Hassidic behavior amid coronavirus is a shame before all nations – opinion

Mob violence, inflammatory rhetoric, and constructive responses among NY’s Orthodox Jews in response to pandemic control measures.

PEOPLE GATHER in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood amid the COVID-19 outbreak in New York, on October 7. (photo credit: YUKI IWAMURA/REUTERS)
PEOPLE GATHER in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood amid the COVID-19 outbreak in New York, on October 7.
(photo credit: YUKI IWAMURA/REUTERS)
New York state health officials recently reported an upsurge in COVID-19 cases. Governor Andrew M. Cuomo said that 20 zip codes – including parts of Brooklyn, Queens, Orange and Rockland counties – had a collective viral positivity rate of 5.5%, more than five times the statewide rate. One zip code in Orange county had a positivity rate of 18%. “If you look at those clusters and you look at those zip codes, you will see there’s an overlap with large Orthodox Jewish communities,” Governor Cuomo said.
Both New York City and NY state issued “hot spot maps” which overlapped and contradicted each other. It was yet another example of poor coordination between state and city authorities.
Ultimately, the state mandated a “targeted lockdown.” Virus hot spots were divided into color-coded zones of red, orange, or yellow. In the most restricted “red” zones, houses of worship are limited to “25% capacity, 10 people maximum” to coincide with the minimum requirements of 10 people for a Jewish prayer service – 10 men for Orthodox Jews.
Resistance from a minority in the Orthodox Jewish community included messages on social media to keep sick children at home but “indicate that they have a stomach ache or symptoms not consistent with COVID” to avoid ascertainment of cases.
Some stealth strategies of opposition turned violent. Hassidic demonstrators set fires along 13th Avenue in Brooklyn and tossed face masks into the flames. A member of the local Orthodox Jewish community – who opposed the demonstration – was denounced as a “snitch,” knocked unconscious and hospitalized. A reporter was also attacked. “Here in Borough Park, we don’t go by the law of America,” said a demonstrator shouting at the journalists. “We have our own laws.” This remark turned into a front-page newspaper headline.
Harold Tischler, who is currently running for New York City Council, was reported to have told the crowd, “We’re going to create an army. We are at war with you, Mr. de Blasio.” Mr. Tischler referred to the mayor’s wife as a “retard woman” and a whore. Tischler was arrested for unlawful imprisonment and inciting a riot.
These violent demonstrations have been reported in New York newspapers and have appeared on national television broadcasts. Ostensively Orthodox Jews are engaging in behavior that endangers the life and safety of individuals and of a community already devastated by COVID-19.
One could argue, with the benefit of hindsight, that government officials could have taken a more collaborative approach and asked for more community input on social distancing in houses of worship. Nonetheless, were my father alive, he would be watching the news on television, viewing the violence, and saying in Yiddish “dos a shanda fur die goyim” – literally “This is a shame before the nations,” as a reference to embarrassing behavior by Jews witnessed by non-Jews.
Prominent rabbis, rabbinical organizations and Jewish community groups have issued public statements calling for support of public health authorities and an end to violence. Some Jewish groups have demonstrated their ability to peacefully protest while wearing masks and maintaining social distancing. Others, however, continue to push the envelope. In recent days, state authorities put a halt to plans for a Hassidic wedding which potentially could attract 10,000 attendees.
WHAT ARE we to make of the assertion that Jews “don’t go by the law of America?” In Jeremiah (29:7) we read the prophet’s letter to the Babylonian exile. “Seek the peace of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in the peace thereof you shall have peace.” In the Talmud (Avot 3:2) we are taught, “Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for fear of it, people would swallow one another alive.” From these biblical and Talmudic verses, in part, we derive the principle of Jewish law dina d’malkhuta dina, “the law of the land is the law.”
The civil law of a country is binding upon the Jewish inhabitants if that government has legitimacy, if the law is applied equally to Jewish and non-Jewish citizens, and the civil law does not contravene the Torah. When faced with a public health emergency wherein the lawfully elected democratic government is exercising appropriate authority to attempt to limit an imminent threat to life and safety, the law of the land is the law and must – in accordance with Jewish law – be obeyed.
Defiance of the law, mob assault on journalists, hiding cases of reportable childhood infectious disease and denying treatment to these children is criminal conduct. A political culture of heedlessness to medical advice regarding wearing masks, lethal disrespect for scientific advice and inflammatory violent rhetoric are responsible for preventable deaths.
This behavior constitutes a public embarrassment to the Jewish community. It does not represent the views of the majority of law-abiding Jewish citizens of the US. This behavior is particularly offensive to the large number of Jewish physicians and nurses, public health officials and community leaders who have spent months battling the pandemic.
The religious and political leadership of the minority of New York’s Jewish community perpetrating these acts should support compliance with sound public health measures to curb the pandemic. Many individuals and groups have already done so. The responsibility of Jews is to be “a light of the nations, that My salvation may be unto the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6) and not a “shame before the nations.”
The writer teaches history of medicine at the New York Medical College in Valhalla, NY where he also serves as college Chancellor/CEO. This essay represents his views and not those of his employer.