Originally published in the New York Daily News.
Last week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio came under fire for a tweet in which he condemned a large funeral gathering that defied state and city orders to practice social distancing to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. That the group in question was comprised of Orthodox Jews — and that de Blasio called upon the Jewish community at large to observe distancing — angered the Anti-Defamation League and a number of others in New York.
De Blasio surely made a mistake in his ascribing responsibility for ending such gatherings to the greater “Jewish community” rather than focusing on the event in question. And in my view, he had better alternatives than using a sloppily worded tweet to convey an urgent message with implications for all New Yorkers. However, the mayor’s intent was obviously to protect New Yorkers during an existential threat, and we should see his comment in that context and not be so quick to castigate him or interpret his remark as tantamount to anti-Semitism.
First and foremost, de Blasio is not an anti-Semite. He is a friend to the Jewish community. New York is home to America’s largest Jewish community and the mayor, a national progressive leader, has shown great courage in standing up to the loud but small number of anti-Israel and at times anti-Semitic voices within the Democratic Party. Those who castigate him today for a tweet they allege is tantamount to anti-Semitism should not forget that. The mayor has worked well with Jewish community organizations and has a good grasp of our issues and concerns, most of which overlap with those of every other New Yorker.
In his tweet, de Blasio missed a golden opportunity to avoid singling out a group and focus instead of strengthening New Yorker’s solidarity by encouraging everyone to be part of the solution.
Over the past few days alone, police have broken up a number of other large, non-Orthodox gatherings including a party in Brooklyn at which more than 60 people received summonses and a large, surely nondenominational crowd packed into a Trader Joe’s on 14th St.
While a few in the Orthodox Jewish community continue to flaunt social distancing orders — even Israeli Defense Forces have had to crack down on Orthodox gatherings — the order to stay at home and practice social distancing applies to all, no exceptions. De Blasio should have known it is better to broaden his appeals to New Yorkers than lump all Jews together. Anyone violating the social distancing edict should be called to account.
But the people castigating de Blasio over his misguided tweet should also know better. We are in an unprecedented moment in which the weakest link threatens us all. Millions of New Yorkers count on the mayor to keep us safe. In the end, this isn’t about anti-Semitism or even about Jews. COVID-19 is a threat to all, and therefore we all have a responsibility to do our part to mitigate the risk.
Might the mayor’s offhand remark spur anti-Semitism, as the Anti-Defamation League and others allege? There is of course real anti-Semitism in New York City and across America and I for one never underestimate the depths to which a racist will sink. The Jews have been scapegoated for everything from interest rates to the weather. But raising the specter of anti-Semitism over something like De Blasio’s tweet contributes to a sense of enduring persecution among Jews. That may be good business for some, but it’s out of step with reality.
The ADL, for its part, just released a survey that claims that more than half of Jewish Americans have directly experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism in the past five years, a figure that strikes me as highly misleading, given that they only interviewed 538 people. In my experience at the helm of the American Jewish Congress, Jewish Americans, while concerned about rising anti-Semitism, do not feel unsafe in America. “Never forget” does not mean persistent outrage and fear.
In the end, division and finger-pointing do not help the Jewish people, nor do they help us fight COVID-19, which requires unity and strength. Indeed, the clarion call during the pandemic has been “we are all in this together.” It is a medical and a moral imperative that we would all do well to heed.
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