NY Jews take sides over whether leaders’ policies are antisemitic

DIASPORA AFFAIRS: Issue threatens to further divide community already estranged over Trump-Biden battle

NEW YORK Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks with members of the media after delivering remarks on the coronavirus disease at the Riverside Church in Manhattan, last month. (photo credit: ANDREW KELLY / REUTERS)
NEW YORK Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks with members of the media after delivering remarks on the coronavirus disease at the Riverside Church in Manhattan, last month.
(photo credit: ANDREW KELLY / REUTERS)
NEW YORK – Accusations of antisemitism against New York’s Democratic leadership are threatening to drive a further wedge between the already wide gap between right-of-center Orthodox and left-of-center progressive Jews in the state.
Last week, conservative and right-of-center New Yorkers accused their state’s Democratic leadership of implementing antisemitic policies, with one group calling Gov. Andrew Cuomo the “most antisemitic governor in America.”
In one particularly sharp accusation, the New York Young Republican Club labeled Cuomo’s director of Jewish affairs a “court Jew,” and tweeted that he was “working for the most antisemitic governor in America.”
On December 1, according to the JTA, the club wrote on Twitter to Cuomo staffer Jake Adler, “Imagine being Jewish and working for the most antisemitic governor in America. You are a disgrace and pathetic. Shouldn’t you guys be arresting Orthodox Jews in BK [Brooklyn]? Keep being a good boy for your failed corrupt boss.”
When David Greenfield, an Orthodox Jew and CEO of the Met Council on Jewish Poverty, vouched for Adler in a tweet, the Young Republicans responded with the “court Jew” accusation. The reference was to Jews who once worked in royal courts in exchange for special privileges not afforded other Jews. It has become a slur, disparaging Jews who are seen as selling out communal interests to advance their own status.
“Court Jews defending the blatant antisemitism of Cuomo is so repugnant & vile it’s almost too unreal to behold,” the Young Republicans tweeted. “Thankfully our club leadership is full of proud Jews who are happy to call a spade a spade and not cover up the systemic discrimination and persecution of hassidic Jews.”
In response, the Anti-Defamation League’s regional office tweeted, “Everyone has the right to disagree w/public policy & political positions, but resorting to tropes should be off limits.”
The Young Republicans then tweeted that the ADL was a “sham” and told the civil rights group to “shut up.”
Progressive Jewish leaders fired back that the claims could lead to long-term repercussions for New York-Jewish community relations already frayed by the acrimonious political atmosphere surrounding President Donald Trump and his campaign against President-elect Joe Biden.
“My fear is that the use of the term ‘antisemitism’ to score political points could delegitimize the word,” said Rabbi Joshua Stanton, who leads East End Temple, a Reform congregation in Manhattan. “It could cause an inflation of use in the term to the point that it loses its great significance. I’m worried that when I call out for help, when I see real and true antisemitism, people will not pay attention.”
New York Young Republican Club president Gavin Wax, who is Jewish and identifies as religious but not Orthodox, defended the tweets to The Jerusalem Post.
“If you are going to be so offended by two Jews online trash-talking each other, then you should also be offended by the systemic antisemitism enacted by state government. It’s ridiculous that so much attention got drawn to the tweets. The notion that anything in those tweets was antisemitic is just a way to deflect from what’s really going on. A Twitter fight is not an issue. A Twitter fight doesn’t lead to rabbis being killed in their home. A Twitter fight doesn’t lead to communities being targeted and having their businesses closed,” Wax said.
“The fact is, the consequences of the policies of New York leadership have been disastrous for religious Jewish communities. COVID has given the powers that be an excuse to exercise even more repressive and targeted policies. It all hearkens back to age-old antisemitic tropes that Jews are responsible for spreading disease.”
Wax, 26, said some of the issues predate the pandemic. He cited the New York State bail-reform law, which went into effect January 1, 2020 after being signed by Cuomo. It bars judges from setting bail on misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, even when those charges are listed as hate crimes.
