NEW YORK – Orthodox Jewish journalist Jacob Kornbluh, who has been advocating for coronavirus safety, was physically assaulted by a group of Orthodox protesters in his own Borough Park neighborhood on Wednesday night.
Videos of the attack were posted on Twitter, showing a large crowd assaulting Kornbluh, whose back is pinned against a wall. He later wrote that he was “hit in the head, and kicked at by an angry crowd of hundreds of community members of the Borough Park protest,” who called him “Nazi” and “Hitler.”
Kornbluh, a national politics reporter for Jewish Insider, was extracted from the crowd by some community members and by police officers on the scene. He did not suffer any lasting injuries.
The assault came after months of incitement against Kornbluh by right-wing radio host and activist Heshy Tischler, who led protests on Tuesday and Wednesday night against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s new COVID-19 restrictions. These would partially shut down neighborhoods with high rates of infection, which includes Orthodox ones, where the virus is spreading quickly.
Many protesters Wednesday night carried “Trump 2020” flags and signs backing the president. Witnesses of the assault said Tischler explicitly directed the crowd to attack Kornbluh, who has filed charges against Tischler and others with the NYPD.
Earlier on Wednesday, Tischler uploaded a video of himself standing in a cemetery, calling Kornbluh an “evil snitch” who “calls the mayor and rats on us.” Tischler also called the reporter a “murderer” who “hates the Jewish community,” and falsely claimed that Kornbluh, originally from London, came to the United States illegally.
Kornbluh spoke to Haaretz less than an hour before the incident, and said he “can deal” with personal attacks against him from his community. “I’m used to being a voice of reason in a sea full of dragons,” he said. “What I cannot deal with is a community ignoring the basics of dealing with a health crisis.”
He added: “If I can use my voice, if I can use myself as a bridge between government and community to explain, to inform, about the data, to tell [people] what is being proposed and what is being done to stamp down this infection, I will be there.”
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Kornbluh has been promoting compliance with the city and state’s mask mandate and social distancing guidelines since the start of the pandemic, but particularly since the spring, when community compliance became less stringent. Since then, he has been condemned by community members, who accuse him of reporting their violations to the authorities.
Frustrations over the newly announced restrictions on neighborhoods experiencing a COVID-19 spike culminated with a protest in Borough Park on Tuesday night. Hundreds of Orthodox Jews set fire to a pile of masks, assaulted and seriously injured a Hasidic counterprotester.
On Wednesday, Gov. Cuomo announced the new rules closing schools, limiting attendance at synagogue services to 10 people and closing nonessential businesses in parts of Brooklyn, Queens, Rockland County and Orange County. They will go into effect by Friday, as Jewish communities begin celebrations of Shmini Atzeret and Simhat Torah, the last of the fall holidays, which are generally celebrated with large gatherings and dancing. The restrictions will be in effect for 14 days. If the infection rate diminishes at the end of the designated period, they will be eased.
But for weeks Orthodox community leaders have called out city and state authorities for their failure to do meaningful outreach to the community and accused them of essentially singling it out.
Although Kornbluh agrees that “Gov. Cuomo was wrong in his approach of limiting shul services in the middle of a holiday,” he said he believes the new restrictions do not represent a government takeover. “If we were at the beginning, and people were not aware of it yet, I can understand that people don’t take it seriously enough,” he told Haaretz. “But we already buried over 900 of our own in the beginning.
“Why can’t we comply with something that is very easy, something that you had six months to actually get used to, and just deal with the current crisis?” he asked. “It was a sad moment,” Kornbluh said. “I was disappointed to see this turn into violence.
"This was instigated by one troublemaker who is dangerous, who is gaining a following just because he can scream the loudest and embarrass and intimidate everyone,” he added. “There is one person responsible for the violence [on Tuesday: his name is Heshy Tischler.”
Kornbluh added, “It’s a shame that some in our community have had harsher words to say on Gov. Cuomo than on this individual who is inciting violence, using racist, homophobic and unacceptable comments against city officials, reporters, other individuals in our community.”
A community leader in Brooklyn who asked to remain anonymous told Haaretz that people like Tischler are “taking advantage of this time of uncertainty and crisis to rile up people and to mislead people.”
“People are afraid of him, they don't want him to focus on them,” he said. “This is not who we are,” the person added. “He is a despicable person. I’m speechless.”
The Anti-Defamation League also condemned the attack against Kornbluh on Twitter on Wednesday night saying that “violence and incitement are inexcusable.”
City Councilman Chaim Deutsch added, “It is NEVER acceptable for a protest to devolve into violence.” In a Tweet, he wrote: “I am disgusted by this and stand with Jacob Kornbluh. Instigators of violence are not welcome in our community.”
New York Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler also reacted to the incident, which he called “terrifying.” He wrote that “while this may be a small minority within a small community, it is disgusting and those responsible must be held to account for such violence.”
Tischler tweeted his version of events on Thursday morning.
“Last night in middle of the legal celebration Mr. Kornbluh showed up. He came to look for trouble, and to his shock he didn’t get it,” he wrote.
“He claims he was ‘brutally assaulted’ by hundreds,” Tischler continued. “What happened is simple: when Mr Kornbluh was recognized by the crowd last night, he was rightfully called out for being a Muser [informant] (Which he agrees he is). There was no violence. There was screaming. Seeing the commotion the police decided to escort him out. Nobody got hurt.”