It has been widely reported that Leonard Petlakh was the victim of an anti-Semitic attack at a pre-season basketball game between the New York Nets and Tel Aviv’s Maccabi Electra.
The alleged attack has received extensive coverage and condemnation. However, new information has emerged that Petlakh may have been involved in a physical assault on a Palestinian-American woman shortly before he claims to have been victimized.
Appearing on a local news broadcast after receiving treatment for a broken nose and a deep gash under his eye, Petlakh told media that his attacker had hit him “because he was Jewish” and had shouted “Free Palestine” before slugging him in the face — in front of his two young sons.
“They’re exhibiting their anger and their hatred; I’m a symbol to them,” Petlakh stated.
Petlakh teaches Jewish history at Hunter College, City University of New York, and is vice president of the American Zionist Movement and executive director of Kings Bay YM-YWHA, a Jewish community center in Brooklyn.
The New York City Police Department’s Hate Crimes Unit immediately opened an investigation into the incident, while local politicians and political leaders joined in unison to denounce what they accepted was an “anti-Semitic” attack.
And just over a week later, on 16 October, the man suspected of attacking Petlakh, 25-year-old Shawn Schraeder, was arrested in St. Louis, Missouri, and brought back to New York.
No evidence of hate crime
However, by the time Schraeder appeared before a Brooklyn court, the NYPD Hate Crimes Unit had announced that they had completed their investigation and concluded that there was no evidence of anti-Semitism involved in the incident.
The district attorney charged Schraeder with misdemeanor assault. A hate crime is deemed a violent felony offense and carries enhanced sentencing guidelines.
But as Petlakh’s story and face appeared in the news in the days following his attack, Nerdeen Kiswani recognized him from an attack she sustained that night as well. However, her assault has received scant media attention and was not investigated by the police.
Kiswani, a Palestinian-American student at the City University of New York, had been punched in the stomach after someone snatched her Palestinian flag from her hands after the Maccabi-Nets game.
On 21 October, Kiswani and her lawyer, Lamis Deek, held a press conference on the steps of the Brooklyn Borough Hall to publicize their complaint to the NYPD, requesting that it investigate the attack on Kiswani.
Leonard Petlakh, Kiswani alleges, was one of the men in the group who harassed and assailed her.
“It appears that Petlakh and his friends had staged the assault in fact and were taping and plotting their attack on Ms. Kiswani,” a press release states.
Deek told The Electronic Intifada that “We haven’t specifically asked to investigate it as a hate crime, because I have a problem with the thought police.”
In addition, Deek explained that after learning of the context of the alleged assault on Petlakh, the NYPD Hate Crimes Unit didn’t find his claims of anti-Semitism credible.
“Punched in the stomach”
A short video showing part of the attack on Kiswani was uploaded to YouTube, titled “Anti-Israel provocation at Barclays Center”:
In the video, the camera is focused on Kiswani and a male companion, who are seen from behind. The two are standing watching the game. Kiswani is inconspicuously holding a Palestinian flag by her side. The man standing with Kiswani is Shawn Schraeder (so identified by the description accompanying the video and confirmed by this writer).
The videographer zooms in on Schraeder and Kiswani. Suddenly, a man sneaks up behind Kiswani and grabs her flag and moves out of the camera frame. Kiswani appears startled, then tries to retrieve the flag from him. It is then that she was allegedly hit.
While that is not visible in the video, Kiswani can be heard shouting that she had been assaulted and “punched in the stomach.”
The alleged attack on Petlakh happened several minutes later as he was leaving the stadium.
“Our issue is every news media outlet, the highest echelons, became involved in this case because this guy claimed anti-Semitism,” Deek said.
Meanwhile, Kiswani’s assault was neither reported in the press nor investigated by stadium security or police. On the contrary, Deek said that security threatened to have her removed if she continued to complain about what had happened to her at the hands of Petlakh and his companions.
“They dismissed her, and they kind of demonized her,” Deek said.
“This is the problem we always have, the privileging of Jewish-Zionist voices. He claimed anti-Semitism knowing that his friend had punched a girl,” Deek said.
She also noted the apparent ease with which Schraeder was brought back to New York: “It normally takes weeks to months to extradite someone to New York from New Jersey. Meanwhile it took a week to extradite [Schraeder] from Missouri.”
A USA Today investigation from earlier this year found that due to the difficulty of extradition, thousands of people accused of crimes including statutory rape and murder live freely in other states from the ones in which they are wanted.
Palestine solidarity protests have been following the Tel Aviv team as they play in the United States. Before the Israeli team played in Cleveland, Ohio, earlier this month an activist organizing a Palestine solidarity protest received an intimidating visit from the FBI.
Before the 7 October game in New York, about a hundred people demonstrated outside in solidarity with Palestinians.
This was in response to the NBA and the fundraising group Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) jointly hosting a “VIP” event honoring twelve Israeli soldiers who had been injured during Israel’s seven-week assault on Gaza this summer.
Protesters denounced the event as a tacit endorsement of the Israeli military’s actions, one which normalized the ongoing occupation and violence against the Palestinian people.
It is not unreasonable to assume that tensions may have been heightened during the game due to the political protests.
But if anything, the visual evidence suggests that the confrontation was a result of an anti-Palestinian provocation, the exact opposite of how the media has portrayed the incident.