One of the most painful tolls the coronavirus pandemic has taken is upon religious communities. Many of us have followed the draining ordeal of pious Christians like Pastor John MacArthur, whom the state of California has persecuted relentlessly for daring to see to his congregation’s spiritual needs in defiance of draconian lockdown policies. This comes as no surprise to those who acknowledge that contempt for Christians is a basic tenet of leftism — in this case, leftism with near-absolute power. Such restrictions on the right to worship are contrary to the First Amendment and are an affront to the right of every American to seek divine solace in such a time as this.
Still, on the other side of the country, in New York, another faith group is being singled out for, perhaps, even more invidious and discriminatory treatment: Manhattan’s Orthodox Jewish community. As COVID cases rose during the spring, both Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City’s mayor Bill de Blasio have consistently demonstrated a level of disdain for religious Jews nearly unprecedented in recent years.
On April 28, de Blasio ignited a firestorm of criticism when he ordered that a funeral for a much-beloved Brooklyn rabbi be actively dispersed as the mourners were packed closely and not socially distancing. He then proceeded to tweet that participants in such gatherings could be arrested. This edict went so far as to draw the ire of even Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt — an openly liberal Democrat activist, and himself historically quite disdainful of Orthodox Jews — who replied that “generalizing against the whole [Jewish] population is outrageous especially when so many [anti-Semites] are scapegoating Jews.” Two days later, Senator Ted Cruz also shared his disgust for de Blasio’s act of collective punishment, writing to Attorney General Bill Barr that, “This [behavior] is dangerous in and of itself.… [I]t is especially dangerous to single out the Jewish community in a city that is experiencing a substantial rise in violent anti-Semitism.” And on June 19, the Trump Justice Department issued a formal open letter to Mayor de Blasio criticizing his lockdown enforcement policies as regarding religious liberty, including his actions towards Brooklyn’s Jews.
By October, city and state government measures only became more severe. Over $150,000 worth of COVID-related citations were issued, largely in Orthodox neighborhoods, with a $15,000 fine for anyone “guilty” of organizing a large gathering — a penalty leveled against three Orthodox institutions. In fact, according to NPR and The Wall Street Journal respectively, New Yorkers face a $1,000 fine for refusing to wear a mask on the street, whereas subway commuters only face a $50 fine — the former applying far more widely to the suburban Orthodox community.
Then, in response to an uptick in cases in Brooklyn, Governor Andrew Cuomo made a stunning proclamation: “I have to say to the Orthodox community tomorrow, if you’re not willing to live with these rules, then I’m going to close the synagogues.”
After a brutal summer — rife with some of the most violent and destructive race riots since the late 1960s — the government of this country’s fourth-most populous state has taken an official position that Orthodox Jews wanting to peacefully pray is far more worthy of epidemiological worry than amassed thousands destroying private property. While Black Lives Matter activists’ headquarters remain untouched, houses of worship are fair game for forcible closure. Furthermore, such activists who organized titanic protests in which very few people wore masks — and even fewer were six feet apart — were not arrested, and none were fined $15,000 per protest. When speaking of Orthodox Jews, Governor Cuomo has described “religious gatherings” as “super spreader events,” in reference to an Orthodox man believed to be the source of many infections. Supposedly, people breaking lockdown procedures who align with state and local politicians’ radical beliefs is acceptable, but the conservative and religious doing so is dangerous. Though it is true that some Orthodox Jews have protested and even burned masks in the streets, those actions were a last resort, not a first resort, as the riots and looting were after the death of George Floyd. To be quite frank, as Breitbart editor-in-chief Joel Pollak — himself an Orthodox Jew — headlined one op-ed in June, “If You Supported Black Lives Matter, Don’t Complain about Coronavirus Spike.”
Now, three Rockland County Orthodox congregations are suing their governor, calling New York COVID restrictions “blatantly anti-Semitic, [and] creating religious-observance based color-coded ‘hot-spot’ zones directed towards particular Jewish communities.” With, for instance, parks still closed in Orthodox neighborhoods but many now open elsewhere, Jews obviously have a case to feel singled out for treatment not afforded the far more badly behaved. As Orthodox Brooklyn resident Meir Nimni told the Associated Press, “I understand you need to wear a mask. I understand you social distance. What bothers me is: You pick on the good people.”
This also is not the first time that Jews have received the cold edge of Mayor de Blasio’s and Governor Cuomo’s shoulders. During the rash of anti-Jewish violence plaguing Brooklyn throughout 2019, they did little at best to protect Jews. The bail reform policies they supported released countless violent criminals back on to the streets — including one woman who allegedly assaulted three Orthodox women and was released without bail twice. Most egregious, however, is that it took the horrific Monsey Chanukah stabbing attack on December 28, 2019, for the NYPD to be given orders to increase patrols in Orthodox neighborhoods after virtually ignoring month after month of anti-Semitic assaults. In fact, it was the heroic Curtis Sliwa and his Guardian Angels who descended on Brooklyn the day after the stabbing to protect the Jewish community, as they did for three solid months during and after the Crown Heights riots of 1991, and publicly vow to put an end to the violence by any legal means. De Blasio’s support for defunding the already over-stretched and badly commanded NYPD will likely only clear the way for more of the same.
It is irresponsible to call Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio anti-Semites, but leftists singling out Jews, as well as Israel, for condemnation and collective punishment is part of a pattern which has been getting ever more recognizable in recent years. An American governor threatening to shut down synagogues like the Soviets did, and an American mayor failing to protect Jews from physical attack is a symptom of leftists seeming to take Jewish support and compliance with immoral governance for granted — one of the most blatant signs of disrespect imaginable. Cuomo and de Blasio can boast of their support from the Orthodox community, as they have in defense of their actions, but that again is a sign of their arrogant, complacent belief in their ability to treat Jews however they like and still receive their votes.
As Sliwa told New York reporters that morning after the Monsey stabbing, Jewish leaders “need to develop a set of onions,” and forcefully stand up to a leftist establishment and ideology which see Jews as either rich white “oppressors” or bizarre and backward extremists, as Orthodox Jews have been regarded for centuries.
Jews, particularly ones of deep and traditional faith, should under no circumstance allow themselves to be treated worse than the rioting criminals their lawless politicians refuse to punish — especially in the name of the name of the common good.
By Barry Nussbaum, Son of Auschwitz survivors, Founder American Truth Project, Foreign and Domestic Policy Commentator