New York City was the center of the most severe coronavirus outbreak in the United States, with equally severe lockdown policies to match it. However, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio drew international attention for what seemed to be exceptionally strict enforcement of social distancing measures upon Orthodox Jewish communities.
As the Mayor walked shoulder-to-shoulder with Black Lives Matter protesters and turned a blind eye to unfettered looting, his police officers patrolled Brooklyn, threatening Hasidic communities with arrest for attending evening prayers.
De Blasio’s uneven enforcement of lockdown policies earned him a rebuke from Eric Dreiband, the US Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. Dreiband’s letter noted that even as de Blasio was actively endorsing Black Lives Matter protesters’ First Amendment rights to peaceful protest, he was actively opposing Orthodox Jews’ First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion.
‘During the period in which all gatherings were banned, you reportedly sent police officers to break up numerous gatherings of the Jewish community in New York, including reported outdoor gatherings for funerals,’ read Dreiband’s letter. ‘In light of your support for and participation in recent protests in New York City, the message to the public from New York City’s government appears to favor certain secular gatherings and disfavor religious gatherings.’
Eventually, Orthodox communities started to push back against de Blasio. A group of Jewish children displayed a sign reading ‘Justice for George Floyd’ at their carnival in the hopes that it would deter police interference. Videos of Jewish leaders taking a pair of bolt cutters to a lock that the city had placed on a neighborhood playground earned millions of views on social media.
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To outside eyes, it might appear that Bill de Blasio’s actions could be pointing toward anti-Semitic prejudice. However, in light of de Blasio’s long history with the Orthodox Jewish communities in New York, the situation is far more nuanced.
Yossi Gestetner, leader of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council (OJPAC), told The Spectator that the lockdown enforcement ‘is not a broader pattern’ from de Blasio.
Referring to de Blasio’s years as a city councilman — during which he represented a district adjacent to predominantly Jewish communities in Brooklyn — Mr Gestetner believes that de Blasio ‘generally has been perceived as being, in the past at least, fair to Orthodox Jews.’
Although Orthodox Jews are overwhelmingly conservative and supportive of Republicans in state and national elections, many appreciated the Mayor’s positive relations with the community and his even hand in some local issues — even though they tend to disdain his ‘extremely liberal’ policies.
Gestetner sees the uneven enforcement of lockdown policies as ‘abuse out of opportunity rather than abuse out of hate’. He recalled that mainstream media extensively covered the Orthodox Jewish community’s continuation of religious services early in the pandemic. Because coronavirus ‘slipped out of his hands’ after Cuomo ‘steamrolled’ de Blasio in directing the pandemic response, the Mayor ‘was looking for a place where he could be relevant’. He seemed to think that cracking down on Orthodox Jews would raise his profile, especially in the eyes of the closely-watching media and their audiences.
In late April, de Blasio singled out the orthodox Jewish community via 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.’
Gestetner laments the lack of mainstream media attention to de Blasio’s targeting of Jews: ‘Imagine President Trump had done to any religious community… the way de Blasio has acted. I mean, imagine tweets from Trump echoing de Blasio.’
Despite de Blasio’s undeniably poor and uneven behavior, Gestetner would not go as far as calling the Mayor an anti-Semite.
‘I’ve seen a lot of commentary from Republicans and conservatives nationwide. I don’t easily throw out the terms “anti-Semite” or “bigoted” … I have said that the action a person has done is anti-Semitic or bigoted. Bill de Blasio absolutely has been bigoted against Orthodox Jews, has targeted Orthodox Jews, has apparently felt that it’s easy to pretend to be Mayor by pouncing on Orthodox Jews. The actions from him and his government were bigoted, targeted. But I refute the claim that he’s inherently anti-Semitic. It’s a very harsh term.’
Gestetner expressed hope that the remainder of de Blasio’s tenure is ‘fair and balanced’.