From Left to Right, U.S. Jewish Groups Condemn De Blasio for 'Jewish Community' Tweet

With a rise in anti-Semitic rhetoric in America, many worry that the N.Y.C. mayor's comments could spark further scapegoating and conspiracy theories about Jews and the coronavirus

Danielle Ziri
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New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks to the media during a press conference New York, April 10, 2020
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks to the media during a press conference New York, April 10, 2020Credit: REUTERS/ Eduardo Munoz
Danielle Ziri

Jewish organizations from across the political spectrum blasted New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for a tweet he made on Tuesday night threatening "the Jewish community" as a whole with arrests after a large ultra-Orthodox funeral was held in Brooklyn in defiance of social distancing guidelines. 

“My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: The time for warnings has passed,” the mayor wrote. “I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summon or even arrest those who gather in large groups. This is about stopping the disease and saving lives. Period.”

The tweet came after a funeral procession for coronavirus victim Rabbi Chaim Mertz, drew crowds in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, which had to be dispersed by police. 

The World Jewish Congress announced on Wednesday it would formally censure the mayor for his remarks that “painted the Jewish community as lawbreakers and unconcerned about the city’s public health.”

 “This type of horrible stereotyping is dangerous and completely unacceptable at any time, but particularly while the world is gripped in fear and the worst among us are looking for scapegoats,” President of the World Jewish Congress Ronald Lauder said in a statement. “Mayor de Blasio should know better than to throw gasoline on a smoldering fire."

Lauder added that "Mayor de Blasio needs to realize that while he believes in the importance of social distancing – which I strongly believe in, too – every time a leader like him targets or stereotypes the 'Jewish community,' he feeds into the dangerous agenda of white supremacists and anti-Semites around the world. It needs to end."

The Zionist Organization of America said that the comment is “singling out and attacking the entire Jewish community for an issue with a Jewish funeral, in a manner that can encourage anti-Semitism.”

 “The mayor’s tweet is especially dangerous at this time, when Jew-haters are spreading blood libels falsely blaming the Jewish people for the coronavirus,” the group wrote. 

When the coronavirus pandemic began spreading in New York and social distancing guidelines were put in place, many in the Jewish community expressed concern that the current crisis might bring back some of the anti-Semitic rhetoric that emerged during the measles outbreak that swept the community last year.

Conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic comments and threats are already spreading rapidly on social media, accusing the Jewish community of not respecting the coronavirus guidelines. 

“There needs to be an extreme level of sensitivity when it comes to pointing fingers to any community, especially a community that has been grappling with the surge of anti-Semitic hate crimes,” Avi Greenstein, CEO of the Boro Park Jewish Community Council told Haaretz on Wednesday. 

Greenstein added that in the context of the anti-Semitic hate crimes that have swept through New York in recent years, “when we see that type of tweet from the mayor it really does raise great alarms and it’s concerning because of that generalization, and because of the fact that it is a very minute part of the overall Jewish community.”

“I’m terrified that things like this could cause a rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes,” he added.

But Greenstein also stressed that from his experience working with the mayor, he “does not have a bad bone in his body, he is not an anti-Semite.”

“He has a track record of working with the Jewish community, being fair with the Jewish community in any way possibly,” he said. “He rushed to put out a tweet, and it was wrong. He shouldn’t have done it and he should be called out on it.”

Another Orthodox Jewish leader, Yossi Gestetner, the co-founder of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council, called the mayor out for remaining silent while thousands of New Yorkers failed to stick to social distancing regulations as they came out to watch the U.S. Navy Blue Angels air show on Tuesday.

Some also responded by tweeting pictures of crowds gathering in Central Park and elsewhere earlier that day to watch the flyover, appearing to also defy social distancing rules.

 “The mayor came to the scene [of the funeral] as if [a] lack of social distancing has not been going on across the city all day,” Gestetner said. “Then the mayor placed 1.1 million Jews into one negative group, an act that he would not do to anyone else.”

He added that the mayor’s comments placed an “outsized focus on Hasidim for doing what everyone else was doing the same day.”

When de Blasio was asked about the tweet at a press conference on Wednesday morning, he justified it as a form of “tough love,” claiming that such gatherings had "not happened in other places."

Following the mayor's clarification, Gestetner added that “the mayor should retract his comments without any ifs and buts, and the mayor also needs to highlight that [a] lack of distancing has been going on all across the city; not just by 300 Hasidim in a neighborhood that has 72,000 Hasidim.”

Progressive Jewish organizations also spoke out against the mayor’s statement on Wednesday. Jews for Racial and Economic Justice called de Blasio’s remarks “the definition of bad judgement,” and said the mayor is “inviting the anti-Semitic targeting of Jews and ordering a dangerous escalation of policing, all at once.”

“Mayor Bill de Blasio went from enlisting the NYPD to over-police black and brown New Yorkers in the name of defending Jews to enlisting the NYPD to over-police visibly Jewish people REAL fast,” the group wrote. 

“Before you scapegoat Jews, mayor, consider a public health approach that doesn't involve criminalizing anyone,” the response, addressed to all mayors, including de Blasio, read. “Try housing the homeless, releasing people from jail, and providing care and treatment for our elders in nursing homes. Try anything but this.”

Co-founder of the left-wing anti-occupation group IfNotNow, Emily Mayer, said that while it is unacceptable that the funeral procession took place and that the people who encouraged it must be held responsible, she expected the mayor to “act more responsibly”.

"At this point, we’re used to Republicans scapegoating, singling out, and endangering our community,” she said. “It’s alarming to see that Mayor de Blasio has decided to do the same.”

“It is infuriating that elected officials – many of whom bear some responsibility for the scale of this pandemic – are reacting by singling out already-vulnerable groups and threatening them with arrest and confinement,” Mayer added.

The executive director of the progressive Zionist group Zioness, Amanda Berman, also told Haaretz that the mayor’s tweet was “a perfect example of what not to do as a leader: Stereotype, generalize, and target.”

 “These are the classic signs of bigotry, and his tweet checked all the boxes,” Berman said. “There is no question that certain members of all ultra-religious communities have disregarded critical rules intended to protect us all, and we can empathize with any frustration relating to this challenge – but there are ways to address bad behavior by the few without making an entire vulnerable group even more vulnerable.”

Berman added that in difficult times, such as the current health crisis, “leadership matters, and words have the potential to do grave harm.”

“We do not believe Mayor de Blasio would be so irresponsible toward any other community – and we’re grateful for that – and it’s unacceptable and dangerous for him to be so cavalier toward Jews of any denomination, let alone the entire Jewish community.”

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