(April 30, 2020 / JNS) There is no excuse, no rationalization and no way to put it in a defensible context. When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted out a threat to, “the Jewish community”—that “the time for warnings has passed”—there is no way to characterize his singling out of Jews in this manner as anything but classic anti-Semitism.
It’s true that some in the Chassidic communities of New York have been pandemic scofflaws at times. That is frustrating and worthy of censure. But it’s also true that other New Yorkers have been just as conspicuous and repeated violators of the new norms of social distancing.
By that I don’t only mean the numerous instances of members of other communities who have broken the rules or the fact that New Yorkers regularly crowd into Central Park on nice days. Or even the much discussed fact that hours before de Blasio’s tantrum aimed at the Jews, social distancing was nowhere in evidence when people gathered to watch a flyover of the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds of the U.S. Navy and Air Force.
I refer instead to the fact that one of the most conspicuous rule-breakers is de Blasio himself. The mayor’s arrogant flouting of the admonitions to “stay home” by taking his entourage and police escort for nonwork-related excursions to Brooklyn from his Manhattan official residence is as deeply resented by New Yorkers as anything the Chassidim have done.
Nor is there any way to treat this as a simple misunderstanding. As numerous observers immediately pointed out, it’s impossible to imagine de Blasio’s damning sentence with the words “African-American” or “Hispanic” or “LGBTQ” substituted for “Jewish.”
So it was unsurprising, yet still encouraging, that the reaction to his screed was virtually unanimous with individuals and groups from across the political and religious spectrum, unreservedly condemning the mayor’s intemperate and unjustified willingness to treat the question of how to limit the damage from the contagion as a “Jewish” one.
While there is no doubt about the fact that de Blasio’s words were an open-and-shut case of anti-Semitic incitement, there remains the question of what motivated him to lash out at the Jewish community in the first place. The mayor claimed that he was acting out of “tough love” for ultra-Orthodox Jews. Some who have been outraged by the way a minority of Chassidim has resisted efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic have accepted that explanation.
However, that argument breaks down once you realize that the incident that precipitated de Blasio’s outburst—the funeral of the late Rabbi Chaim Mertz of the Satmar Chassidic sect—was not a rogue action, but an effort in which the mourners had previously coordinated their plans with the New York City Police Department. While their effort to observe social distancing broke down, this was not an attempt to circumvent the authorities. That makes de Blasio’s outburst all the more unacceptable.
Nor can the mayor ignore the context for his attack on the Jews. In the months before the pandemic, the New York region was reeling from a surge of violent anti-Semitic attacks on ultra-Orthodox Jews. This was particularly difficult for “progressives” like de Blasio to deal with since the assailants in the overwhelming majority of these incidents were not right-wing extremists or neo-Nazis whose crimes could, however improbable, be linked to President Donald Trump. Instead, those responsible were largely African-Americans whose attitudes were shaped by local communal tensions, as well as the anti-Semitism spread by hatemongers like the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan.
So for de Blasio to single out Jews as being responsible for spreading a disease that has disproportionately affected minority communities was deeply irresponsible. If attacks on Jews resume in the coming weeks, it will not be unfair to put some of the blame on the mayor.
The question remains why even as clueless and feckless a politician as de Blasio deliberately would offend the more than 1 million Jews who live in the city?
The mayor’s flaws are numerous, but he has never been an anti-Semite. Quite the contrary, he’s been outspoken about supporting Israel and actually has a record of working well with Orthodox Jews.
What then could have motivated him to speak in such a reckless manner?
The answer is an affliction that is common to the political class whenever it is handed virtually untrammeled power to order the lives of ordinary people: the authoritarian impulse.
The pandemic created a situation that required the suspension of ordinary life. The imperative to save lives, especially those of the elderly who are most at risk from the coronavirus, places in the hands of government the responsibility to avert a public-health catastrophe. That overrides the normal limits on power giving people like de Blasio and others who have rightful authority the ability to tell people how to behave in ways that would be unthinkable under normal circumstances.
But the problem with giving politicians such power even when it is clearly necessary is that without the customary checks and balances that constrain them, abuse is likely to follow. The mayor’s anger against Chassidim is not rooted in prejudice as much as in his belief that those who resist him must be put down and even threatened in a way that would be otherwise inconceivable.
This is, after all, the same mayor who issued a call earlier in the month for citizens to snitch on each other with texts of lockdown violations. That is a measure more in keeping with the actions of totalitarian states (like Cuba, where the mayor famously chose to spend his honeymoon) than a democracy. In the case of the current pandemic, the lack of a clear end to the time when the right to free assembly and to gather for worship is suspended can turn garden-variety hacks like de Blasio into would-be dictators prepared to lash out at anyone.
The lockdowns were necessary, but unlimited power always goes to the heads of those who are granted such sway, and particularly so when they are essentially small-minded people like de Blasio. The moral of this disturbing story is not just that Jews remain targets, but that vigilance against megalomaniacal politicians who think that they have impunity to dictate to the rest of us is all the more important when the normal rules are thrown out in an emergency.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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