Mattresses, Tunnels, and Fact Checkers
On the Crown Heights Chabad controversy
On January 8, 2024 a brawl broke out between bochurim (yeshiva students) and NYPD officers at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. In an unexpected twist, the Rov of the Crown Heights Beis Din (Rabbinical Court), Yosef Braun, spoke out against the Bochurim, declaring:
A horrible thing happened today, and unfortunately it’s been happening for many, many years. Where a group of people who were not appointed by anyone, have taken reign and control of the holy Shul of 770, and decided to do as they wish.
So why did Hasidic officials at 770 call the police on Hasidic yeshiva students? It’s a long story.
770 Eastern Parkway is the headquarters of Agudas Chasidei Chabad, the Association of Chabad Hasidim. It is also the former home of Menachem Schneersnon (1902-1994). The adjoining buildings, 784-788 are owned by Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, Congregation Lubavitch Inc. The two groups have been embroiled in a long-standing controversy over ownership of the 770-788 Eastern Parkway complex.
Before his death, many Lubavitchers believed Menachem Schneerson was the Moshiach. As we reach the 30th anniversary of his passing (or his occlusion, if you prefer), that belief has become less common. Chabad.org, the official Lubavitch website, states that Schneerson “passed away” on June 12, 1994 (3 Tammuz 5754).
A large number of the brawling bochurim come from Tzfas (Safed), a city in northern Israel. The Tzaftim believe that Rebbe Schneeerson is in hiding and will come back in the near future. They have rioted in the past over pamphlets or plaques that refer to the Rebbe in the past tense, as that implies that he is dead.
During his lifetime Schneerson had spoken about making all the buildings between 760 and 790 part of a unified complex. Thanks to internal squabbling and NYC’s labyrinthine building laws, that has not yet come to pass. To follow Schneerson’s wishes and speed his return, the Tzaftim began digging a tunnel between an abandoned mikvah (ritual bath) and the Rebbe’s house.
When Agudas officials, alerted by local apartment residents who reported odd underground noises, got wind of the Tzaftim digging, they alerted NYC building authorities and began filling in the tunnel with cement. This sparked a brawl between Yeshiva students who then tore out the wall in the smaller synagogue in 770 Eastern Parkway to reopen the space. Finally the NYPD intervened, leading to a mini-riot and to multiple arrests for criminal mischief and trespassing.
You’d think that Battling Hasids would be enough to keep people entertained for a while. But attention turned instead to four stained mattresses found behind the wall, and to an older, darker legend.
Today Flavius Josephus is most remembered for his The Wars of the Jews and for being one of the earliest sources to mention Jesus and John the Baptist. But in Against Apion (written around 97) Josephus also gives us a tale that may be the first recorded Blood Libel.
According to Apion, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, Seleucid emperor and nemesis of the Maccabees, rescued a Greek from captivity in the Jewish temple. That Greek told him:
That [the Jews] used to catch a Greek foreigner, and fat him thus up every year; and then lead him to a certain wood, and kill him, and sacrifice with their accustomed solemnities, and taste of his entrails, and take an oath upon this sacrificing a Greek, that they would ever be at enmity with the Greeks. And that then they threw the remaining parts of the miserable wretch into a certain pit.
A few decades after Titus levels the Temple, another rebellion broke out. From 115-117 Jews in Cyrenaica (Libya), Egypt and Cyprus fought bloody battles against the Hellenic population. Writing nearly a century after the events, Cassius Dio described the cruelty of the Jewish rebels in his Roman History.
They would cook their flesh, make belts for themselves of their entrails, anoint themselves with their blood, and wear their skins for clothing. Many they sawed in two, from the head downwards. Others they would give to wild beasts and force still others to fight as gladiators.
In all, consequently, two hundred and twenty thousand perished. In Egypt, also, they performed many similar deeds, and in Cyprus under the leadership of Artemio. There, likewise, two hundred and forty thousand perished.
At a place named Inmestar, situated between Chalcis and Antioch in Syria, the Jews were amusing themselves in their usual way with a variety of sports.
In this way they indulged in many absurdities, and at length impelled by drunkenness they were guilty of scoffing at Christians and even Christ himself; and in derision of the cross and those who put their trust in the Crucified One, they seized a Christian boy, and having bound him to a cross, began to laugh and sneer at him. But in a little while becoming so transported with fury, they scourged the child until he died under their hands.
Each of these reports are separated by centuries. After the death of William of Norwich in 1144, the reports become increasingly frequent. William, a 12-year old tanner’s apprentice, was found murdered in a wood on Holy Saturday. The local Jews were immediately suspected, but no arrests were made. William’s remains were interred in a local monastery, where a miracle-cult arose around the deceased boy. And with his legend grew other legends about his death.
A Jewish convert to Christianity, Theobald of Norwich, asserted that William’s murder was the work of a self-proclaimed Messiah in Narbonne, France. Each year this Messiah drew lots to see where the annual sacrifice took place. Theobold explained:
Hence it was laid down by [the Rabbis] in ancient times that every year they must sacrifice a Christian in some part of the world to the Most High God in scorn and contempt of Christ, so that they might avenge their sufferings on Him; inasmuch as it was because of Christ’s death that they had been shut out of their own country, and were in exile as slaves in a foreign land.
Theobald claimed that he, like most Jews in England, was aware of the sacrifices. But after learning of the many miracles taking place at the boy’s tomb, he turned away from Judaism and became a Christian and later a monk. But we know of Theobald only from the writings of Thomas of Monmouth, who compiled the various William of Norwich stories in his The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich.
