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Cuomo’s Friendship with Jewish Community Tested by Misconduct Probe

Cuomo’s Friendship with Jewish Community Tested by Misconduct Probe

A record of support on "threshold issues" meets allegations that he harassed women, including staff.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, holding sign at right, helps lead a march against anti-Semitism across the Brooklyn Bridge that included, left to right, front row, Rep. Gregory Meeks, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Sen. Chuck Schumer, Jan. 5, 2020. (Jake Asner/UJA Federation of New York)
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, holding sign at right, helps lead a march against anti-Semitism across the Brooklyn Bridge that included, left to right, front row, Rep. Gregory Meeks, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Sen. Chuck Schumer, Jan. 5, 2020. (Jake Asner/UJA Federation of New York)

During his three terms as governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo has on the whole enjoyed a good relationship with the Jewish community. 

The embattled governor, who now awaits the results of investigations into allegations that he sexually harassed eight women and who has rejected calls to resign, has long prided himself on his close ties with Jewish constituents.

On balance Cuomo has been seen as helpful on what Michael Miller, executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, described as “threshold issues for the Jewish community – support for Israel’s safety and security and combatting anti-Semitism. On both issues, Andrew Cuomo has been a leading voice.”

Whether that is enough to save his political fortunes remains to be seen. Cuomo is refusing to resign in the wake of the allegations or a separate scandal involving nursing home data and COVID-19 deaths. But after a year in which grabbed the national spotlight as a leader in the fight against COVID, he has shed high-profile supporters in his party and beyond.

Cuomo has been out front on Jewish issues. He was the first governor in the nation to sign an executive order in June 2016 directing state entities to divest all public funds supporting the Palestinians’ Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS) against Israel. 

During a temporary ceasefire in Israel’s war with Hamas in 2014, Cuomo flew to Israel and toured a tunnel near the Gaza border that Israel said Hamas had constructed to sneak terrorists into Israel. During his 29-hour visit, Cuomo became the first foreign guest of Israel’s new president, Reuven Rivlin.

“We know you’re going through a very difficult time,” Cuomo told him, “and that’s precisely why we are here.” 

Cuomo has subsequently flown back to Israel on two other occasions.

The majority of Jewish New Yorkers comprise a reliable Democratic voting bloc, and major Jewish groups have declined to call for his resignation or impeachment, or even comment on the accusations. Whether that reflects warm feelings in the Jewish community, or caution, isn’t clear. Either way, he lacks the kind of rainy day support seen in the African-American community, where polls show he remains popular.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo marches during the annual Celebrate Israel Parade on June 3, 2018 in New York City. (Getty Images)

Top Jewish Democrats like Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Jerry Nadler have already called for his resignation. So did a slew of Jewish Democratic state lawmakers, including Assembly members Harvey Epstein, Andrew Hevesi, and Daniel Rosenthal of Queens; Simcha Eichenstein of Brooklyn; Richard Gottfried, Dan Quart and Linda Rosenthal of Manhattan, Amy Paulin of Westchester, and state senator Shelley Mayer of Westchester.

The New York Jewish Agenda, a liberal group, said Cuomo failed “to live up to … a set of core Jewish and democratic values,” and, like the progressive Jews For Racial & Economic Justice, called for him to step down.

“Cuomo has always been vindictive, cruel, and more concerned with his own ego than the well-being of our state and its residents,” Audrey Sasson, executive director of JFREJ, told the Forward.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, termed the allegations against Cuomo “extremely serious.”

“He has violated the dignity of women who work with him,” she told The Jewish Week. “He should absolutely face consequences for his actions, whether it is resigning or being impeached. Cuomo has by all accounts been sexually harassing women and creating a toxic office culture for years and everybody who encountered him knew it. It is high time that New York State said it is not willing to tolerate this kind of behavior.”

