With Coronavirus Shuttering Shuls, N.Y. Jews Fear Another Threat: Anti-Semitism

Orthodox groups slam media's false charges and 'outsized focus' on their community, despite its 'proactive' response to epidemic; warn of surge in anti-Jewish invective

Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather for a morning prayer outside of a synagogue, closed due to coronavirus disease, in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, March 18, 2020
ANDREW KELLY/REUTERS

As the coronavirus outbreak continues to shake up the way of life of communities across the globe, Orthodox Jews are increasingly worried about their health and well-being – and another threat as well: They fear the current crisis could bring back the anti-Semitic rhetoric that emerged during the measles outbreak that swept their community last year.

“We’re definitely seeing, especially online, a rhetoric on Facebook, on Twitter,” Evan Bernstein, vice president of the northeast division of the Anti-Defamation League, told Haaretz Sunday. “We’re starting to see little pockets of this stuff happening in a very similar way we did with the measles outbreak,” he added, in a phone conversation.

Over the past week, New York's Orthodox Jewish community has been facing accusations after reports that its members are breaking the social distancing rules handed down by the authorities in light of the coronovirus pandemic.

For their part, however, leaders and organizations affiliated with the community insist that they have mobilized heavily around government instructions and are pushing scrupulous hygienic measures.

Orthodox Jews use social distancing as they pray outside the Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters in 
Brooklyn, March 20, 2020
Mark Lennihan/AP

“Nearly every mainstream national and recognized local Jewish organization has issued guidance and alerts, informing the public of the hazards of the current situation and absolute requirements to follow the rules,” Chaskel Bennett, co-founder of the Flatbush Jewish Community Coalition told Haaretz.

In a joint statement released Friday, six major Orthodox groups – the Rabbinical Alliance of America, the Orthodox Union, the Rabbinical Council of America, the National Council of Young Israel, the Vaad of Lakewood (New Jersey) and Agudath Israel of America – urged “not only full compliance with all health guidelines issued by federal, state, and local governments, but have gone beyond those pronouncements in urging our communities to remain at home and avoid, to the maximum extent feasible, any outside interactions.”

The signatories of the statement – which warned “Stay Home, Save Lives” in red capital letters – noted that they have made the “unprecedented and deeply distressing step of shuttering the central fixtures” of the Orthodox community, including "our shuls, yeshivos, and schools."

'Stay Home, Save Lives': A joint statement released by six major Jewish Orthodox groups urges 'full compliance with all health guidelines issued by federal, state, and local governments'
Screen capture

They added: “We have done so because as observant Jews we have an obligation to place supreme value on protecting human life (pikuah nefesh).”

Rabbinical authorities' demands to close down such institutions, Bennett said, have been “unheard of prior to this pandemic”– making the negative generalizations about the Orthodox community and its portrayal as disrespecting government directives all the more upsetting.

“Companies and stores have closed well in advance of official mandates to do so just to be safe – not just reactive but proactive,” he continued. “Those individuals who ignore these calls to action are part of a stubborn minority and by no means speak for the overwhelming majority of Those individuals who ignore these calls to action are part of a stubborn minority and by no means speak for the overwhelming majority of law-abiding Orthodox Jewish Americans.”

For many observant Jews, the current situation is confronting them with “a frightening new world,” Bennett, of the Flatbush organization, said. “For our community, the shuttering of shuls and yeshivas, the very essence of Orthodox Jewish life, is dramatic, painful and unprecedented.”

Some of the online conspiracy theories that the ADL has recently found claim that Jews are to blame for the spread of the virus – or even that “Israel knew about it and controlled it and now is making the vaccine [for their own benefit],” according to Bernstein. The new social media claims are echoing some of the painful memories of the measles crisis last year, and are deeply disturbing.

“If you look at what happened with measles, it was horrific and it got to the point where the Orthodox Jewish community had to take out an add in Time Square [magazine] to let people know that they were vaccinating, because there were just all the horrific rumors and everything else,” Bernstein recalled.

Another concern for the ADL is the possibility that some people will blame Jews for the economy plummeting in America in light of the health crisis.

“Jews controlling the economy, money and Jews – this has been an anti-Semitism stereotype that has been around for hundreds and hundreds of years,” Bernstein said. “We certainly saw it in 2008 and now there is potential that the economy is going to be more affected than it was in 2008, which was one of the worst moments in American history for the economy since the Great Depression.”

While he has yet to see anything “super palpable yet” heralding a resurgence of those stereotypical tropes, he pointed out that, “based on history, we would think that that would be one of the next things that would happen and we’re keeping our eyes very open around that.”

New Rochelle epicenter

Media outlets in New York have focused much attention on local Jews in recent weeks, after one of the first cases in the state to be seriously hit by the epidemic turned out to be the community of New Rochelle, which became an epicenter of the crisis.

Signs on a tent at the entrance of Chai Urgent Care facility in Brooklyn's Williamsburg community, ask people who suspect they have the COVID-19 to wait inside for screening, March 18, 2020
Bebeto Matthews,AP

Indeed, in general, Orthodox Jews – victims of the overwhelming majority of hate crime in New York over the past few years – have been in the headlines recently.

Last week, for example, The New York Times reported that hundreds of Orthodox Jews held a wedding in the South Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, on the same day that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people.

“The Orthodox community, the visibly Jewish community seems to always be the one people want to write about first,” he said. “I know for a fact that other communities are still gathering for religious activity that are not Jewish communities, but unfortunately a lot of the stories that are put out there are only about the Jewish community and only about the Orthodox Jewish community.”

While it may have taken “a little bit of time to get the word out, like it has for all of America and the world” about handling the epidemic, Bennett claimed that “few groups or communities have organized or have been as reactive as the Orthodox community.”

“But you wouldn’t know any of this by reading the breathless articles and headlines incessantly focusing on the minority outliers of those who simply refuse to listen,” he told Haaretz. “If they understood what closing every single shul and school means to this community, they would laud us as the caring and responsible citizens we are.”

Purim reading from the Book of Esther for residents under self-quarantine due to potential exposure to the COVID-19 coronavirus, in New Rochelle, N.Y., March 9, 2020
John Minchillo/AP

Media reports hyperfocused on the Orthodox Jewish community, Bennett added, are “dangerous”: “Bigots feed off of news media reports that place an outsized focus on Orthodox Jews when everyone knows Covid-19 is a worldwide pandemic.”

'Spewing hate'

As people turn to the internet in times of quarantine and social distancing, online anti-Semitism may quickly become a significant problem, ADL's Bernstein warns.

“These are the moments when some people are going to start spewing their hate and people are going to hold on to it, especially now when everyone is sequestered in their homes and are online more than ever before,” he said.

“Social media is full of the most vile and hateful invective aimed at religious Jews,” Bennett added.

At a time when Jewish groups are concerned that online hate speech and anti-Semitic sentiments could surge as a result of the coronavirus crisis, the ADL is actually somewhat optimistic about what it sees as a reduction in assaults and physical manifestations of hate against Jews.

“It’s impossible to point out exactly any one thing that has slowed this down,” Bernstein said. “I think it’s a collection of things: There is more communal policing going on right now, there are more proactive measures since Monsey [referring to the attack in which five Jews were stabbed during a Hanukkah celebration in December], there has been a lot of interfaith work done at the group level.”

The new security steps and increased awareness evidenced since the beginning of the year are “seeming to work,” but Bernstein warned that in the past, there have been many instances of a slowdown in the number of attacks that have later spiked again.

“So I hope [the downturn] is because of those measures that are in place," he said. "And now with everybody hopefully in quarantine and social distancing, we hope those numbers will continue to stay down.”