Orthodox Jews Skeptical That Widespread Outrage Over De Blasio Tweet Reflects Jewish Unity

Members of the Hasidic community tell Haaretz the reactions more likely indicate an unwillingness to be associated with them: ‘It’s like a moderate Muslim saying, “Hey I’m not Al-Qaida!”’

Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
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Residents of the Williamsburg neighborhood standing on fire escapes as hundreds of mourners gather to observe a funeral for Rabbi Chaim Mertz, April 28, 2020.
Residents of the Williamsburg neighborhood standing on fire escapes as hundreds of mourners gather to observe a funeral for Rabbi Chaim Mertz, April 28, 2020.Credit: Todd Maisel/AP
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tweet blasting the “Jewish community” as a whole for a crowded Hasidic funeral in Williamsburg on Tuesday night caused much uproar. Jewish groups from across the spectrum condemned his generalization of the community and warned that it could exacerbate anti-Semitic sentiment. 

But the unified display of outrage should not be mistaken for new-found solidarity with the Orthodox community from mainstream Jews, Orthodox Jews told Haaretz. 

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“My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: The time for warnings has passed,” de Blasio’s controversial tweet said, after hundreds of Hasidic Jews had gathered for the funeral of Rabbi Chaim Mertz. “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.”

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

A Jewish youngster walking through a Hasidic neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, April 29, 2020.
A Jewish youngster walking through a Hasidic neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, April 29, 2020.Credit: AFP

A wave of angry reactions poured in, with mainstream Jewish groups calling the statement “irresponsible” and saying the mayor “should have known better.”

However, an Orthodox resident of Brooklyn’s Borough Park, Yosef Rapaport, told Haaretz Thursday that he believes many non-Orthodox Jews were more concerned about being categorized with the Haredim than the mayor’s threats.

“They are bothered because the mayor cast his net over all Jews so the reaction – not all of it – is, “Hey, why do you include me with these crazies? I’m not part of those crazies!” he said. “It’s like a moderate Muslim saying, ‘Hey I’m not Al-Qaida!’”

In January, Rapaport was among the thousands who participated in the “No Hate. No Fear” march over Brooklyn Bridge. The event came days after five Orthodox Jews were stabbed at a Hanukkah celebration in Monsey, New York, and was the largest display of solidarity with the Jewish community in recent years. But only a few Orthodox Jews were present at that event, many expressing skepticism about how long the unity would last before the gap between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews would resurface. 

“I’m sorry, I don’t think anything has changed,” Rapaport told Haaretz. “And the proof of it is that ... you see seemingly Jewish people – a great many of them are saying, ‘Hey why do you include me in this?’”

Eli Steinberg, an Orthodox resident of Lakewood, New Jersey, said that while the attack in Monsey – and the anti-Semitic incidents that preceded it – served as a wake-up call for some, many of the reactions of non-Orthodox Jews to de Blasio’s comment were focused on distancing themselves from the Orthodox community.

“If you flip through social media, you will see a lot of [non-Orthodox Jewish] people who did make this differentiation,” he said. He highlighted a tweet that stated: “As a white Jew, I’m pretty upset with the mayor’s tweet, but at the same time, I’m pretty conflicted over how I feel about Hasidism and the need to call this out.”

Another tweet declared: “Of course. That community is nuts. But it’s not ‘the JEWISH community.’ It’s the Hasidic community.” Another tweet called on de Blasio to “address the Hasidic [community]. ... Us Reform Jews, Conservative, Traditional and other Orthodox have shut down synagogues across the country and cancelled any gathering or celebration.” 

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaking at a food shelf organized by The Campaign Against Hunger in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn, April 14, 2020.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaking at a food shelf organized by The Campaign Against Hunger in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn, April 14, 2020.Credit: AFP

Anti-Semitic rhetoric

When the coronavirus pandemic began spreading in New York and social distancing guidelines were introduced in March, many expressed concern that the crisis might see a return of the anti-Semitic rhetoric that emerged during the measles outbreak last year, which was largely directed at Orthodox Jews.

