By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Along with the tragic deaths and debilitating illnesses brought on by the Chinese virus there is repackaged, recharged anti-Semitism. The allegations don’t have to be true, they don’t even have to make sense, but if someone has to be blamed, the Jew is the time-honored perfect scapegoat. Throughout history, plagues have been an especially dangerous time for Jews, as the general populace always attributed the epidemic to them.
There is no doubt that the virus currently plaguing the world emanated from China, but that country is very far away and most people can’t relate to it on a personal level. Jews are everywhere. They are despised. They always were and always will be. Usually, there are no consequences for blaming them unfairly for the problems of the day, and generally people feel better after having found someone to blame for their problems.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has lots of problems. He is losing his grip on the city, where he is hugely unpopular. The vaunted subway system has degenerated into a filthy homeless encampment on wheels. The pandemic has hit his city especially hard, and the economic mess the shutdown created is impacting the city severely. His stringent lockdown orders are being ignored by frustrated citizens, including the mayor himself. Nobody seems to like or appreciate him, and everyone, including the governor, mocks him.
So De Blasio went after the Jews, thinking that his comments bashing “the Jewish community” in a recent tweet would hit only Chassidic Williamsburg, please his detractors while sparking no flak. He couldn’t have miscalculated more. His tweet targeting, blaming and threatening the Jewish community was so egregiously out of line that everyone from Senator Ted Cruz to local machers responded. The tweet made news everywhere.
Following the passing of a local rebbe, Williamsburg askonim met with leaders of the local police precinct, with whom they had a fine working relationship, to let them know that the rebbe had died. They discussed how to hold a respectable funeral while maintaining social-distancing. The police set up cones and barricades, closing several blocks to accommodate a small crowd. Speakers were set up along the way for people to be able to listen to the hespeidim.
Something went wrong, the speakers were shut off, and the large crowd began surging forward toward the shul. The people were no longer separated, and police began trying to break up the gathering. Word reached the hard-working mayor and he decided to go to the scene himself and make sure that the Jews were dispersed. Apparently, that didn’t go well.
The furious mayor got home, and as politicians are wont to do nowadays, he went mad tweeting.
NY Times to the Mayor’s Defense
While everyone else was busy bashing the mayor, the New York Times defended him. In their report of the mess, the Gray Lady wrote, “De Blasio spent much of Wednesday on the defensive over his handling of the funeral and his use of the phrase ‘Jewish community’ in his public criticism of the mourners. But the episode also underscored the challenges that officials have faced in addressing the flouting of social distancing rules in insular and close-knit Hasidic neighborhoods around the New York region. People in these neighborhoods have long voiced distrust of state and local authorities, even as they have been able to band together to exert political power. Hasidic Jews have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, which has killed hundreds in their community, including influential religious leaders.”
The Times dredged up the metzitzah libel, saying that “the mayor has run into frequent political headaches related to public health issues in the ultra-Orthodox community, including the measles outbreak and his policy on a circumcision ritual, metzitzah b’peh, that led to multiple children becoming infected with herpes.”
As we have written many times, that is a lie. There is no scientific proof tying metzitzah to sick children.
How hypocritical for the same newspaper to bash the president and others for mentioning the anecdotal evidence of the effectiveness of the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine in the treatment of the coronavirus in an attempt to save lives. The Times repeatedly mocked Donald Trump for promoting a medicine that has not yet been scientifically proven.
The paper is adept at finding Jews to bash Jews.
“The mayor has boxed himself into a corner with the Orthodox community to the point that he has had trouble when it comes to policing necessary regulations that are designed to prevent the spread of communicable diseases,” said Menashe Shapiro, a political consultant and founder of Shapiro Consulting Group. “Whether it’s measles, coronavirus or the bris fiasco, he has demonstrated a tremendous weak spot with this community.”
Never mind that until this fiasco, the mayor has had a fine working relationship with the Jewish community, which supported him financially and politically and loyally stood by him as his popularity tanked.
Taking Aim At Shuls
The tweet was not the first time the mayor went after the religious community. A couple of weeks prior, he threatened to permanently shut down shuls if they weren’t keeping to the corona guidelines. His comments then didn’t cause anywhere near the backlash the tweet caused because he didn’t single out religious Jews, but lumped them together with church-going Christians.
This is what he said: “I want to say to all those who are preparing the potential of religious services this weekend — if you go to your synagogue, if you go to your church and attempt to hold services after having been told so often not to, our enforcement agents will have no choice but to shut down those services. The NYPD, Fire Department, Buildings Department, and everyone has been instructed that if they see worship services going on, they will go to the officials of that congregation, they’ll inform them they need to stop the services and disperse. If that does not happen, they will take additional action up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently.”
