence in New York by people with mental illness has paralleled violence against other populations, such as Asian-Americans. In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Israeli-born author Eyal Press noted that one reason people may be reluctant to discuss the role of mental illness in “racially motivated violence” is the fear that it will deflect attention from hate speech and incitement. “But acknowledging the role that mental health problems can play in hate crimes does not require downplaying their perniciousness or diverting attention from the inflammatory language and ideas that can fuel their rise,” wrote Press, noting how the actions of Payton Gendron, a self-avowed white supremacist who was charged with the murder of ten black people at a supermarket in Buffalo, were explained away by FOX News host Tucker Carlson as the product of a “diseased mind” rather than a political ideology.  “Too often in America, there seems to exist a false binary: medical problems versus political ones. The truth is that it’s often impossible to disentangle the internal experience of mental illness from the external social and political forces shaping the world. And the mentally ill are no more immune to these forces than the rest of society.”

Although viewing these attacks through this lens might open a path to a wider range of solutions, mental health policy in New York City and elsewhere is also fraught for reasons unrelated to hate crimes.

Michael B. Friedman, a social worker and former Director of The Center for Policy, Advocacy, and Education of The Mental Health Association of New York City, does not think that antisemitism or other forms of bigotry are exacerbated by the mental health crisis. “I think the opposite is true; the so-called mental health crisis is exacerbated by growing racism, the venomous political divide, growing economic disparity, the awful rise of violence, the climate crisis, etc,” he says. “The mental health system has a limited role to play in human society. Its job is to try to heal people with mental disorders and to help people to achieve psychological well-being. It is not the job of the mental health system to lead humanity away from evil or more mundane forms of immorality.”

 

Disentangling psychosis from politics is the focus of forensic psychologist Tahir Rahman’s research. He started looking at what he calls “extreme overvalued beliefs” after Fjotolf Hansen, aka Anders Breivik, killed 77 people in Norway with a bomb and mass shooting. After his arrest, Brevik claimed to be a Knight Templar sent to cleanse Norway of immigrants and minorities. “They thought he was crazy. They thought he had schizophrenia and psychosis,” says Rahman. “That was like Norway’s 9/11, basically. The case reverberated throughout the country.” But a second psychiatric evaluation found no psychosis: He simply held repellent views that were  shared by others in his digital subculture. “With anti-Semitism, this is really hugely important,” says Rahman. “The Boogaloo Bois and the Proud Boys, and other extremist groups, weave this anti-Semitic stuff into their ideology.”

Similarly, the December 10, 2019 attack in Jersey City against a kosher supermarket was motivated by a radical version of the religious/political ideology of the Black Hebrew Israelites.

Coverage at the time suggested that David Anderson, the leader of the pair, was also mentally unstable. Yet in contrast to the attacks by Thomas and others, the Jersey City shooting is more in line with what Rahman would call an “overvalued fixed belief,” which—unlike delusions or obsessions—are shared and reinforced by others in the person’s peer group. Many Black Hebrew Israelites believe that African Americans are the living descendants of the 12 Tribes of Israel, and that mainstream Jews are impostors. While these views may sound delusional, Rahman says viewing Anderson or other Black Israelites as mentally ill misses the mark. “These views can be so odd and different from mainstream culture that they can appear to be delusional,” he says. “When somebody flies airplanes into buildings like on 9/11, that seems so peculiar and odd people are like, ‘We need to scan their brains.’ But their brains are normal. This is a shared cultural, subcultural belief and an intense emotional commitment to a belief.”

“It is not the job of the mental health system to lead humanity away from evil or more mundane forms of immorality.”

Rahman says that one mode of deterrence may be early education. “If we start with say, elementary and middle school students and teach them about obsessions, delusions, and extreme overvalued beliefs—how people get there and what causes them—will that have in itself have a deterrence effect?”

Although attackers may show signs of  both psychosis and extreme overvalued beliefs, Rahman says that in the end it shouldn’t matter whether an attacker has mental illness, but that attacks should be harshly condemned regardless. ”The behavior and the motives, if they even are colored a little bit by antisemitism, should have that immediate visceral reaction,” says Rahman. “I think that’s important. Otherwise, people who are extremists will view that as an opening.”

 

Last year, on the second anniversary of the attack, New York Governor Kathy Hochul again portrayed the attack in Monsey as a hate crime: “Two years ago, residents of Monsey gathered to celebrate Hanukkah,” Hochul wrote in a tweet. “But on a night to celebrate hope, five people were attacked and Rabbi Neumann lost his life. We all have a right to be free from fear. We continue to stand against antisemitism and hate in all its forms.” During the third anniversary commemoration, New York Attorney General Letitia James also characterized the attack as ideological.

Rockland County is home to the eleventh largest Jewish population in the United States. Of its 330,000 residents, about 105,000 are Jews, according to Ari Rosenblum, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Rockland County. One of Rosenblum’s first acts as head of Rockland’s Federation when he started in November of 2021 was to co-organize, with the ADL, a commemoration of the stabbing. In addition to the many political VIPs who attended virtually, Rosenblum hoped to use the memorial as an opportunity to unite the Jews of Rockland County around the issue of security.

“Look at the experience here in Monsey and you realize that there is an issue that isn’t just a perception, but it’s a real threat and we need to address it,” says Rosenblum, noting a recent rise in antisemitic graffiti, harassment, threats and violent incidents locally against both Haredi and non-Haredi Jews, including against a member of his staff. “That’s particularly of importance in the Haredi community where the stabbing happened, because on any given Shabbat or any given Yom Tov, there’s thousands of people walking in the streets.”

Nationally, he credits the rise in antisemitism to an increase in intolerant rhetoric from celebrities and politicians. But locally, he says it’s due to an increase in the number of visible Jews living in the area. Rockland has more than 400 Jewish institutions—more than six times the number of San Diego, which has roughly the same number of Jews. “It may be that people don’t like Jews; it may be that they don’t like Haredi Jews. But first and foremost, people don’t like change,” says Rosenblum.

People with serious mental health concerns are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

Rosenblum of Rockland’s federation says that a perpetrator’s mental state ultimately matters little when it comes to combating antisemitism. “Whatever perspective one has on [Grafton Thomas] and [his] mental health challenges, something turns a light switch on or off,” says Rosenblum. “In an environment where antisemitism is normalized from all sides…that environment of hate flips that light switch.”  He tells an anecdote about being accosted by a stranger with antisemitic tropes and threats while walking in the East Village a few years ago. “Out of nowhere. I’d never seen the guy,” says Rosenblum. “Did he have mental health challenges? Possibly. Is he an antisemite? Absolutely. So I have to deal with it. I have to honor the threat.”

In May, when the Rockland federation distributed a survey to its community members, antisemitism topped the list of concerns. Rosenblum says that the federation is working this into their strategic planning process, and are now about three months into leading community-wide security assessments, trainings, and networking.

Although legal closure may not be possible, particularly with Thomas still deemed incompetent, Yossi Gestetler of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council says the community is resilient.

“Clearly a peaceful Hanukkah ceremony turning bloody and ultimately deadly is going to leave scars on people,” he says. “But, for the community at large, there’s always the need to continue to live on and to go on, so much so that the next afternoon on that street in front of the shul [where the stabbing took place], there was a Torah procession towards a different shul on the street, people dancing and singing. Because part of healing and part of life is just to go on and on and on and push and push and push.”


Top image: A courtroom sketch of Thomas in federal court. Courtesy of Christine Cornell.

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One thought on “Crime or Crisis: Disentangling Mental Illness and Antisemitic Violence

  1. hag says:

    Being “CRAZY” is great excuse, when caught..

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