On Wednesday morning, I woke up to see that “Jews” was trending on Twitter. It’s rarely a good thing when the name of a religious minority is a trending topic; it’s a really bad thing when that religious minority is trending because the mayor of a major U.S. city — the city that is the epicenter of the country’s coronavirus pandemic — sends a tweet implying that Jews are to blame for the spread of the virus. But that is exactly what New York City mayor Bill de Blasio did on Tuesday evening when he sent a tweet with “a message to the Jewish community.”
“My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed,” the mayor tweeted. “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.” De Blasio’s tweet was in response to a gathering of thousands of members of Williamsburg’s Hasidic community to mourn the death of Rabbi Chaim Mertz, who died from COVID-19. The Hasidic community in Brooklyn has been hit incredibly hard by the virus, which has killed hundreds of people in the close-knit population.
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.
— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) April 29, 2020
On Wednesday, de Blasio said he had no regrets about calling out the gathering, which happened despite a statewide ban on gatherings of all sizes issued by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. In response to the point that other crowds had gathered, including earlier that day to watch the Blue Angels fly overhead, de Blasio doubled down. “It has not happened other places, let’s be honest,” he said. “This kind of gathering has happened in only a few places and it cannot continue. It’s endangering the lives of people in the community.”
As many people have pointed out, the mayor’s comments are deeply anti-Semitic, for several reasons. De Blasio addressed his comment to “the Jewish community,” but Jews are not a monolith. As Rabbi Emily Cohen noted on Twitter, there are plenty of Jews obeying social distancing guidelines and observing via virtual platforms. Even the Ultra-Orthodox communities, like the Hasids in Brooklyn that de Blasio targeted, have begun using Zoom to sit shiva and established hotlines for prayer, adopting technology that they usually avoid, and leading the coronavirus response in their community.
“Referring to these particular communities as ‘the Jewish community’ both flattens a diverse group of New Yorkers into a single bloc and draws out anti-Semitic ire that is always bubbling beneath the surface of our society,” Leo Ferguson, a Movement Building Organizer with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, told Refinery29.
It’s also worth noting that Ultra-Orthodox Jewish people, like the Hasidic communities, don’t tend to use technology and avoid secular media. That makes the choice to send them a message via Twitter a questionable one — the community it’s intended for is unlikely to see it. But what a message like that will do is be broadcast to millions of other people — stoking anti-Semitic prejudices and increasing the likelihood that Jewish communities will be targets of violence.
Implicating Jews in the spread of disease has real-life consequences and historical implications. During the Black Death in medieval Europe, “Jews were blamed so often, and so viciously, that it is surprising it was not called the Jewish Death,” Donald G. McNeil Jr. wrote in the New York Times. That led to a spike in anti-Semitic violence, like New York is seeing now. During the Holocaust, Nazis often referred to Jews as “rats” (rats are known for carrying disease). By singling out Jews in the way de Blasio has, he puts a target on our backs — in particular, the Hasidic communities, who Ferguson says are “among the most visible and the most vulnerable members of our Jewish family.”
Also problematic was de Blasio’s threat to use policing tactics to enforce social distancing guidelines. This is something he’s done before: in December, when a a group of Orthodox Jews were the target of anti-Semitic violence, de Blasio said he would increase police patrols in several neighborhoods.
At the time, Jewish groups spoke out against over-policing Black & brown New Yorkers in the name of defending Jews. Now, de Blasio has turned the threat of the state on the Jews themselves. “Targeting the Jewish community, using aggressive NYPD tactics to disperse the funeral, and the threat to incarcerate only make matters worse,” says Ferguson. Threatening to place people in a (presumably) crowded cell would only help spread the virus, not keep people apart in the ways that are needed to prevent its spread.
The funeral in Williamsburg last night was totally unacceptable, but this is really a bad response from @NYCMayor — both for stereotypically lumping together & singling our the Jewish community for criticism AND for threatening arrests, as though over-policing is the solution. https://t.co/3qhUnh0kwO
— Brad Lander (@bradlander) April 29, 2020
It’s true that the thousands of people who came out to grieve a beloved rabbi should have stayed in their homes. But to single out one community — a marginalized community that is already vulnerable and too-often blamed for the spread of the virus — risks inciting (more) violence against them. To threaten to sic the police on that community is another form of inciting violence. De Blasio may have the best interest of New Yorkers at heart, but those interests should not come at the expense of certain communities.
“In the midst of a historic wave of anti-Semitic hate violence in New York City, our community — like the Asian community — has already felt the pain of being singled out and blamed for the spread of COVID-19,” says Ferguson. “It is easy to want someone to blame in times of panic. But the laying of blame upon Hasidic communities will not stop the spread of COVID-19.”
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