The corona threat is real. It has killed thousands of people and is not yet done. Until there is a vaccine and a cure, we need to practice distancing and do whatever we can to protect our lives and the lives of others. The government has an obligation to protect its citizens, and the citizens need to follow the guidelines and the law for their own protection and for the welfare of others.
The problem is when politicians enact policies for their own political benefit and not for the benefit of the people. The problem is when politicians abuse the power they are given and begin to act as dictators without regard for constitutional protections and the needs of the people.
When Your Target Fights Back
Governor Andrew Cuomo also went searching for someone to blame for the state’s problems, but if you do not blame the Jews like the mayor did, there is always the danger of pushback from your target. Initially, Cuomo blamed the president, but he was forced to make up with the most powerful man in the country, if not the world. Last week, he tried blaming Florida, of all places, for the state’s economic mess.
In one of his daily press conferences, he said, “New York state bails out [Florida] every year.” Addressing Florida Senator Rick Scott, he said, “How long are you going to play the American people and assume they’re stupid? They are not. And they can add. And they know facts.”
Scott shot back, saying, “It’s irresponsible and reckless to take money from American taxpayers and use it to save liberal politicians like Cuomo from the consequences of their poor choices. Floridians shouldn’t have to backfill New York’s state budget and pension fund.”
Adding further insult, he taunted Cuomo, saying, “Florida has made the tough choices that New York has refused to make for decades and can get through this crisis without a bailout.”
Scott reminded everyone that New York has two million fewer residents than Florida does, but its budget is “twice the size of Florida’s” – the same Florida where lots of New Yorkers have been fleeing to escape onerous taxes.
The “Non-Essential”… Bill of Rights?
New Jersey’s governor admitted on a national news program that he hadn’t considered the Bill of Rights when he issued his executive order locking people in their homes. Fox News host Tucker Carlson asked Phil Murphy to explain the constitutionality of his executive orders that kept liquor stores open because they are essential but shut businesses and houses of worship because they aren’t.
This is how the conversation went. Carlson asked, “Fifteen congregants at a synagogue in New Jersey were arrested and charged for being in a synagogue together. Now, the Bill of Rights, as you well know, protects Americans’ right, enshrines their right, to practice their religion as they see fit and to congregate together, to assemble peacefully. By what authority did you nullify the Bill of Rights in issuing this order? How do you have the power to do that?”
“That’s above my pay grade, Tucker,” Murphy answered. “I wasn’t thinking of the Bill of Rights when we did this.”
At least he was honest!
Rightly or wrongly, the American people have had enough of this and are pushing back. Many states are gradually reopening, and in those that aren’t, people are slowly leaving their homes and gathering in parks or other places that are accessible as the weather improves.
Interestingly enough, the same day that the Williamsburg levayah took place, Navy planes flew in formation over New York City to honor healthcare workers. New Yorkers fled their apartments and, without distancing, craned their necks to view and photograph the awesome display. De Blasio was quiet – no tweets, no threats, nothing. He let out his frustration on the Jews.
Over the past weekend, when New Yorkers congregated in city parks, those without masks were not ticketed. Instead, the police gave them free masks. Residents of Williamsburg and Borough Park were not afforded the same courtesy. Following the fracas over the tweet, the mayor dispatched police to those Jewish neighborhoods and proceeded to give out $1,000 summonses to people not wearing masks, in some cases even if they were not within six feet of any other person.
That being said, we must always remember that we are in golus and are judged by a double standard. We must always act in a way that will not provide excuses for people to hate and bash us. All our actions must bring honor to our people and to Hashem.
We learn in this week’s parsha, “Velo sichalilu es Sheim kodshi.” Hashem says, “You shall not defile My holy Name.” In other words, we are commanded not to act in a way that will cause people to mock Jews and Hashem (Vayikra 22:32).
The Rambam (Hilchos Yesodei Torah 5:11) writes that “if a talmid chochom acts in a way that can allow people to suspect him of acting improperly, even if he has not committed an aveirah, he has perpetrated a chillul Hashem.”
Lest you discover humility and say that you are not a talmid chochom, the following story repeated by Rav Avrohom Pam may be illuminating. The Chofetz Chaim admonished his son not to act in a certain way, telling him that it is improper for a talmid chochom to act in that manner.
The son responded, “But father, I am not a talmid chochom. Why are you admonishing me?” The Chofetz Chaim replied, “To cause a chillul Hashem, you are enough of a talmid chochom.”
We may not view ourselves as talmidei chachomim, whose every act is judged by people who are watching us as representative of the way Jews act, but those who are around us view every person with a yarmulka and a beard as a rabbi, as an Orthodox Jew, as one of “them.” We are all Hashem’s ambassadors. We are shluchim of our rabbeim and our actions have to be reflective of what the Torah demands of us. We must never do things that bring about a chillul Hashem. The less often we appear in the press, the better off we all are.
We are living in a very dangerous time. Let’s make sure we are doing all we can to remain safe and above reproach.