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Redistricting the Jews

Democrats’ attempts to gerrymander New York may undermine religious freedom.

Chassidic Jews in Brooklyn, N.Y. Photo by Mendy Hechtman/Flash90.
Chassidic Jews in Brooklyn, N.Y. Photo by Mendy Hechtman/Flash90.
Irit Tratt
Irit Tratt
Irit Tratt is a pro-Israel advocate residing in New York.

The recent trend of Orthodox Jewish New Yorkers moving south may persist for some time, given a decision this month by a state appellate court. The ruling determined that the congressional district map used in last November’s election should be tossed and New York’s political boundaries redrawn by an independent redistricting commission.

State Republicans have appealed and the case will likely reach the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, which ruled against the Democratic legislature during last year’s redistricting process. However, the judge who leads the Court of Appeals is considered more liberal than his predecessor, which gives Democrats a perceived advantage.

The neutral lines crafted by a nonpartisan special master before the 2022 midterms helped Republicans flip several New York congressional seats. This resulted in 11 GOP House members, almost exactly the number of seats House Republicans needed to maintain their majority.

Redistricting may place areas with robust Orthodox Jewish communities, such as Rockland and Nassau counties, in the reapportionment crosshairs.

Those two counties are represented by newly elected Republican Congressmen Mike Lawler and Anthony D’Esposito. Given that Orthodox Jews take conservative positions on many issues, Democrats’ attempts to gerrymander these areas underscore a reluctance by lawmakers to protect religious interests and adhere to faith-friendly governance.

The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI)’s latest Census on American Religion lists Rockland and Nassau counties among in the top 10 areas with the highest concentration of Jewish Americans.

With vibrant Orthodox enclaves such as Monsey and Spring Valley, the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council estimates that over 32,000 students are enrolled in Jewish day schools in Rockland County, up from almost 20,000 ten years ago. For its part, Nassau County contains a significant Orthodox community in the Five Towns and Hempstead sections of Long Island.

While Lawler’s seat is considered competitive, his path to victory may be reduced should the case reach the Court of Appeals. This would not be good news for Jewish New Yorkers.

As a first-term congressman, Lawler introduced a bill in response to City University of New York Law School student Fatima Mohammed’s antisemitic commencement speech last May. If passed, the Stop Antisemitism on College Campuses Act would pull federal funds from colleges that promote antisemitism.

D’Esposito, who recently returned from a trip to Israel, and freshman GOP Congressman Marc Molinaro are cosponsors of the bill. Molinaro has sponsored a separate bipartisan measure to combat violence against Jewish Americans.

In June, Congressman Lawler worked with Democratic Rep. Ritchie Torres to pass groundbreaking bipartisan legislation to establish a permanent Special Envoy for the Abraham Accords.

Mondaire Jones, who lost his seat to redistricting and unsuccessfully ran for a different seat last year, announced his intention to run for the redrawn 17th district. Liz Gereghty, sister of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, has also declared her candidacy.

As a congressman, Jones was a Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) member. The group is chaired by Rep. Jamila Jayapal (D-Wash.). Jayapal’s recent comments that demonized Israel as a “racist state” are of a piece with the antisemitism endemic among the CPC leadership.

While Jones has sought to distance himself from far-left attacks on Israel, his involvement with the CPC, which now boasts over 100 members, coupled with past endorsements from colleagues like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), renders his future as a dependable ally to the district’s Orthodox Jewish community uncertain.

Last year, Jones was one of only six members of Congress to send a letter to the president of Yeshiva University, America’s premier Modern Orthodox institution, that demanded the school recognize its LGBT organization, the YU Pride Alliance. He did so despite the university’s claim that such recognition conflicts with its religious beliefs. In December, a New York court affirmed that Yeshiva University is not a religious establishment and must recognize the student group.

To uphold religious values and preserve yeshiva education are central concerns to Orthodox Jews. Jones’s intervention in the case and alignment with a small cohort of lawmakers who criticized the school indicate that the congressman does not take his constituents’ desire to protect religious expression into account.

The redistricting drama punctuates a list of state actions aimed at New York’s Orthodox Jews. Much like the legal scrutiny of Yeshiva University, New York’s Hasidic yeshivas have been forced to challenge state agencies on the issue of educational equivalency requirements. The New York Times fomented a culture of anti-Orthodox bias on this issue in last year’s 18-part series on the city’s Hasidic yeshivas. The paper’s anti-religious narrative claimed that Orthodox educational establishments reaped taxpayer dollars while denying students a basic secular education.

Moreover, a spike in antisemitic violence targeting Orthodox neighborhoods has failed to galvanize New York Democrats. Instead, lawmakers like Rep. Yvette Clarke, who represents the heavily Orthodox Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, has thrown her support behind the “spirit” of the movement to defund the police.

She also takes controversial positions on Israel. In 2019, Clarke cosponsored legislation promoting human rights for Palestinians “living under Israeli military occupation.”

Lawmakers should reflect the principles of their constituents. New York’s redistricting saga demonstrates how unrestrained partisan ambition and the advancement of competing cultural narratives are contributing to an unsettling atmosphere for the state’s Orthodox Jewish community.

New York Democrats’ attempts to suppress Republican success cast doubt on the state’s commitment to upholding religious liberties and could diminish Judaism’s role in New York’s political fabric.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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