American Jews are finding themselves in a historically familiar position: Scapegoated for a plague.
Some of the first New Yorkers to contract the coronavirus were Jews in the Orthodox Jewish communities in and around New York City. In the weeks that followed, several Jewish weddings and funerals were held in violation of public health orders. Then came statements from public officials singling out Jews, and anti-Semitic threats on Facebook.
After New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio witnessed the NYPD break up a large funeral in Brooklyn for a prominent rabbi, the mayor tweeted: "My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed."
De Blasio was condemned by fellow Democrats and American Jews. There is no data indicating religious Jews are violating social distancing rules at a greater rate than other demographic groups. While there have been high-profile incidents of police disrupting Jewish gatherings, the NYPD has also made arrests of various sorts for failing to practice social distancing, like at a Brooklyn barbershop and at a Manhattan "marijuana party." And pictures of throngs hanging out at parks and closely congregating for the Navy Blue Angels and Air Force Thunderbirds flyovers indicated that not social distancing isn't a problem specific to a particular religious group.
De Blasio later said that he "spoke out of real distress that people's lives were in danger." He added: "I regret if the way I said it in any way gave people a feeling of being treated the wrong way, that was not my intention. It was said with love but it was tough love, it was anger and frustration."
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
By some accounts, religious Jews in certain neighborhoods of New York City have been stricken by the virus at high rates. At the same time, Jews who have recovered from the virus have donated plasma in extraordinary numbers in an effort to save others.
In early March, Yaacov Behrman, a community leader and Hasidic Jewish activist, rushed to get ahead of the virus by marrying his bride, Shevi Katzman, after an engagement of just a week-and-a-half. They had a socially distanced wedding across two Brooklyn backyards — with a few siblings, no cousins, two witnesses and a rabbi, and 2,500 people watching on Facebook Live.
"I think that's what's so painful and upsetting about it, about the mayor's tweet, [is] the vast majority of Orthodox Jews have given up [something] — I gave up a wedding," Behrman said. "What are you generalizing for, Mr. Mayor? It's like going to the park and saying, 'My message to the yuppies,' you know?"
Behrman said he does not believe the mayor is anti-Semitic, but Jews should not have been singled out.
"The organizers of the funeral [de Blasio tweeted about] were 100% wrong — it was an embarrassment, it was an embarrassment to me as an Orthodox Jew, it was an embarrassment to me as a New Yorker," he said. "But I also want to make it clear, you look around New York, everyone is becoming lax unfortunately."
Yet there's a pattern of specifically highlighting Jewish offenders. In Lakewood, N.J., where early on in the pandemic police made arrests at large Jewish gatherings, a local news station reported that a school bus was carrying children to a Jewish school that was open, illegally. The reporter later acknowledged that the bus was just delivering food to homebound families.
In nearby Jackson Township, N.J., town council president Barry Calogero made a speech at a government meeting indicating that Judaism itself made Jews recalcitrant when it comes to following the rules.
"Unfortunately, there are groups of people who hide behind cultures or religious beliefs and put themselves, our first responders, and quite honestly all of Jackson and bordering towns at risk for their selfishness, irresponsibility and inability to follow the law put in place by President Trump and Governor Murphy," he said.
Calogero said he was not anti-Semitic. But after criticism he resigned days later, citing health reasons.
And in Rockland County, N.Y., where there are large communities of Orthodox Jews, the county executive's Facebook post about police breaking up a large Passover service was met by anti-Semitic comments.
Violations of health regulations by Orthodox Jews have been documented by public officials and media at a level of scrutiny that Jews say others don't face. Eli Steinberg, an Orthodox Jewish writer in Lakewood, N.J., says it's easier to generalize about those who wear traditional garb.
"We're, ya know, we're the guys dressed in black and white and we wear the hats, so it becomes a sort of more interesting story" when Jews violate health rules, he said. "But it's not — it's a story about people....People do dumb stuff."
The problem, he said, is when it is made to seem as though the few who violate the rules are more widespread in a particular community.
"In a time of such uncertainty, which we're going through now, when you can effectively scapegoat somebody or scapegoat a group of people about the issue that people are scared of...that's a part of it that concerns me," Steinberg said. "This moment where there's the vehicle of Covid19 to use to spread hate, it just becomes that much more scary."
Bari Weiss, author of How To Fight Anti-Semitism and a New York Times opinion staff writer and editor, said given how anti-Semitism is at historic peaks in New York and around the country, public officials need to be "extremely specific" in criticizing large gatherings, instead of blaming "the Jewish community."
"I think that there is a double standard often when it comes to the way that the Jewish community and Jews are talked about, whether it's because we're not perceived as a minority, even though we are," she said. "It stands to reason that lots of people who already perhaps have animosity toward that community will be even more emboldened.
The Anti-Defamation League released a report this week showing that there were more anti-Semitic incidents in 2019 than at any year since it it began tracking in 1979.
