Opinion |

'Primitive, Diseased Invaders' Threatening America: How Scapegoating ultra-Orthodox Jews for Coronavirus Mirrors Islamophobia

Hate speech against Haredi Jews looks different from the white nationalist anti-Semitism directed at ‘globalists’ and George Soros. It resembles far more the rising anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant tropes of the Trump era

Ben Lorber
Ben Lorber
An Orthodox Jewish man walks through the Borough Park neighborhood of New York on the eve of the Passover holiday, April 08, 2020
An Orthodox Jewish man walks through the Borough Park neighborhood of New York on the eve of the Passover holiday, April 08, 2020Credit: Spencer Platt/AFP
Ben Lorber
Ben Lorber

On April 29, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio claimed "the Jewish community" is disobeying social distancing orders enforced during the coronavirus lockdown, condemning a crowded Jewish funeral, in a Satmar Hasidic community of Williamsburg, in a tweet many have since derided as anti-Semitic.

De Blasio’s tweet is the latest chapter of a persistent mainstream narrative that disproportionately focuses on Haredi Jews as carriers of disease, uniquely responsible, due to presumed cultural deficiencies, for recklessly spreading COVID-19 to the broader public.

Select instances of noncompliance in Haredi communities, while certainly real, are given outsized attention in news media and internet discourse, creating a sensationalist public discourse that falsely suggests that Haredim, as a homogenous bloc, refuse to practice social distancing.

The scapegoating of Haredim is increasing alongside parallel rhetoric against Asian-American, immigrant and other marginalized communities in our tense and volatile political moment.

For Haredim in the NYC region, this troubling discourse isn’t new. Long before the COVID crisis, Haredi communities in Brooklyn and Long Island, and across the Hudson Valley and Ocean County suburbs, have faced escalating anti-Semitic rhetoric. Facebook pages like Rise Up Ocean County, banned twice from Facebook since January 2020, have reconfigured their longstanding litany of inflammatory accusations, to deploy anew during the COVID crisis.

Some of the comments to posts on the Rise Up Ocean County Facebook pageCredit: Screenshot of Facebook comments

What are the specific tropes being levied against Haredi Jews, and where did they come from? I’ve spent countless hours studying white nationalist anti-Semitism, as a researcher with Political Research Associates, a think tank that studies right-wing movements. I’ve also spent months tracking the rhetoric of anti-Haredi pages like Rise Up Ocean County, and tracing its evolution before and during the COVID crisis.

I’ve found that anti-Haredi anti-Semitism often looks different than the white nationalist anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and rightwing scapegoating of "globalists" and George Soros, that many are used to encountering. In many ways, the tropes that, time and again, demonize Haredim as backwards invaders, are similar to the xenophobia and Islamophobia we see on the rise across America, in the era of Trump.

"Certain sects of Jews are much like illegal immigrants," proclaimed one commenter on Rise Up Ocean County in late 2019. "They have their own language and customs and refuse to become part of the Greater Community. Instead they expect the community to tolerate their bizarre way of life."

Echoing national anti-immigrant discourse, residents and elected officials in the New York and New Jersey suburbs have long warned of an "Orthodox invasion," depicted growing Haredi populations as a "viral spread" or "infestation" across communities, and complained that taxpayer dollars subsidize the unproductive lifestyles of unwanted outsiders.

Haredim "carry more disease with them than a cockroach," one commenter exclaimed in March, echoing both longstanding anti-Semitic tropes and similar crude rhetoric deployed, right now, against immigrants, Asian Americans, and other minority groups. "They have and always will be the vermin of this earth."

Fox News' Tomi Lahren claiming the 'caravan' of immigrants in Mexico would carry diseases into the U.S., and was immediately compared to Nazi propaganda. December 6, 2018Credit: Screen shot

In neighborhoods in the Hudson Valley and Ocean County regions, opposition to Haredi migration is commonly framed as an irreconcilable clash of cultures, and frequent appeals to vanishing "heritage and tradition" of non-Haredi communities, and fears of demographic replacement, sound practically as if they could be lifted from far-right anti-immigrant sites like VDare.

One widely circulated Rise Up Ocean County video, "Lakewood By 2030," pans disturbingly across scenes of Haredi children playing in a playground while flashing demographic statistics across the screen, insisting that high Haredi birthrates will, in the course of a generation, replace the neighborhood’s "native" population with Haredi Jews, who will then "seize control."

There are also strong parallels with contemporary Islamophobia, which similarly scapegoats Muslims as backwards, primitive religious fundamentalists. Orthodox Jews and religious Muslims, it is said, remain mired in premodern superstition, rejecting science and progress, stubbornly unwilling to assimilate into Western legal systems and cultural norms. Both groups, it is claimed, are held captive by a totalizing religious law, incompatible with, and indeed hostile to, civil law, the Constitution, and secular society.

