Now NY haredim, not Israel, are used as a US political football

Keep yourself from becoming a wedge issue, the well known-mantra goes. But the problem with that is that it is not only up to Israel.

The streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, one of the Orthodox neighborhoods in New York City where COVID cases have increased recently, Sept. 23, 2020. Few people are wearing masks.  (photo credit: DANIEL MORITZ-RABSON)
The streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, one of the Orthodox neighborhoods in New York City where COVID cases have increased recently, Sept. 23, 2020. Few people are wearing masks.
(photo credit: DANIEL MORITZ-RABSON)
For years US Jews have warned Israel to avoid being used as a political football between the Democrats and the Republicans, and that the worst thing for Israel would be for it to turn into a partisan issue.
And that is definitely true. Israel benefits when it has the support of both parties, and risks losing out if one party uses Israel to bash the other.
Keep yourself from becoming a wedge issue, the well-known mantra goes. But the problem with this is that it is not only up to Israel. What country in its right mind wants to be an issue over which the Democrats and Republicans spar? What good comes of that?
But sometimes politicians on either side – be it former president Barack Obama or US President Donald Trump – choose to make use of Israel for their own political purposes, and there is little Israel can do to prevent it.
Over the past week, however, it is not Israel that has been used as a political football, but rather American Jews themselves – or, more precisely, haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews – protesting against new coronavirus regulations.
The ugly pictures are all too familiar.
Groups of chanting yeshiva students in the streets; tussles with the police; bonfires blocking traffic; physical attacks on journalists. It could be Mea She’arim, Ashdod, Beitar Illit.
But there’s a difference this time: the chants are in English, the police are wearing badges that say NYPD, the streets are central ones in Brooklyn and Queens, and the journalists attacked include one who is haredi himself, with a British accent.
Welcome to New York City.
Ultra-Orthodox protests against the coronavirus restrictions, which have been a feature of life here in Israel for the last couple of weeks, moved overseas on Tuesday following the announcement by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo of new restrictions on houses of worship, schools and businesses. The limitations are on areas with high rates of coronavirus infection, which also includes a number of neighborhoods with large haredi populations.
The restrictions included limiting the number of people allowed into synagogues to 10. New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to enforce the new regulations.
As scores of yeshiva students were protesting and tussling with the police, the haredi political demonstrators became a hot-button political issue. One right-wing talk show host, Michael Savage – whom The New York Times said has one of the largest talk radio audiences with 7.5 million listeners each week – went so far as to say that the Democrats Cuomo and de Blasio were going after the Orthodox Jews because this demographic is strongly pro-Trump.
Hispanic neighborhoods in New York in districts represented by Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that have higher incidences of coronavirus, Savage argued, were not being locked down to the extent that the Jewish neighborhoods were.
In this telling, the Jews were getting caught in the middle of a political spitting match between the Democratic governor and mayor of New York, and Trump.
It didn’t take Trump too long to chime in, taking to Twitter to hint – just a little over a week after he was unable in a debate with Joe Biden to unequivocally condemn white supremacists – that the spectacle of police officers breaking up Jews gathering for Sukkot was similar to Nazi Germany.
“Wow, what does this grim picture remind you of?” Trump said while sharing a tweet by the actor James Woods that included a video clip of the police breaking up a Sukkot gathering. “I am the only thing in the Radical Left’s way! VOTE.”
Woods embedded footage of New York police moving haredim out of the street in a tweet that read, “‘Rounding up the Jews’ is an optic that I would never have expected to see in my American lifetime. DeBlasio is a criminal... He is an anti-Semite thug piece of sh*t.”
And just like that, without intending to do so, American Jews themselves became a political football, something which can’t be good for the Jews, and which the protesters – if they have any responsibility to the Jewish community – cannot want.
Another possible unintended consequence of haredim marching maskless and blocking traffic in order to open up synagogues will be to invite blame by antisemites for spreading the virus.
Just as nothing good can come from Israel being used as a political football between US political candidates, so too nothing good can come of American Jews forced into that role as well: something that responsible leadership in the American haredi community should keep in mind when charting what steps it is worth taking in their fight to get synagogues open during a pandemic.