The Shomrim and the Militarization of Jewish Northwest Baltimore

December 2, 2010
Mark Gunnery

On December first, the Baltimore Sun reported on the arrest of Eliyahu Werdesheim for the attack of an African American teenager in Northwest Baltimore. According to the Sun, Werdesheim and two other members of the Shomrim, a Jewish citizen patrol group that serves the Orthodox community of Upper Park Heights, surrounded the fifteen year old, threw him to the ground, struck him in the head with a hand-radio, broke his wrist, kneed him in the back, and patted him down, telling him “you wanna fuck with us, you don’t belong here, get out of here!” They then got back in their van and drove away.

The twenty-three year old Werdersheim is a CEO of a security firm that serves diplomats and executives while they travel abroad. He is also a former Israeli special services soldier. The unit he was in specialized in urban counterterrorism, hostage rescue and high-profile apprehensions. His lawyers claim that the youth was armed with a stick, and that Werdersheim defended himself and is guilty of nothing more than winning a fight. He was arrested and then released on a $50,000 bond.

The Shomrim, or the Watchers, is an Orthodox Jewish citizen patrol group active in the northwest corner of Baltimore, serving the area north of Northern Parkway. They were formed in 2005 in response to burglaries in the area, and have acted as a first-response team since, operating an around-the-clock phone line and often arriving at crime scenes before the police.

This incident reveals a sad fact about Jewish communities like the one in Northwest Baltimore. The experience of defending a racist occupation in Palestine—both in a public relations sense and through physically serving in the Israeli Defense Forces—has primed young Jews in the United States to engage in racist violence at home. The fact that Werdesheim supposedly told the teen “you don’t belong here” while attacking him underscores this. Jewish communities are becoming increasingly militarized as more and more Jewish American youth serve in the Israeli Defense Forces, and come home to hero’s welcomes.

The sense of being under attack by a looming anti-Semitic threat is constantly reinforced in Jewish communities, and it leads groups like the Shomrim to preemptively attack people they see as potential threats, like African American youth. In recent months, there have been a number of attacks on Jewish residents of Northwest Baltimore, including the pelting of a rabbi with stones, vandalism of vehicles with anti-Semitic imagery and slogans, and the attack of a young Orthodox boy, whose arm was broken by people shouting “dirty Jew” at him. This latest act of vigilantism by the Shomrim has to be seen in this context, but not justified by it.

In Northwest Baltimore, Northern Parkway is an unofficial dividing line between African American and Jewish communities. This is complicated by the fact that many African American families live north of the this invisible border, on the “Jewish” side. African Americans and Jews live side by side there, but in different worlds. It is common for African Americans and Jews who live in the same neighborhood to never interact with one another, and to regard each another as outsiders.

It is crucial for the vitality of Northwest Baltimore for members of the Jewish community to regard themselves as part of Baltimore, and remember that Baltimore is a majority African American city. Upper Park Heights is not a settlement where armed Jews have carte-blanche to attack anyone they perceive as outsiders. It is part of Baltimore, a great city, where racial tensions are thick, rooted deeply in history, and palpable, but which can be overcome through recognition of our shared membership of the greater Baltimore community. Once the Jews of Northwest Baltimore can get beyond the ethnicism and racism that allows adults to attack fifteen year olds, maybe some real change can come.


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