– Avi Kumar
Dov Hikind, Brooklyn’s popular State Assemblyman for District 48, served for 35 years, between January 1983 to December 2018. He is an outspoken campion for Jews rights. He was born and raised in the heart of Williamsburg, New York, to Yiddish speaking parents from Eastern Europe.
In his youth, he was an active member in the Jewish Defense League. “I have been fighting for Jewish rights my whole life,” he says. He has helped every Jewish community, be it Haredi, Hasidic, Modern Orthodox, Ashkenazi, or Sephardic. “If you are Jewish and in pain or facing difficulty and are a victim of anti-Semitism, or ‘Jew-hate’ as I prefer to call it, it is not just my problem and your problem, it is the problem of all Jews. And we must not be afraid and do something.” Hikind states that he wears his yarmulke openly not because he is more religious than other Jews but because he is not afraid to show his identity.
From Torah Vodass to the JDL
His parents initially enrolled him in a Hasidic Yeshiva, but his mother eventually wanted him to get a more balanced education, including more secular studies in English. He switched to Yeshiva Torah Vodass. He was drawn to the ideology of the JDL as a young adult, stating, “It was a militant organization and was very different from anything else that existed in the U.S. at the time,” the 72-year-old explains.
Hikind speaks highly of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was the leader and figurehead of the organization. “Yes, he was a controversial figure, but he was also a special person who cared a lot for Jews. Lots of people will say that they care about Jews, and this is nice, but when you care, and you do nothing, something important is missing. You must put that care into practice,” he affirmed.
Hikind was inspired to become involved in political activism during the struggle for Soviet Jewry under the Communists. “I have been arrested many times on behalf of Soviet Jewry for doing many things – but it’s a part of my life that I am extremely proud of. For me personally, I must say that their plight was a big reason why I got involved in the JDL in the first place. Before I was involved in the JDL, I had heard nothing about Jews living in the Soviet Union. When I went to yeshivas, nobody spoke about them, or told us to do anything about it.
“I was the child of survivors. My mother was in Auschwitz in 1944 and most of her family died in the gas chambers as soon as they arrived. My father was in several forced labor camps. So, given my own background, when I saw what JDL was fighting on behalf of my people, I decided to get involved. I wanted to open the doors.” He continued, “I have also in the past seen demonstrations outside the Syrian mission to help that community flee the Middle East. It didn’t matter which Jewish community was in trouble. I believed that it is important to stand up and fight on their behalf and not be afraid. We call it hadar – Jews should be proud of who we are and not apologize for being Jewish”. Hikind was chased out of the Soviet Union by the KGB in Moscow in 1973 while protesting there.
From Activist to Politician
His entry into mainstream politics began when his friend Alan Rocoff suggested that being in an official position would help him accomplish many things he could not otherwise achieve as an activist. So, in the 1970s he joined the Democratic party. Hikind claims that politics was previously the last thing on his mind, and that the party affiliation itself didn’t matter.
“In 1982, I got elected at the New York State Assembly. I ran against an incumbent; it was very a close race. I did not expect to win, but I did. And after that, I spent 36 years in office helping Jews. Yes, I was a Democrat, but I always said, ‘I’m not a Democrat or Republican,’ but my commitment is to the Jewish people, not to any political party. When you are involved in politics, you should not forget why you are there in the first place. I was there to help my people. In fact, I have supported Republicans in the past. For example, I was one the first people to publicly support Rudy Giuliani for mayor. I also endorsed Al D’Amato, George Pataki, and numerous other Republicans when I felt that they were better for Jews.”
“Whoever would be the best for the community, whoever will ‘do the right thing’ for the Jewish people is who I have supported and will support, plain and simple,” Hikind said. “If you came to my office, we did not just talk and send you away to another person to sort it out. My staff and I did our best to help fix the problem. I also did what I could to help the non-Jews in the district I represented.”
Rise in Hate Crimes Pushes New Yorkers Away
The former assemblyman lamented, “If the city is not safe, there is no future. Giuliani and his successor, Bloomberg, had control of crime. When Dinkins was mayor in the 1970s, New York was actually much worse than it is even today, if you can believe it.”
Hikind speaks of his involvement with the Syrian / Sephardic community at large “Their concerns were no different from any other Jewish community. They were and still are concerned about schools, yeshivas, etc. They have the same problems and issues that other communities face – kids getting involved in drugs and facing crime. We cannot be afraid to address these issues.
Lately, many people are leaving Brooklyn, including many people I personally know, including my own relatives. People are leaving by the numbers. However, the Syrian and larger Sephardic community, which are well invested here, are not leaving as much. They are somehow ‘keeping things going.’ I have not spoken to them about this specifically, but I am sure they are concerned about the future of New York. They have beautiful homes, great shuls, they take good care of each other, and do such amazing work to help people of different communities.
As for the Orthodox Ashkenazim, many are leaving to New Jersey or the Five Towns. I do believe that the Syrian community are concerned about what is happening in New York lately, even if they are not leaving as much. Many of them own businesses in Manhattan. Some of them have faced violence in the past and these things could happen again. What I can say is, sadly we don’t have strong leadership in New York.”
“When I left office four years ago, I had many plans, but sadly that was also a time when there was an outbreak of anti-Semitism that we have not seen before. The number of attacks on Jews has been increasing every year. Many Jews take off their kippahs when they come to Manhattan. Why do they have to hide their Jewish identity in a city with over a millions Jews? It is a very sad reality. We have a real problem and the people who commit these acts of hate often get away with it – that is a real tragedy. All over New York, rocks have been thrown and swastikas have been carved into shuls. We had the killings in Jersey City and Monsey. Things have gotten out of control. We cannot say it was a few bad years, it has not stopped.”
Anti-Semitic Acts Increase Not Only in New York
“Recently, a Jewish man (not Haredi, mind you) was attacked in New York on a subway and the attacker said, ‘If I had a gun I would kill you!’ Sadly, incidents like this occur every single day. And this is not only happening in America, but also all over the world: in England, France, Belgium, and a host of other places. This Jew hatred is out of control across the world. And the sad thing is nobody has a solution. The Jewish organizations like the ADL all do the same thing, walking on the circle and no new approaches to fight this. It is not a good situation. Recently we saw violence in Jersey City and Monsey on Hanukah. These are not isolated incidents.
Jewish families are concerned about their future. New York is out of control, and I do not see things changing for the next 5-10 years with these crazy bail laws. Dubai is probably safer for Jews than New York at this point. It is simply insane what is going on.”