In different contexts, Haredi yeshivot and Muslim madrassas are both proclaimed sites of indoctrination, where children are denied a secular education and inculcated into religious backwardness, fanaticism and intolerance. The construction of Haredi synagogues and Muslim mosques is vociferously opposed through incessant recourse to bureaucratic and legal "practicalities," matched with a simmering undertone of cultural resentment.

Religious courts deciding issues of Jewish halakha and Muslim sharia are derided as inherently hostile to civil law and the constitution. Both groups are accused of plotting to create a "state within the state," their benign establishment of communal institutions read, by the gaze of the majority, as a hostile conspiracy of subversion. Both groups are painted as unpatriotic and disloyal to broader society, concealing their true motives to outsiders while speaking freely in the privacy of the in-group.

File Photo: A protester walks along the sidewalk outside the Curtis Culwell Center where a Muslim conference against terror and hate was scheduled, in Garland, Texas, Jan. 17, 2015.Credit: AP

Calls for religious reform mobilize an Orientalist frame, fixating upon perceived "backwards" fundamentalism that is said to "inhere" in the fixed identity of the "exotic" religious minority. The figure of the Haredi Jew, as critical race theorist David Theo Goldberg wrote of "Islam in the dominant European imaginary," comes "to represent a collection of lacks: of freedom; of a disposition of scientific inquiry; of civility and manners; of love of life; of human worth; of equal respect for women and gay people."

Of course, there are limits to these comparisons. Haredi neighborhoods are not feared as breeding grounds of extremism and political radicalization, marked as national security threats, or targeted for deportation by the state - all threats faced regularly by immigrant and Muslim communities.

American Jews, Haredi or otherwise, do not currently face anywhere near the same level of exclusion, demonization, and systemic oppression faced by Muslims or non-white immigrants across the American body politic. The situation in the Hudson Valley and Ocean County suburbs, moreover, is complex, and many residents voice legitimate concerns around issues like overdevelopment, property tax allocation and public school funding that are not always rooted in anti-Semitism.

It should be remembered, as well, that many of these same tropes are drawn from deep wellsprings of anti-Judaism, part of our society’s unconscious cultural milieu. Accusations that Haredim don’t care about the "greater good" because they are too tribalistic or particularist, or because they think they’re better than non-Jews, tap into centuries of European Christian polemics against Jewish "chosenness."

Insinuations of backdoor political manipulation echo age-old motifs of a shadowy Jewish cabal, controlling political leaders from behind the scenes. There is a long history of anti-Semitic discourse associating Jews with disease and plague, stretching back to the Middle Ages.

Tweet calling George Soros “the real virus behind everything,” retweeted by the newly appointed spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, Michael CaputoCredit: Twitter

Anti-Haredi anti-Semitism often looks different from the white nationalist conspiracy theories that often capture public attention. While white nationalists scapegoat Jews as the architects of the invasion of non-white immigrants, for anti-Haredi anti-Semitism, Jews are the invasion.

While white nationalism scapegoats the figure of the Jewish liberal as the hidden architect of liberal causes, anti-Haredi rhetoric scapegoats Haredi Jews as insufficiently Enlightened, clinging stubbornly to archaic systems of patriarchy and religious superstition.

While white nationalism fears that Jews have sneakily assimilated into the white, Christian West to subvert its dominance from within, anti-Haredi anti-Semitism demonizes Jews precisely for stubbornly refusing to assimilate, threatening the integrity of cultural norms from without.

In the weeks and months to come, as the public health and economic crises engendered by COVID-19 deepen and millions of Americans face escalating fear and uncertainty, bigotry and scapegoating of all kinds is sure to increase.

Whether against Haredi Jews, Asian-Americans, immigrants or another marginalized group, each kind of scapegoating, in its own way, serves to distract from the failed policies and ineffective leadership plaguing our country’s COVID-19 response, deflecting attention and blame, instead, onto the presumed cultural defects of an "otherized" group. As toxic social media discourse multiplies, physical attacks against these minorities are increasing.

Non-Jews, and non-Haredi Jews, need to work to understand and combat anti-Semitism in all its forms, including the particular kinds of bigoted rhetoric faced by Haredi Jews. By understanding anti-Haredi anti-Semitism, those of us who are non-Haredi Jews can learn to better defend Haredim in conversation, in social media, and in our lives.

The Jewish community as a whole, can envision new possibilities for solidarity, drawn from the sobering realization that we, too, remain vulnerable to discourses of xenophobic othering similar to those mobilized against Muslims, immigrants and refugees in the era of Trump. Across, within and between our communities, we can remind ourselves, in ever-new ways, that we rise or fall together.

Ben Lorber researches and reports on anti-Semitism and white nationalism with Political Research Associates, a think tank that studies right-wing movements. He lives in Boston, MA and blogs at doikayt.com. Twitter: @BenLorber8

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