Hank Sheinkopf, an Orthodox rabbi and veteran Democratic political consultant, lamented the lack of Jewish support for Cuomo. “The Jewish community owes him a debt of gratitude and it is shocking that they are not standing up for him and calling for due process,” he said. “If the next governor does not stand up for Jews, the Jews will understand why. Here is a guy we should be defending and not running away from.” 

Outreach and a Backlash

Like many New York politicians, Cuomo has courted the haredi Orthodox vote that is influential in New York City and nearby Rockland County.

“There have been times when he has been helpful to the community,” acknowledged Rabbi David Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, which represents haredi Orthodox Jews. “He has spoken out consistently against anti-Semitism and we got the sense that he really meant it. We had differences on a number of policy-related matters, but we have tried to maintain good relations. On balance, we consider this relationship to have been a meaningful one.”

But that relationship hit a bump when the pandemic struck last year and he singled out large gatherings by Orthodox Jews for spreading COVID-19.  “We’re now having issues in the Orthodox Jewish community in New York, where because of their religious practices, etc., we’re seeing a spread,” Cuomo said in an October conference call with reporters.

Cuomo then restricted the size of religious gatherings and, during one of his popular news conferences, displayed pictures of what he said were recent mass gatherings of Orthodox Jews in neighborhoods with a high infection rate. (It was later revealed that at least one of the photos he displayed had been taken more than a decade earier.)

“These have been going on for weeks,” he said of the crowds.

The restrictions touched off street demonstrations among Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn and prompted Agudah to file a federal lawsuit claiming Cuomo’s restrictions on mass gatherings had violated their civil and religious liberties. It won the suit in a 5-4 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Since the pandemic, we have been less than pleased with what the governor has been doing,” Rabbi Zwiebel said. “The way he targeted what he referred to as the ultra-Orthodox — there is no doubt he was referring to our Jewish community, and it was painful.”

In recent weeks, Cuomo has been criticized for not opening a mass vaccination site in Rockland County, home to one of the largest concentrations of haredi Orthodox Jews in the country. Some have complained that although he singled out Orthodox neighborhoods there last October as COVID-19 hotspots that required tighter lockdowns, mass vaccination sites were opened in less populated neighboring counties.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announces that religious services may resume with restrictions, May 20, 2020. (Screenshot from YouTube)

Cuomo’s fall has been swift. It was only a year ago January that he helped lead the “No hate, no fear” rally and march across the Brooklyn Bridge sponsored by the JCRC, UJA-Federation of New York and other groups. At that event, Cuomo proposed a new state law that would label hate crimes as domestic terrorism.

The JCRC’s Miller said he joined the governor on his last trip to Israel in June 2019. As they toured Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, Cuomo told him “how troubled he was about the spike in anti-Semitic hate crimes. He said we needed to hold a large demonstration, and he was there in front of the line the following January.”  

In an interview with The Jewish Week in September 2002, almost eight years before becoming governor, Cuomo explained the reason for what he described as his close relationship with Israel and the Jewish people. 

“I am a born-and-bred New Yorker,” he said. “I was raised in a community in Queens with Jewish people. Two of my three brothers-in-law are Jewish. When I was HUD (Housing and Urban Development) secretary I started the first binational agreement with Israel where we worked together on urban issues and immigration issues, and I traveled to Israel as a representative of this nation and the president. … So I feel a connection, I feel a bond. It is something I would like to do personally and something I feel professionally the governor could do and should do.”

In recent years, Cuomo visited the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in lower Manhattan “to talk about anti-Semitism,” recalled Abraham Foxman, vice chair of the museum’s board of trustees and former national director of the Anti-Defamation League. 

“He understood the Jewish community’s concerns and initiated funding for school kids to visit the museum,” Foxman added. 

Malcolm Hoenlein, vice chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Cuomo “always reached out to include us” when he was dealing with national and international events. When Cuomo signed the anti-BDS executive order, Hoenlein said he was invited to sit next to him.

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, said he has had “a very constructive relationship [with Cuomo] and we have been able to share our concerns on a host of issues. … He has been a steadfast friend who has been there for the Jewish community.”