Despite Orthodox leaders, including prominent rabbis, overwhelmingly instructing community members to follow the guidelines, many feel that media reports have been heavily focusing on Orthodox Jews who failed to comply, leading to generalizations about the community. 

Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, comments and threats have spread rapidly on social media, accusing the Jewish community of not respecting the coronavirus guidelines – and even of spreading the virus. 

Steinberg said that while he hopes a majority of the non-Orthodox Jews who condemned de Blasio’s tweet did so because they had “learned a lesson,” he remained doubtful. 

“I wonder why it is that many – not all – of these people have been silent for the past few weeks while we have constantly been attacked and treated unfairly in the media, and by elected officials in places like Jackson and Rockland County, who have talked about us with the broadest of generalizations like we are ‘spreaders’ and the causes of our own infections,” he said. Instead, he said, it should have been recognized that Orthodox Jews are “victims of density and a virus we hardly understand.”

Like many others, Steinberg also mentioned de Blasio’s apparent double standard in failing to condemn the mass gatherings in parks and elsewhere as New Yorkers watched the U.S. Navy air show on Tuesday. 

Jewish Hasidic community members gathering for a funeral procession in Williamsburg amid the coronavirus outbreak, April 28, 2020.
Jewish Hasidic community members gathering for a funeral procession in Williamsburg amid the coronavirus outbreak, April 28, 2020.Credit: BRUCE SCHAFF/REUTERS

“When people across the spectrum of races, religions and ethnicities are getting fed up with a city and a state’s mismanagement, and deciding for themselves what is and isn’t a risk they are willing to take, why don’t we recognize that the people in Williamsburg are just like everyone else in that way?” he asked. 

“Why did the media spend weeks concentrating on painting individuals who went to pray or went to a funeral or got married as ‘Orthodox Jews defying the distancing orders,’ when that identifier was never germane, and nobody was shouting from the rooftops then to defend the 98 percent of us who were locked down with our large families?” Steinberg continued.

He also pointed out that as Orthodox families are typically large, some may “see 10 to 15 people together outdoors – they automatically assume there are violations to distancing.”

Yehudah Webster, a community organizer for Jews for Racial & Economic Justice who lives in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, said he had observed the local Orthodox community take government guidelines very seriously in recent weeks, with stores requiring customers to wear masks and gloves. 

He also agreed that the response to the tweet “would have been quite different if [de Blasio] had said ‘the Hasidic Jewish community’ and secular Jews wouldn’t have felt personally attacked.

“I think this is what probably motivated such a collective, unified response to it,” Webster said. “I don’t think this is in some way a post-march unity,” he added, referring to the Brooklyn Bridge event.

According to Rapaport, another factor in the indignation being expressed by some non-Orthodox Jews may have been the idea that when people refer to “the Jewish community” in New York City, many now associate that term specifically with Orthodox Jews. 

“What the mayor did here is really rub the Reform, the Conservatives and the secularists up the wrong way,” Rapaport said. “Not only because he included them, [but because when saying] ‘the Jewish community,’ the default image that comes to mind is those Hasidim.”

The generalization was so flagrant, in fact, that organizers of Tuesday night’s funeral issued a statement saying that it “hurt that [the funeral procession] led to singling out the Jewish community, and for that we apologize to all Jewish people.”  

They also apologized for the event spinning out of control, although it had been organized with the NYPD’s permission and with a social distancing plan in place.

Among the Jewish groups condemning de Blasio’s tweet, the World Jewish Congress announced Wednesday it would formally censure the mayor. Progressive Jewish organizations like Jews for Racial & Economic Justice and IfNotNow also said the tweet was scapegoating Jews. 

Those responses meant little to Rapaport. “I don’t feel the love and I don’t feel the solidarity, and I would dare say that neither do any of my friends and compatriots.” 

He added that some of the responses to anti-Semitic incidents in general by “the establishment” are often lacking in power and consist of “measured, sculptured words defending against blatant anti-Semitism.

“That’s the feeling I get for sure – even from sincere, anti-bigotry people in the way they react,” he said. “There is never the full-throated, indignant reaction. It’s always measured and it always has an ‘escape hatch’ feeling.”

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