The stories which followed adhered closely to a theme. The Jews kidnap a Christian child and torture him to death. The child’s blood is used for ritual purposes, typically to make Passover matzohs. While the earliest blood libels are in England, they soon spread throughout Europe as confessions made under torture became hard evidence of Jewish ritual torture murder.
The last blood libel trial took place in Russia in 1911, when Mendel Beilis was accused of murdering 12-year-old Andrei Yushchinsky as a Passover sacrifice. Although he was found innocent after spending 2 years in prison, Beilis was forced to emigrate due to anti-Semitic threats. And the jury determined that while Beilis was innocent, Yushchinsky had been sacrificed in a ritual murder.
Some of my readers may worry that my history of blood libel accusations gives them a credibility they don’t deserve. Others may see that history as evidence that there is something to those blood libel stories after all. Our brains are wired not to challenge our preconceptions but to confirm our current beliefs and to seek social reinforcement.
It’s very difficult to prove a negative. Hence, it’s nearly impossible to come up with conclusive evidence that no Jew has ever murdered a Christian child for religious or political reasons. And even if you came up with conclusive proof that the blood libel was certainly false or certainly true, it would be dismissed as the work of a rabid Jew-hater looking to stir up violence or a treacherous coverup by the Jews and their Shabbos Goy stooges.
The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict has led to a great deal of anti-Zionist hostility. People who already see Jews as heartless baby-killers are going to be more inclined to entertain claims that Jews ritually murder Gentile babies. And the Chabad Lubavitchers are especially susceptible to these claims. They speak Yiddish, a language few non-Jews know; they keep themselves apart from the Gentile world as much as possible; they dress in a way that marks them as alien to non-Hasidim.
I have no idea who placed those mattresses in that wall or why they placed them there. I don’t know why a single high chair was found in a basement from which the tunnel could be accessed. But while I don’t expect that we will ever have a definitive answer, that hasn’t stopped many from asking leading questions.
Because many pogroms have been triggered by blood libels, I can understand why many well-meaning people would like to nip this speculation in the bud. Alas, many efforts to counter this campaign have only served to throw fuel on the fire.
On January 12, USA Today Fact Checker Hannah Hudnall published a piece entitled “Only dirt and tools found in New York tunnel, not mattresses or booster seats.” In that piece Hudnall declared that there were no mattresses or boosters, stating:
This simply didn’t happen. A New York Department of Buildings spokesperson said investigators found nothing in the tunnel besides dirt, tools, and debris. The single passageway was discovered next door to the synagogue, not connected to it.
In that piece Hudnall listed two sources:
Ryan Degan [Spokesperson for NYC Department of Buildings], Jan. 12, Email exchange with USA TODAY
DocumentCloud, Jan. 12, Tunnel location approximation
As is often the case with fact checks, Hudnall prioritized official statements over unofficial reports or even audio and video evidence. But she soon received corroborating photographic and video evidence from many other sources, along with suggestions that she was (((biased))) in favor of her fellow Chosenites.
I haven’t consulted with Ms. Hudnall on her ethnic or religious background, but my brief Google search suggests that “Hudnall” is an English surname with Norman roots. I also haven’t been able to corroborate the origins of the high chair photo, but I found mattress images on the Lubavitcher website crownheights.info.
By January 17, USA Today had edited the title to read “Viral post errs on nature, contents of tunnel near New York synagogue.” While it still declared the claim was false, the article lists several new sources and now reads:
The description in this post paints a false picture of the tunnel discovery, which was reported to police by synagogue officials. City officials said there was one tunnel, not a series of tunnels. It was adjacent to the synagogue, not under it. Mattresses shown in a viral video came from behind wood paneling inside the synagogue, not from the tunnel. An unverified video shows what appears to be a high chair, but it shows only one such seat, and it was located amid trash, clutter and dirt in a basement room, not in a tunnel.
In its original and edited forms Hudnall’s fact check served its intended purpose. Fact checks are less about finding the truth than about providing readers with guidelines as to what they should and should not believe. Media outlets have long served this function. Consider how NPR provides talking points for crunchy granola moms in tony suburbs and the Washington Post sets discussion rails for DC PMCs.
Most of the people reading her article will skim it and take away the idea that there were no mattresses or high chairs at the site. This gives them permission to dismiss all contrary claims as anti-Semitic nonsense. And, to be fair, many on Xitter and elsewhere have indeed used these images to promote anti-Semitic nonsense.
But while Hudnall’s piece might affirm the preconceptions of USA Today readers, it does an even better job of reinforcing bigoted beliefs. Anti-Semites believe the mainstream media is controlled by The Jews™, who use it to promote Jewish propaganda and stifle dissent.
When they find an obviously incorrect “fact check” aimed at defending Jews against charges of child trafficking and sacrifice, they see that as hard evidence that The Jews™ are trafficking and sacrificing children in Crown Heights and elsewhere. And others who have personal doubts about Jews — newly ardent pro-Palestinian activists, for instance — can see this sort of ham-handed manipulation as verification that yes, Jews really do run the world.
I don’t really blame Ms. Hudnall overmuch for this. She got a few things right: for instance, she correctly noted that there is only one tunnel, not a network that reaches into the nearby Jewish Children’s Museum. Content writing is my day job, so I know the pressure of deadlines and the need to fit your research to client demands. I have no doubt that she was told to debunk some of the more outrageous claims being spread on social media. I even agree that those claims need to be debunked.
But we’re dealing with a rise in Jew-hatred, we need to focus our efforts on actual and potential Jew-haters, not complacent liberals. To that end our fact-checkers need to make sure that they have all their facts in order before their fact-check winds up playing into the hands of the misinformers.
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