When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio threatened “the Jewish community” with arrests last week after a Hasidic funeral defied social distancing guidelines in Brooklyn, angry reactions quickly poured in. While many focused on his tweet’s formulation and his subsequent justification of it, others accused him of anti-Semitism.
But Orthodox community leaders and those who have worked with de Blasio on issues related to the Jewish community over his years in office tell Haaretz they found his comments somewhat out of character.
“Mayor de Blasio does not have a bad bone in his body, he is not an anti-Semite,” says Borough Park Jewish Community Council CEO Avi Greenstein, who has worked closely with the mayor. “He has a track record of working with the Jewish community, being fair to the Jewish community in every way possible – and I can say that in full confidence.”
“He has been very, extraordinarily good,” says Yosef Rapaport, a well-known member of Brooklyn’s Orthodox community. He notes that de Blasio served on New York City Council in the early 2000s representing parts of Brooklyn, including the Orthodox neighborhood of Borough Park where Rapaport lives. “There is a deep respect for him, even if there is criticism,” he says.
As the furor surrounding de Blasio’s comments continues in a city that is home to over 1 million Jews, Haaretz examines the key elements of de Blasio’s record in his dealings with the community during his six years in office.
Support for Israel
De Blasio has always been vocal in his support for Israel. In 2015, a year after taking office, he took his first trip to the country as New York mayor to attend the International Conference of Mayors, held in Jerusalem.
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During the trip, de Blasio condemned any form of anti-Semitism and visited families affected by acts of terrorism.
“When you are going through pain, we feel pain too,” he said at a joint press conference with then-Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.
One of his most public displays of support for the country is his attendance at the yearly Celebrate Israel Parade, marching alongside Israeli diplomats and local officials on Fifth Avenue.
Speaking at a city-sponsored rally against anti-Semitism in February 2019, de Blasio stated that Israel was created “not just as a dream of a homeland for people who had lost their homeland, but also as a refuge from a world filled with hate.”
Consul General of Israel in New York Dani Dayan tells Haaretz that “in spite of his offensive tweet targeting Jews, as the envoy of Israel I will always give credit to Mayor de Blasio where credit is due: He is one of the most outspoken supporters of Israel among the major figures in the progressive political wing of this country.”
Rejection of the BDS movement
As part of his support for the Jewish state, de Blasio has openly expressed his rejection of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.
“Democrats and Republicans with equal fervor need to say – Israel must exist so the Jewish people know they are always protected,” he said at that same rally last year in Flatbush. “Maybe some people don’t realize it, but when they support the BDS movement, they are affronting the right of Israel to exist and that is unacceptable,” he added.
A month later, he reiterated his position when his fellow Democrat, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, suggested that U.S. support for Israel stems from economic interests and American supporters of Israel have an “allegiance to a foreign country.” De Blasio condemned those comments as “absolutely unacceptable,” “illogical” and “really inappropriate.”
“His rejection of BDS is unequivocal,” Dayan says. “And his appearance last year in the plenary of the AIPAC Policy Conference, when many progressives defined boycotting the event as a litmus test, was very courageous.”
New York experienced its worst measles outbreak in nearly 20 years in April 2019, affecting mainly the Orthodox communities in Brooklyn and Queens.
De Blasio was in the spotlight during this health crisis, too. On April 9, he declared a public health emergency in some Haredi areas of Brooklyn.
“Every one of us should feel responsibility for the situation,” he said, while announcing new measures in the Williamsburg neighborhood – the epicenter of the crisis at the time.
Under the new order, every child over 6 months of age living in four Brooklyn zip codes was required to get the MMR vaccine in the next 48 hours or their parents could be fined $1,000. Schools were required to exclude unvaccinated children from classrooms.
About a week later, the city shut down a Jewish child-care center in Williamsburg for violating the order – the first of several religious schools that were reprimanded.
While the vast majority of Orthodox leaders urged parents to get the MMR vaccine for their children and the community overwhelmingly complied, some anti-vaccination parents in the community went as far as challenging it legally as “an overreach of authority,” citing religious convictions.
