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Ignoring the Facts, De Blasio and Cuomo Paint Targets on the Backs of Jews

The level of disregard Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have shown for the Jewish community’s safety or for the power (and danger) of their words has been staggering.
[additional-authors]
October 26, 2020
Protesters rally in Manhattan against the closing of some schools and businesses in Jewish neighborhoods in the Brooklyn and Queens boroughs due to a spike in the numbers of Covid-19 cases in these neighborhoods on October 15, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

In 2019, hate crimes against Jews in New York City had increased by 64% from the prior year. This monumental spike in hate crimes against Jews, particularly against the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox, occurred as overall crime in New York City had decreased by 6%.

At the end of 2019, there were attacks on Jews in New York on almost every night of Chanukah. One such attack was a home invasion at a Chanukah party in Monsey by a madman with a machete. In that attack, the madman — who expressed his belief in many anti-Semitic conspiracy theories — stabbed and slashed at four Jews. He ultimately killed one attendee, Rabbi Josef Neumann.

The problem of anti-Semitic hate crimes was so acute that on February 17, 2020, the New York Times published an article titled “Most ‘Visible Jews’ Fear Being Targets as Anti-Semitism Rises.” In this article, the Times noted that in 2019, attacks against Jews accounted for over 50% of the city’s hate crimes — even though the visibly Jewish (Orthodox Jews) are barely 3% of the city’s population.

Then, in March of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic added another risk to Jews — conspiracy theories blaming Jews for causing the pandemic. And in July of 2020, the British Commission for Countering Extremism published a widely discussed report detailing how Jews were facing five dangerous categories of conspiracy theories blaming them for the virus.

Per the Commission’s report, the main conspiracy theories targeting Jews were:

  1. The virus is fake and part of a Jewish plot to mislead the public.
  2. The virus is real and was deliberately created by Jews for malevolent purposes.
  3. Jews are the primary spreaders of the virus.

This phenomenon of blaming Jews for the virus, in line with medieval anti-Semitism blaming the bubonic plague on the Jews, was also noted by the U.S. Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Antisemitism, Elan Carr, in his July 11, 2020 report to the pro-Israel organization CUFI. In that report, Carr provided the following:

“We’ve seen a tsunami of antisemitic hatred on the Internet and social media that baselessly blames Jews for having invented the coronavirus, for intentionally spreading it, profiting from it or using it as a tool for global control… The only thing new or novel about this absurd allegation is the coronavirus itself. Blaming Jews for the world’s maladies has been a standard feature of antisemitism for centuries.”

Given this backdrop of conspiracy theories and hate, one might reasonably expect politicians in New York, particularly those who purport to care about minority rights and fighting bigotry, would be careful about even implying that Jews were to blame for the spread of the pandemic.

But New York’s governor and New York City’s mayor proved otherwise. Indeed, the level of disregard Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have shown for the Jewish community’s safety or for the power (and danger) of their words has been staggering.

At the end of April 2020, in response to hundreds of Orthodox Jews attending their rabbi’s funeral in Williamsburg, de Blasio tweeted: “My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed. I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups. This is about stopping this disease and saving lives. Period.

Incredibly, de Blasio seemed to see no issue with sending a “warning” to the entire community of over 1,000,000 Jews in New York over the actions of a few of its members. Despite the ever-increasing violent anti-Semitism under his watch, de Blasio plainly felt comfortable singling out an entire community of Jews for some Jews violating the city’s social distancing rules.

Many of the responses to his tweet were appropriately angry. After first defending his Tweet singling out Jews, de Blasio issued a pseudo-apology (for writing “something that was in any way hurtful”).

One would have hoped this episode would have led to a realization among New York’s leaders that they need to be more careful with their words and avoid even the appearance of discrimination. Sadly, the last two months have demonstrated that the only real lesson Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo learned is that Orthodox Jews make a convenient scapegoat.

When the summer ended, and more people started congregating indoors, it was expected that many states in the northeast, just like many countries in Europe, would experience a “second wave” of coronavirus infections. And as those infections increased this autumn, Cuomo and de Blasio picked up the centuries’ old game of casting blame on the visible Jewish minority.

On October 7, 2020, Governor Cuomo announced more lockdown restrictions, referencing primarily religious Jewish neighborhoods in New York City as the “hot spots.” Two days beforehand, Cuomo said in a news briefing thatOrthodox Jewish gatherings often are very, very large and we’ve seen what one person can do in a group.” Cuomo then issued an order at the request of de Blasio, requiring the temporary closure of public and private schools in areas of the city with large Orthodox Jew populations.