THE CASH-BAIL policy is part of a package of criminal-justice reform laws passed by the Democratic-controlled New York State Legislature in April 2019. The measure was criticized by some local Jewish leaders after people charged with antisemitic crimes, which spiked at the start of 2020, were released without bail before their trials.
“That was a policy that was disastrous for the security of religious Jews who suffered the biggest brunt of violence of rising crime with lack of bail,” Wax continued. “The [December 2019] Monsey stabbing of a prominent rabbi in his home was a horrific attack and was a direct consequence of some of the policies implemented by the Democrat-run state government.”
Nachman Mostofsky, executive director of Chovevei Zion, an organization that promotes Zionism to the American Jewish community through Torah, backed Wax’s claim of antisemitism in New York State government.
He pointed to an October press conference at which Cuomo used a photo that was more than a decade old to criticize large “gatherings, especially religious” that broke COVID regulations. The photo showed the 2006 funeral of Satmar Rebbe Moshe Teitelbaum. A Cuomo spokesperson posted on Twitter, saying, “This was a staff error.”
“A lot of Jews have jobs in Democrat systems. I think they need to ask themselves is it worth working for these people. [New York City] Mayor [Bill] de Blasio and Gov. Cuomo for months have blamed the Jewish community for the rise of coronavirus. I don’t know a person in my community right now that has the virus, but it’s spiking all around the state currently, so how come the black or Hispanic communities aren’t being singled out?” said Mostofsky, an Orthodox resident of Brooklyn’s Midwood neighborhood.
“At what point do we get to call someone an antisemite? If we aren’t allowed to call someone targeting our community an antisemite, then when is it OK to use the term? Where is this rulebook? Soft antisemitism leads to hard antisemitism,” Mostofsky, 40, continued.
In an emailed statement to the Post, Cuomo spokesman Jack Sterne said, “These claims are a tired tactic from Trump-supporting extremists to distract from the actual issue at hand: the failed federal response to COVID. Throughout this crisis, our policies have been guided by science and a desire to save lives, and anyone who says otherwise is lying. Gov. Cuomo has been a champion for Jewish New Yorkers throughout his career, and we will let his record speak for itself.
“The governor has always made clear that restrictions apply to everyone, regardless of their religion or belief,” Sterne continued. He pointed to the governor’s October 5 statement in which he said, “Close the temples, close mosques, close schools, close Catholic churches... I want a person monitoring the attendance in a temple, in a black church, in a Catholic church.”
Sterne noted that Cuomo has traveled to Israel multiple times as governor, including trips in 2014, 2017 and 2019. In 2016, he signed a first-in-the-nation executive order directing state entities to divest all public funds supporting the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
Rabbi Diana Fersko, who leads The Village Temple, a Reform congregation in Manhattan, disagrees with Wax’s claims of systemic antisemitism within New York’s leaders. But she noted that it is important to understand where religious Jews are coming from emotionally.
“The context predates coronavirus. Jews in the US, and particularly Jews in New York, have had a horrific few years where antisemitism has been the worst it has been in maybe two decades,” Fersko told the Post.
“It’s Hanukkah time. Everyone is thinking about the Monsey stabbing that happened last Hanukkah. The hassidic community has faced the brunt of antisemitism in our community because they’re easily identifiable. It’s important to acknowledge the tension and fear that was there way before COVID restrictions.”  
Fersko said an awareness of context helps explain the diversity of ways the Jewish community has responded to pandemic safety mandates.
“In my progressive Reform synagogue there is no discourse between what the state wants and how we want to worship,” she said. “We see observing COVID restrictions as part of our Jewish values. For us, there is no disconnect.
“There’s such a broad range of interpretation on what are Jewish laws and values,” Fersko continued. “I think that’s what we’re dealing with here much more so than any [individual] or organization betraying Judaism.”