Let’s acknowledge that Bill de Blasio shouldn’t have singled out “the Jewish community” after breaking up a crowded funeral for a rabbi in Williamsburg. The Anti-Defamation League got it right when its CEO tweeted: “The few who don’t social distance should be called out — but generalizing against the whole population is outrageous especially when so many are scapegoating Jews.”
But those charging that New York City’s mayor intended to scapegoat all Jews are being disingenuous, and I think they know it. When they are not looking to score political points against a polarizing progressive mayor, they are trying to deflect attention from what’s become a real public health challenge among various charedi Orthodox communities (which I am careful to pluralize, because the charedim are no more monolithic than the Jewish population as a whole).
Photographs taken Tuesday show hundreds of densely packed mourners attending a funeral procession for a Satmar rabbi, Chaim Mertz, who died at 73 from Covid-19. A public gathering reportedly coordinated with the NYPD got out of hand, with mourners packed tightly together and many not wearing masks.
De Blasio arrived on the scene as police were scattering the crowd, and later tweeted his displeasure.
“Something absolutely unacceptable happened in Williamsburg tonite: a large funeral gathering in the middle of this pandemic,” de Blasio tweeted. “When I heard, I went there myself to ensure the crowd was dispersed. And what I saw WILL NOT be tolerated so long as we are fighting the Coronavirus.”
It’s the second tweet, following immediately afterward, that set off critics and lit up Jewish twitter: “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.”
Many felt the phrase “the Jewish community” implicated all Jews in the misbehavior of the few. Others pointed out that it was only a few months ago that Jews in heavily Orthodox neighborhoods had faced a spate of violent attacks.
And still others noted that on a balmy spring day, reckless crowds had gathered elsewhere in the city to enjoy the sunshine and a flyover by Navy jets, without a word from the mayor.
Yes, de Blasio’s words, especially “Jewish community,” were ill chosen. They implicated every Jew in the city. And they ignored the many leaders, Orthodox and non-, who have called for their constituents to heed the city rules for social distancing, including the once unthinkable decision to close synagogues and limit funerals.
Nevertheless, the charedi Orthodox communities in the metropolitan area have been hit hard by the coronavirus, with hundreds dead, including other prominent rabbis. Even if you don’t accept the evidence that too many have been flouting the rules, you need to acknowledge that the coronavirus has been especially prevalent in the zip codes where many charedi Orthodox live. Strict precautions are warranted, for their sake and that of healthcare workers, ambulance drivers, police officers and everyone else in the possible chain of transmission.
The mayor was right to address this. And I suspect the mayor thought he was being more sensitive by not singling out “the Orthodox community.” Instead he went with “Jewish community,” as if to show he had no particular animus toward any one denomination (the mayor has been criticized, you’ll recall, for being too close to the charedim, and dragging his feet when it came to, in one example, enforcing secular learning standards at yeshivas).
But in this case of distancing violations, some specificity was warranted.
The term “community” can mean a lot of things. There is the squishy version, which connotes otherwise unconnected neighbors or an affinity group, like the “arts community.” We Jews say “Jewish community,” but usually to claim a sense of unity and coherence that doesn’t really exist.
But there is also “community” in the sense of an identifiable polity with shared institutions and a leadership that can set and enforce norms. The truth is that there are distinct charedi Orthodox communities that deserve the title. These multiple communities are defined by neighborhoods, rabbinical councils, kashrut authorities, synagogues, the rebbes and scholars and “gedolim” whose authority they heed and the community councils who often speak for them.
These are the communities that charedi spokespeople and allies are referring to when they invite politicians like the mayor to do the kind of “outreach” meant to ease tensions. Or when they demand sensitivity to the customs and social characteristics that make them distinct — when it comes to educating their children, say, or their particular vulnerability to a pandemic. This is the kind of community Rabbi Mertz led, and whose leaders issued a statement Wednesday acknowledging that the funeral they had arranged had not gone as planned.
You can’t defend what makes a group coherent and distinct and then deny that distinctiveness when many of its members and leaders come under scrutiny.
De Blasio’s challenge was both to express the seriousness of the need for social distancing – which he did well – and not give ammunition to those looking to find scapegoats – in which he failed miserably. Some – no doubt too many — charedi Jews are flouting social distancing rules; it is certainly under the mayor’s purview to identify the distinct ways various groups may or may not be following the guidelines. But they aren’t the only people people flouting the rules. All charedim, let alone the entire “Jewish community,” don’t bear responsibility for the actions of others.
A smarter tweet would have made this clear. For example, de Blasio might have written: “I will be speaking with leaders of faith communities whose members are seen violating the rules, and any other groups that are in violation, and saying we will be strictly enforcing the rules and seeking their cooperation. I will also be reiterating with law enforcement the need to enforce these rules in all public settings, including our streets and parks.”
Unfortunately, de Blasio couldn’t quite walk back his original tweetstorm. “I spoke last night out of passion, I could not believe my eyes. It was deeply, deeply distressing,” he said Wednesday in a statement. “Again, this is a community I love, this is a community I have spent a lot of time working with closely, and if you saw anger and frustration, you’re right.”
Okay, fair enough. But he should have apologized. Rabbi Mertz’s followers did. “We understand Mayor Bill de Blasio’s frustration and his speaking out against the gathering,” wrote Jacob Mertz, secretary of Tola’as Yaakov, the synagogue led by the late rabbi. “As said, we thought that the procession [would] be in accordance with the rules, and we apologize that it turned out otherwise.
“It also hurts that this led to singling out the Jewish community, and for that we apologize to all Jewish people. We know that the mayor’s reaction came from his concern to the health of safety of our community and the entire city, and it wasn’t ill-intentioned. We share that concern. Health and live takes precedence to anything else, and we shall all follow those rules.”
Their statement deserves to be the last word on this tragedy of errors.
Andrew Silow-Carroll is the editor in chief of The Jewish Week.