NYC Mayor Antisemitic? Think Again

Not surprisingly, publications and writers with different political leanings have handled this issue differently.  Conservative journalist John Podhoretz, writing in the NY Post, has gone ballistic against New York Mayor Bill de Blasio for his Twitter chastisement of “the Jewish community” in charedi neighborhoods of Brooklyn for ignoring public health social distancing rules. The New York Jewish Week has been more gentle and balanced in its criticism of de Blasio, while reporting on how the Mayor and Governor Cuomo have cultivated charedi support; the leftwing Jewish Currents platform and magazine presents a critical edge in its report on this relationship.  

First, here’s a relatively gentle passage from Podhoretz’s rant, “Bill de Blasio’s new low: blaming the Jews“: 

 . . .  you decided to seek your jollies by attacking Jews.

There’s no way to read your tweet from Tuesday night in an exculpatory fashion. Here it is: “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.”

It’s not that the Mayor is beyond criticism, in this instance or others.  But maybe Podhoretz wasn’t in shul on a Shabbat in early January at the Conservative synagogue, Ansche Chesed, where he is a member, when Mayor de Blasio warmly addressed the congregation,  reassuring them of the City’s determination to defend the Jewish community against the kind of violence that had erupted late in 2019 against Jews in Jersey City, Monsey and in Brooklyn.  

The Jewish Week fills in the background in part as follows:

. . .  Mayor Bill de Blasio, back from his days as a councilman representing Orthodox precincts in Brooklyn, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have tended the relationship with charedi Jews in Borough Park and Williamsburg with great care.

In the transactional nature of politics, both sides of the equation — powerful politicians and powerful charedi rabbis representing tens of thousands of votes — have benefitted.

But in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, which has taken a huge toll on the charedi neighborhoods of Borough Park and Williamsburg, that relationship is being severely tested. Harsh condemnations by both Cuomo and de Blasio of charedi Jews who are flouting social distancing rules have driven a wedge, though perhaps a narrow one, between friends, straining the carefully cultivated ties that have taken years to establish.

“The relationship is frayed, it’s been tested,” said Ester Fuchs, professor of International and Public Affairs and Political Science and director of the Urban and Social Policy Program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. But, she was quick to add, the situation is not a full-on “rift,” and is unlikely to portend a long-term deterioration in ties between the mayor’s and governor’s offices and the chasidic community.  . . .

This is how The Jewish Week’s editor Andrew Sillow-Carroll begins to address the issue (“What de Blasio should have said after breaking up a Jewish funeral“), starting with the arch subhead, “The mayor had two jobs: protect public safety, and don’t encourage scapegoating. He got one right.”

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.  . . .

An article in Haaretz reviews his relationship with Israel and Jews (“From anti-Semitism to BDS: Where N.Y.C. Mayor De Blasio Stands on Jewish Issues“), especially noting his opposition to the BDS movement and his embrace of Israel.  If anything, he could be accused of pandering to Jews, including with the notion he’s expressed that it’s his “duty” as New York’s mayor to support Israel.

This analysis by Joshua Leifler in Jewish Currents (“An Argument Among Friends” ) speaks to de Blasio’s close transactional relationship with Hasidic communities that he’s had over the course of his political career, concluding as follows:

Many of New York’s Orthodox groups appear eager to forgive de Blasio and move on. It seems that maintaining a useful political relationship is more important to them than the kind of public criticism preferred by the mayor’s critics on the right and the left. The Satmar leadership issued a statement defending de Blasio on Friday. “We strongly denounce the attacks against the Mayor, particularly those accusing him of antisemitism,” it said. “The close relationship between Mr. De Blasio and our community go back close to two decades, during which time we have come to know, respect and appreciate his understanding and sensitivity to the unique needs of our community.” Agudath Israel issued a statement on Wednesday that gently rebuked de Blasio but refrained from maligning his intent: “The mayor expressed regret this morning for the way his words were taken. We agree with that sentiment. No matter how well-intentioned the Mayor might be, words that could be seized upon bigots and anti-Semites must be avoided at all costs.” Congregation Tolath Yaakov, which organized the funeral, even issued an apology: “We thought that the procession will be in accordance with the rules,” the group said. “We know that the mayor’s reaction came from his concern for the health and safety of our community and the entire city, and it wasn’t ill-intentioned.” Meanwhile, the letter criticizing de Blasio for “scapegoating the Jewish community,” spearheaded by the liberal New York Jewish Agenda and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) was signed by none of the major Orthodox or Haredi groups.

. . . . But if there was an element of antisemitism in de Blasio’s remarks, it was less that he addressed “the Jewish community” as a whole instead of one specific Jewish community, and more that, because of his close ties to particular Haredi political operatives, he felt he could.