Protests in Brooklyn have been intense this week as members of New York’s Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods took to the streets to push back against increasingly targeted restrictions on their communities and their right to assembly following an increase in COVID-positive infections.
The tinder for these incendiary protests was provided by mutually adversarial Governor Cuomo and “Hizzoner” Mayor Bill de Blasio. They have finally found some common ground in their agreement to treat the Orthodox Jewish Communities of Brooklyn and Queens as dangerous flouters of their draconian, dangerous, and reason-free rules regarding the Coronavirus.
Making it Up as They Go Along
Governor Cuomo had agreed to allow synagogues to open at 50% capacity. Then he reversed himself just hours later. Ruling from on high from Albany, he had changed his mind and decided that actually only ten congregants would be allowed in any place of worship at one time – no matter the size of the building.
This reversal and the new restrictions that close schools and “non-essential” businesses in Orthodox communities sparked fervent late-night protests – demonstrations that included a bonfire of medical masks. Whether or not these new restrictions constitute the persecution of a historically subjugated demographic is left to hang in the air – but local leaders left no doubt as to their belief on the subject.
While struggling with the privation and sacrifice the virus has foisted on us all, Jewish Orthodox leaders feel their community is also being unfairly targeted – an added and most unwelcome burden, given their historical vulnerability to antisemitism. Amid the first rise in COVID-19 infections in New York earlier this year, the protests have laid bare the community’s deep-seated frustrations. Local leaders are emphatic. They vowed to resist attempts to proscribe their religious freedoms – so guaranteed them by the Bill of Rights – by using protest, litigation, and civil disobedience. As radio host Heshy Tischler vowed, to cheers from his audience: “We will not close. You are my soldiers. We are at war.”
Such provocative rhetoric may be warranted, given the Governor and the Mayor’s escalations. In June, a federal judge named Gary Sharpe delivered a substantive win for the Jewish community when he ruled in an injunction that houses of worship, including synagogues, cannot have fewer state-imposed capacity limits than other gathering places.
This ruling may have gained the ire of Cuomo and de Blasio. Since this opportunity to rule by fiat first arose they have sought to exercise control over every aspect of the lives of their constituents. They have both miserably failed, and perhaps have a powerful incentive to use the Jewish Orthodox community as a super-spreader scapegoat to distract from their vacuum of leadership.
In a press conference, Cuomo ominously intoned that “we know religious gatherings have been a problem… for weeks” and made clear he was talking about the “Orthodox Jewish.” He subsequently tweeted out “20 Hotspot Zip Codes” that were, without surprise, mainly Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Queens. The New York mayor’s own attempts at Twitter statesmanship went sideways back in April. After he encouraged New Yorkers to snitch on their fellow citizens for social distancing violations with cell phone photo evidence, the police hotline was flooded with genitalia pictures.
Inept and Dangerous Leadership
Now, however, playing Robin to Cuomo’s Batman, de Blasio backed this latest round of strictures imposed by his superior in Albany after having threatened to “permanently” close all houses of worship in New York City back in the early months of the pandemic. To say these two men have failed in their leadership during Coronavirus is to give them too much credit. It has been a master class in ineptitude.
Both Leaders have ample reason to distract from their abject leadership records during COVID-19.
Cuomo’s gubernatorial directive, which compelled New York nursing homes to take in COVID-positive patients, directly resulted in at least 6,000 deaths among the elderly and should have its own wing in the Hall of Shame. Murder is up 23% and shootings an astonishing 130% in 2020 in NYC, much of which can be laid directly at the feet of feckless, ineffective Bill DeBlasio – who favors defunding the police.
The Orthodox Jewish community is justified in their defiance of Governor Cuomo and Mayor DeBlasio, both of whom may well have violated the law for flouting the court order that blocked the imposition of any measures that restrict the right to assemble indoors for religious reasons. Like blue state Governors, Gretchen Whitmer and Phil Murphy, Cuomo and de Blasio seem indifferent to any laws that, in any way, limit their designs on raw power and complete control. These two men deserve each other – but perhaps New York deserves better.
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