When Jews are targeted – and it’s not antisemitism

It was right before the High Holy Days. I was worried about the spread of the disease through the Jewish community, and I just wished we Jews would follow the clear science directives.

Illustrative photo: Residents of Borough Park in Brooklyn, last month. (photo credit: BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS)
Illustrative photo: Residents of Borough Park in Brooklyn, last month.
‘Don’t write about the Jews,” I kept saying to myself in the fall as New York City’s COVID-19 numbers started rising slowly in certain hot spots. I didn’t want to write about the Jews because, although I have a long career in Jewish journalism (starting at The Jerusalem Post in the 1990s), in the last few years I’ve been focusing on health, infertility and parenting stories.
However, on my way to Brooklyn to see my extended family, I kept passing hordes of very mask-less, very obvious-looking Jews (men with long black coats and peyot, side curls; women wearing very modest clothing and sheitls, wigs, etc.) in Williamsburg, Crown Heights and Borough Park. My immuno-compromised relatives in Brooklyn, who were extra careful, kept telling me of friends and relatives who didn’t “believe” in the virus or in the science of wearing masks. My ultra-Orthodox cousin told me she wouldn’t get tested for antibodies because she’d heard “they” were tracking “us.” Friends – Jews and non-Jews alike – kept asking me, a former Orthodox Jew, why my people weren’t wearing masks.
It was right before the High Holy Days. I was worried about the spread of the disease through the Jewish community, and I just wished we Jews would follow the clear science directives. So I wrote about the Jews, to the Jews, in the New York Post: “To My Fellow New York Jews, I Beg: Wear the Damn Mask.”
This was around the time of the demonstrations in Borough Park (where a Jewish journalist was attacked), when cries of antisemitism were being hurled at elected officials for singling out ultra-Orthodox Jews. To be fair, it wasn’t only the ultra-Orthodox who were flouting social-distancing recommendations and face coverings (see: President Donald Trump), but plenty of concentrated Jewish communities were: Syrian Jews in Deal, New Jersey, according to The Wall Street Journal; the Five Towns on Long Island; the Persian Jewish community Great Neck – and the list goes on. And of the top 10  hot spots in the New York City area, there were a few non-Jewish ones such as in Queens (Corona, ironically), Staten Island, and the Bronx, but they were the exceptions to the rule. However, the close-knit, community-loving religious neighborhoods had a particularly high rate of COVID-19.
“Jewish residents assert the media scrutiny is disproportionate compared to other neighborhoods and is due to the media’s bias against religious Jews,” Hamodia’s English edition asserted. Tablet called antisemitism, too: Mayor Bill De Blasio “scapegoated the Jewish community for the spread of COVID in New York, while defending mass protests,” (conveniently omitting that there was no significant rise in cases traced to the masked protesters who took to the streets).
A number of people came after me on social media, too, with their “What about-ism” (so-and-so is also doing the same thing), and saying how anyone like me who singles out the Jews is antisemitic.
“You have to understand that religious Jews stand out,” a religious woman from Brooklyn wrote to me in a 20-point Twitter missive about the nuances of the local government’s inept and uneven response.
WAS I MISSING something? Did I not understand how important it was for religious Jews to congregate, to pray three times a day, to gather together in communal settings? Could I not see how unfair it was singling out Jews? I had to ask myself: Was I being antisemitic?
As someone who went to day school for 18 years, topped off by seminary in Israel, not to mention having lived in Jerusalem as a citizen for more than seven years, I get antisemitism. I get that it’s on the rise here in America (no, I won’t engage in the “what about-ism” of which party is more responsible), and around the world. I understand the impetus to be on the lookout for it everywhere and to protect our people from danger.
But after scouring the New York City case numbers by zip code (Yay! My hometown of Midwood is #1!), reading the religious press, and listening to the Twitter accusers, I still don’t understand how it’s wrong to call out communities where COVID-19 is on the rise. I also don’t get how I am the antisemitic one for just wanting my people to wear masks, especially those who are so obviously identifiable to others. I actually want to stop antisemitism, to stop giving people ammunition for it.
“Dina demalchuta dina,” I wrote to my online critics, referencing the ruling that the law of the country is binding. Even though there is no actual law to wear a mask (not yet, not under this president), the ruling applies to the customs of the land.
“Shame you weren’t there to post that dina dimalchuta dina line on Twitter when the Jews were told to wear a star. If only we complied,” @theRanterman wrote to me on Twitter.
I would have laughed if it weren’t so sad, equating a health recommendation to save lives (130,000 in the US) with a Nazi edict that killed six million Jews.
Masks = Hitler? Herein lies the danger of “The Jew Who Cried Wolf.” Everything can’t be Nazism, Hitler or even antisemitism. Sure, there are plenty of people who don’t wear masks (Again, see Mike Pence and his infected staff), or who follow social distancing rules, and I sure hope their people call them out on it. The only thing I can do is worry about mine: Kol Yisrael areivim zeh la’zeh – “All Jews are responsible for one another.”
These days, though, as the numbers in New York and New Jersey continue to climb (not as high as the rest of the country, thankfully), I am beginning to feel hopeful for my people. Great rabbis are calling on their communities to wear masks (even if they need to show rulings how to wear it on your face on Shabbat to not transgress the law against carrying on the day of rest). Lakewood rabbis are encouraging testing, too. It may not be enough to stave off the “dark winter” before a vaccine is available, but I hope by next Purim, the Jewish people can rejoice. La’yehudim hayta ora v’simcha: “The Jews had light and joy.” So it should be for us. ★
Amy Klein is the author of The Trying Game: Get Through Fertility Treatment Without Losing Your Mind.