A protester carries a sign featuring New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s quote about Jewish gatherings. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Then, as part of an apparent media campaign to justify his focus on the visibly Jewish, on October 14, 2020, Governor Cuomo, in an interview with PBS News Hour, blamed “Jewish religious practices” for spreading the virus in NY.  In a separate news conference that same day, Cuomo made arguably even more outrageous and irresponsible claims when he said, “the enforcement from the local governments is very uneven especially when it’s politically sensitive. And that’s what we’re running into with lot of these ultra-Orthodox communities, who are also very politically powerful, don’t kid yourself.”

Governor Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio, and their defenders argue that they are only addressing the fact that ultra-Orthodox communities have been holding large gatherings, often with many people without masks, and that the infection rates within these ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods are higher than the state and city average.

But New York’s leadership failed to apply this exacting scrutiny or standard to the other large gatherings, many of which had maskless attendees. Witness, for instance, the large number of protests in New York this summer. Or look at the silence of New York’s leadership at large religious gatherings by other faiths and ethnic groups, such as the thousands of men (many maskless) who crowded together in the streets of New York City on August 23, 2020, to celebrate the Shia holiday Ashura. Or witness a similar gathering of thousands of largely unmasked Shia men in Queens on October 5, 2020, to conduct the Arbaeen. New York’s leadership also ignored how a large concert in Manhattan honoring Breonna Taylor might spread the Coronavirus. Instead, Cuomo used a centuries-old trope about “very powerful” Jews to imply that he is politically courageous when he scapegoats Jews for the spread of a pandemic.

The reality is that it takes no courage for either de Blasio or Cuomo to scapegoat ultra-Orthodox Jews. Cuomo and de Blasio know that the ultra-Orthodox in New York are largely conservative, unlike their liberal constituencies. Given these political realities in New York, it would take real political courage, on the other hand, for either Cuomo or de Blasio to call out their supporters’ concerts, protests, rallies, or other religious practices as being dangerous.

It takes no courage for either de Blasio or Cuomo to scapegoat ultra-Orthodox Jews.

This is why politicians like Cuomo and de Blasio focus on the politically easiest minority for them to blame, the visibly Jewish. This is also why, when other minority groups in the United States have higher infection or mortality rates than the rest of the population; politicians like Cuomo and de Blasio correctly depict them as victims of the pandemic. But they instead cast the visibly Jewish, not as victims, but as vectors of the disease.

This is why they largely ignore other potential super-spreader events and focus on visibly Jewish events. This is why they focus on visibly Jewish neighborhoods and ignore the fact that as of mid-October (at the height of their anti-Semitic invective about “powerful” Jews and their “religious practices”), the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Borough Park and most Brooklyn neighborhoods (except East New York), were well below many other Queens and Bronx neighborhoods with respect to per-capita cases and mortality rates. (Borough Park was only the 49th highest zip code in New York mortality rates, while Williamsburg, home to over 60,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews, was 79th.)

Of course, all of this irresponsible scapegoating of the visibly Jewish is likely to have consequences. In a city, where before the pandemic, hate crimes targeted Jews at a rate of over 50%, it is only a matter of time before someone is inspired to attack Jews based on the false notion that they are uniquely to blame for the coronavirus.

The attacks have already happened. On October 13, someone on Facebook posted a video of him harassing a Jewish man in Borough Park for not wearing the facemask he had in his pocket (he was on his cell phone, and no one was within at least 8 feet of him). That video has already received millions of views and thousands of “likes,” as far too many people get a kick out of seeing a bully frighten a Jewish man. One week later, shots were fired at a synagogue located on 18th Avenue and East 9th Street, in one of the ultra-Orthodox “red zones” called out by Cuomo and de Blasio.

On October 15, 2020, the #EndJewHatred movement staged a rally in Manhattan to protest de Blasio and Cuomo’s cynical and inaccurate scapegoating of the visibly Jewish. The central message of that protest — and the demand that the marchers delivered in writing to the Governor’s office — was that although we should not expect perfection from government leaders when dealing with a pandemic, we can expect (and should demand) that our leaders treat all communities equally, and not focus blame on one of New York’s most targeted and vulnerable minorities.

We should also expect and demand that no political leader in the United States use medieval tropes about “politically powerful” Jews spreading diseases in order to deflect from their own failures. Cuomo and de Blasio have been doing exactly that for months now. Unfortunately, far too few people appear to care.

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