According to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, cracking down on Chassidic neighborhoods in Brooklyn that he termed “COVID clusters” and imposing new lockdown restrictions on them is just a matter of following Jewish law. Explaining his decision to implement new measures pinpointing specific ZIP codes in the borough, he noted that he is motivated by the principle that, “In Jewish teaching, one of the most precious principles is to save a life.”
Cuomo was right about the concept of pikuach nefesh, which obligates Jews to violate laws with but a few exceptions in order to preserve life. That’s a message some have not gotten during the course of the last several months as—whether out of frustration, ignorance or perverse stubbornness—they resisted rules about face masks or bans on gatherings of large numbers of people. The spectacle of Orthodox Jews taking to the streets this week in closely packed crowds, eschewing masks (and in one case, even burning the coverings) to protest Cuomo’s new edicts cannot be defended.
Yet it’s equally fair to ask questions that were raised by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in singling out Jews by name as the sole source of COVID scofflaws. It’s also reasonable to ask by what logic, let alone scientific principle, are they making decisions that mandate the closing of religious institutions while allowing other secular activities to go on unhindered?
Just as important, why have Cuomo and de Blasio, as well as so many other local and state leaders around the nation, treated religious activities and protests against these restrictions as inherently illegitimate and illegal while turning a blind eye towards the mass protests and violence in the streets that have taken place under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement?
Seen from that perspective, the anger of the haredim who have been resisting COVID restrictions can be understood, if not excused, as a natural reaction to hypocritical policies and a troubling willingness to make the easily identifiable Orthodox Jewish community the scapegoats for the pandemic.
It’s entirely fair to note that haredi communities—both in the United States and Israel—have been particularly resistant to COVID rules, especially those that banned synagogue services, in addition to gatherings for weddings and funerals. The explanation for this is variously given as a function of the insular nature of ultra-Orthodox culture, as well as their being disconnected from the flow of information about the disease on the Internet and their inherent distrust of secular authorities.
But it’s equally fair to point out that in neither country have the haredim been the sole sources of COVID infractions.
It’s also true that neither Cuomo nor de Blasio has much credibility on this issue. The governor has never owned up to his guilt in forcing nursing homes to accept coronavirus patients at the start of the pandemic—a colossal error that led to a massive number of fatalities that still account for the largest single factor in the number of deaths from the coronavirus. The mayor is a hopeless incompetent who is hard to take seriously when he attempts to impose his will on Jewish critics.
Part of the problem is that, like so many of their colleagues in positions of authority, Cuomo and de Blasio have been empowered by the pandemic to act in ways that would have been unthinkable in any other circumstance. The spread of the virus is a genuine emergency not unlike a natural disaster or an armed conflict that gives authorities the power to act in the public interest outside of the normal restraints of constitutional government. However, their use of these powers to protect citizens against a common menace—in this case, the spread of the disease—must still be restrained by the same principles that ought to inform all government actions. In order to have legitimacy, they must be rooted in law, and be applied consistently and without prejudice. And the exercise of these powers cannot go on indefinitely.
Unfortunately, those elements have often been conspicuous by their absence when it comes to enforcing pandemic restrictions—something that has become much more evident since the first few weeks of the crisis when the country was panicked, and both citizens and the courts were inclined to give authorities the benefit of the doubt.
They have, as is usually the case with politicians who become drunk with power, become extremely intolerant of those who push back against them, which have put the Orthodox community in their cross-hairs.
Just as important, once state and municipal governments, like those in New York, not only failed to stop the mass demonstrations that arose following George Floyd’s death, but in many cases actually endorsed them, the equation changed. The fact that they would have cracked down hard if they had been linked to their political opponents rather than a key constituency made their hypocrisy undeniable.
As those “mostly peaceful” protests continued and violence spread, governments that sent cops to shut down synagogues and churches, close playgrounds or arrest people without masks while doing little or nothing to stop rioters lost whatever credibility they once had. If preventing looting by non-socially distanced criminals is not a government priority but stopping people from praying in a house of worship is, something is profoundly wrong, and it’s no good blaming people—whether they are Orthodox Jews or anyone else—for noticing.
Moreover, the willingness of mainstream media outlets to excuse this hypocrisy also contributes to the way support for restrictions is declining. When The New York Times labels haredi protesters in Brooklyn a violent “mob”—a term considered both racist and unacceptable when applied to the riots carried out in the name of the Black Lives Matter movement—we know that the paper’s bias and its long history of questionable coverage of Jewish subjects is behind their decisions.
Given the pattern of continued COVID outbreaks around the world, there are legitimate questions to be answered about whether lockdowns are doing what advocates claim. That’s especially true when so many seem oblivious to the enormous damage they have done.
The answer to this problem is not continued resistance to common-sense measures like masks and social distancing. But before anyone criticizes those who are protesting the untrammeled use of government power to impose lockdowns, it is past time for politicians to drop the hypocrisy and their scapegoating of Jews or anyone else that thinks the First Amendment hasn’t been repealed.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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