"Anyone that's been paying attention, or anyone that knows people inside of these communities, knows already dozens of stories of people that have been spit on, assaulted, harassed, had their head coverings pulled off, had their face smashed with a paving stone," Weiss said.
Now, amid the coronavirus, the hate is more socially distanced — happening largely online. Last month the ADL documented how community Facebook groups are loaded with comments blaming Jews for spreading the virus, and calling for them to be firehosed, tear-gassed and denied medical care.
Already a New Jersey man was arrested for using Facebook to threaten to assault Lakewood's Jews for spreading the virus. He was charged with making terrorist threats during a state of emergency. A county deputy fire marshall in New Jersey was investigated for similar Facebook comments. And in Queens, a couple was charged with hate crimes after attacking a group of Orthodox Jews — ripping their masks off and punching them in the face — for supposedly not social distancing.
"You Jews are all getting us sick," the couple allegedly yelled.
This is all too familiar to Jews, Weiss says. For centuries Jews have been massacred for supposedly spreading plagues. Rats brought the black death to the European continent in the 1300s, "but rats weren't blamed. Jews were blamed." Thousands were slaughtered; entire communities were eliminated.
Jews today do not believe that violence at such a scale is imminent. But they remember their history.
"I think Jewish memory is always a gift, but it's especially a gift in a moment of crisis because frankly, we Jews have lived through a tremendous amount in our centuries on this Earth," Weiss said. "And whenever we ask could it get worse, we know the answer is yes, because we've lived through worse, or at least our ancestors have. So I think Jewish memory can help us be grateful and keep things in perspective."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Some of the first New Yorkers to contract the coronavirus were Jewish. In the weeks that followed, several Jewish weddings and funerals violated public health orders. And then came the backlash. Here's Matt Katz of our member station WNYC.
MATT KATZ, BYLINE: As soon as Yaacov Behrman got engaged in early March, a family friend pulled him aside and said...
YAACOV BEHRMAN: Get married and do it fast because we don't know what's going to happen.
KATZ: Coronavirus was on the march. And so the following Sunday, Yaacov and Shevi Behrman were married in a backyard wedding in Brooklyn with two witnesses, a rabbi, only a few siblings and no cousins but 2,800 people watching socially distanced dancing on Facebook Live.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KATZ: Behrman sacrificed the big wedding for the greater good. But in a series of high-profile incidents, not all religious Jews like himself have done the same, with police in Brooklyn breaking up several large Orthodox Jewish funerals and weddings. This cellphone video shows officers using bullhorns to disperse crowds.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Everybody go home. It is finished.
KATZ: After one such funeral, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted that the, quote, "Jewish community" must follow social distancing rules. The fact that the mayor singled out Jews drew condemnation, especially since images abound of bikini-clad young people lounging in groups in New York parks throughout this pandemic. People of all kinds are not abiding by health restrictions, Behrman says.
BEHRMAN: I think that's also what's so painful and upsetting about the mayor's tweet 'cause the vast majority of Orthodox Jews have given up - I gave up a wedding. What are you generalizing for, Mr. Mayor?
KATZ: Orthodox Jews have been scapegoated elsewhere during the pandemic as well. In Lakewood, N.J., a local news station reported that a bus was carrying children to a Jewish school illegally opened. Turns out, the bus was just delivering food to homebound families. In nearby Jackson Township, town council president Barry Calogero made a speech at a council meeting indicating that Judaism itself made Jews recalcitrant when it comes to following the rules.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BARRY CALOGERO: Unfortunately, there are groups of people who hide behind cultures or religious beliefs and put themselves, our first responders and, quite honestly, all of Jackson at risk
KATZ: Calogero denied his statement was anti-Semitic, but after criticism, he resigned days later, citing health reasons. Others have faced coronavirus backlash. Hate crimes against Asian Americans are on the rise. But Bari Weiss, author of the book "How To Fight Anti-Semitism" and a New York Times opinion writer, says Jews have been uniquely scapegoated over centuries for spreading plagues. Rats may have brought the Black Death to Europe in the 1300s...
BARI WEISS: But rats weren't blamed. Jews were blamed, and there was something like massacres in 60 Jewish communities across Europe.
KATZ: When all Jewish people are negatively lumped together, that's dangerous for those who publicly wear traditional Orthodox garb, like black hats for men and long dresses for women. Especially since even before the virus, anti-Semitic hate crimes were at historic highs.
WEISS: In any moment, but especially in this one, I think that our public officials need to be incredibly careful about the kind of language that they use.
KATZ: The Anti-Defamation League reports that community Facebook groups are now loaded with false claims that Jews are spreading the virus, calling for them to be fire-hosed, tear-gassed, denied medical care. One New Jersey man who sent threatening Facebook messages was even charged with a crime - making terroristic threats during a state of emergency.
For NPR News, I'm Matt Katz.
(SOUNDBITE OF LIAM THOMAS' "NEEDED LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.