But even among those who agreed with the mayor on the importance of vaccination, some believed his approach to solving the crisis could have been more inclusive of the Orthodox community. They told Haaretz at the time that health officials had “done a dismal job with getting the message across in the right, proper way – a message that can actually achieve the mutually desired results.”
Some also pointed out that the health notices released to the community were written in improper Yiddish, adding that there was a years-long “antagonistic relationship” between health officials and the Orthodox community that required extra sensitivity on such matters.
However, de Blasio also faced criticism from outside the Orthodox community, with some saying he was too slow to require vaccinations because of his ties to the Orthodox community.
In July 2015, after a complaint from yeshiva graduates, the de Blasio administration decided to launch an investigation into the secular education being taught in Orthodox schools, which serve tens of thousands of students in the city.
Four years later, the report was still unpublished. Advocacy groups believed the stalling was due to the mayor’s fear of angering the Orthodox community. He was criticized by non-Orthodox Jews and education advocates alike for “ignoring the welfare of Jewish children,” and delaying the report for political purposes.
“Stop supporting policies that condemn them to a lifetime of poverty and illiteracy. Stop depriving them of the possibility of an honorable livelihood. Stop making them dependent on all manner of government handouts,” Eric H. Yoffie, former president of the Union for Reform Judaism, wrote in an op-ed in Haaretz in 2016.
When the report was eventually released last December, the mayor again faced criticism for what was widely seen as a toothless probe. A New York Times editorial – titled "Did De Blasio put politics ahead of yeshiva students?" – stated: “The politics surrounding the de Blasio administration’s deep reluctance to bring the force of law to bear on New York’s Orthodox communities is clear.”
Defending Jewish rituals
Shortly after taking office in 2015, the de Blasio administration eliminated a regulation ordering mohels to obtain signed permission from parents before orally removing blood from an infant during the ritual known as metzitzah b’peh.
The move was viewed in the Orthodox community as a “big win for religious freedom in New York.”
The Bloomberg administration had put the regulation in place after cases of infant herpes in the community. This sparked controversy and led to a council of Orthodox rabbis suing the city.
Aiming to build trust with the Orthodox community, de Blasio decided to cancel the requirements and, with the community’s support, ramp up health tests on mohels instead. Those testing positive for herpes or when DNA tests showed they had infected a baby during the ritual would be banned from practicing.
In 2017, as more cases of infant herpes were reported following the procedure, two mohels were banned from practicing – although their names remained unpublished.
During de Blasio’s terms in office, New York City has seen unprecedented upticks in anti-Semitic incidents, mainly targeting the Orthodox community in Brooklyn.
In 2018, the NYPD’s Hate Crimes Task Force recorded a 23 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents citywide. The number of violent assaults against Jews has significantly jumped since 2017. Reports of Orthodox Jews being beaten in the street, synagogues vandalized and swastikas drawn on Jewish buildings have become a frequent occurrence. And de Blasio’s “zero tolerance” for anti-Semitism has become a common subject in press conferences over the past two years.
After the mass shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue in October 2018, when 11 worshippers were murdered by a white supremacist, de Blasio increased security at Jewish institutions and synagogues across New York.
Last September, his office attempted a more proactive approach and opened the city’s first Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes, appointing former ADL official Deborah Lauter as executive director.
Days after last December’s attack in Monsey, when an assailant stabbed five people during a Hanukkah party at an Orthodox rabbi's home, and as the city saw dozens of anti-Semitic incidents, de Blasio also ordered the NYPD to install additional security cameras in Orthodox neighborhoods.
“An attack on the Jewish community is an attack on all New Yorkers,” he said in January.
But some in the Jewish community have found his responses insufficient and called on him to declare a state of emergency over the wave of attacks.
“For a very long time, [the de Blasio administration] wasn’t really dealing with it. Except for condemning it, nothing was being done. It was just words,” says former state assemblyman Dov Hikind, who recently founded the organization Americans Against Antisemitism.
Hikind believes it was only after “Jewish blood was spilled” in Jersey City – during a shooting attack on a kosher store last December – and Monsey that the mayor finally got serious about combating the crime.
He also says de Blasio still needs to apologize properly for last week’s “Jewish community tweet” and shouldn’t “get away with it,” no matter how good his track record may be.