Opinion

Bill De Blasio’s ‘Jewish Community’ Tweet Was Intemperate, but He Wasn’t Wrong

The vociferous critics of the New York mayor's ‘anti-Semitic’ tweet, calling out those Jewish communities blatantly defying coronavirus social restrictions, aren’t actually protecting Jews at all

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Why deny the clear fact that some Jewish communities are blatantly defying coronavirus precautions that protect them and the rest of us? New York City mayor, Bill de Blasio
Why deny the clear fact that some Jewish communities are blatantly defying coronavirus precautions that protect them and the rest of us? New York City mayor, Bill de BlasioCredit: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The greatest Jewish city on earth is in an uproar over its mayor’s rather intemperate tweet about "the Jewish community."

Early Tuesday morning, in response to the scenes from a funeral in Williamsburg that got out of hand when hundreds of ultra-Orthodox men failed to observe the minimal regulations of coronavirus-era "social distancing," Bill de Blasio tweeted: "My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed. I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups."

There’s no need for me to add to the wealth of commentary already piling up over whether the mayor’s tweet was anti-Semitic or not, and if so, what it says about him. But there’s something about de Blasio’s wording which is of significance to Jews living everywhere, not just in NYC. 

The honest truth is that when a non-Jewish politician says good things about "the Jewish community," our Jewish hearts swell with pride, even though the proposition of one unified "Jewish community" is a false concept and we all know it. We want to bask in any admiration for "our" Jewish community and not to be held responsible for the misdeeds of that "other" Jewish community. 

Anywhere greater than a few dozen Jews live, there isn’t one Jewish community. There are numerous Jewish communities, both separate and overlapping, and many individual Jews with their own conflicted, tenuous and sometimes non-existent ties to these communities. 

De Blasio was of course wrong to call the members of one tiny ultra-Orthodox sect “the Jewish community.” But neither should the vast majority of Jews who are not part of the Tolaat Yaakov community accept that conflation - that a peripheral Hasidic group constitutes “the Jewish community” - either. 

If we don’t want “the Jewish community” to be singled out for collective shaming, we have to make it clear to ourselves and to others that there isn’t just one Jewish community. We most certainly still do have a duty of care and a level of responsibility for members of other Jewish communities, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with saying that not every Jew living in the same neighborhood or town or country is a member of the same Jewish community.

I live in the second-largest Jewish city in the world. There are about 600,000 Jews living in Jerusalem, less than half the number of Jews in New York, and if I’d start listing here the number of Jewish communities in this city, I’d run out of column space. I am not a member and don’t even want to be identified with the overwhelming majority of those communities. The variety in New York is at least as wide as in Jerusalem. 

Why would a Jewish New Yorker reading this choose, just for example, to be a member of a community in which every facet of life is closely controlled by elderly men who insist on preventing young people learning secular studies and arrange marriages between 19 year-olds?

Why are small ultra-Orthodox sects which practice an isolationist and reactionary form of Judaism regarded as “the Jewish community”? It doesn’t matter whether politicians and pundits choose to criticize those sects for endangering themselves and others by spreading COVID-19 - or praise them for their many acts of charity and selflessness. Over three-quarters of Jews in New York and around the world do not share their worldview or their understanding of Judaism.  

Not only does the Pavlovian reaction to brand any criticism of ultra-Orthodoxy as anti-Semitism (and yes, I’m very aware of the similarity to the criticism of Israeli policies = anti-Semitism debate here) insult the many diverse Jewish identities out there, it also plays in to the Haredi conceit that theirs is the "authentic Judaism," rather than what it actually is – a 200 year-old ideology which emerged in reaction to enlightenment and the emancipation of Jews in Central Europe.

Yes, our Haredi brothers and sisters are often the first ones among us to suffer from anti-Semitic attacks because of their identifiably Jewish appearance and we should all be there on the frontlines to protect them and never accept any physical or verbal violence which targets them. 

But how are we helping them right now by denying the clear fact that some of these Jewish communities have been blatantly defying the various distancing precautions which are there to protect them and the rest of us? No, not all of them, of course. But yes, disproportionately and as organized groups, they are. Protecting their lives from coronavirus is just as important as protecting them from anti-Semites. 

While you’re reading this column, there are still shuls and chayders operating underground in ultra-Orthodox enclaves of Jerusalem and New York, under the auspices of some of the most respected rabbis in the Haredi world. They are a minority, even within ultra-Orthodoxy, and in some cases other Haredi Jews are calling them out. 

And so should any responsible local politician, though probably using more careful and sensitive words. I don’t want to be part of "the Jewish community" that knowingly endangers itself and others, and I doubt you do either. 

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