NEW YORK â€” Orthodox Jews and New York authorities are in a state of conflict over coronavirus-related measures. The situation closely resembles that in Israel and has captured the attention of the Israeli press.
Much of the anger in New York stems from authorities cracking down on large gatherings, specifically in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, while having allowedÂ massive anti-police protests throughout the year. Israel is also experiencing anti-government protests, and some Israelis blame religious Jews for the virusâ€™ renewed spread. One controversial New York rabbi known for his remarks on the virus and who is originally from the Jewish state said that there is a double standard being applied by the governments in both countries.
â€œThe authorities did not seem to have any problem with riots and gatherings and demonstrations in New York or Israel,â€ Yosef Mizrachi,Â who now lives in the suburb of Monsey, New York, told Al-Monitor. â€œBut with Orthodox Jews, they are very, very strict.â€
Earlier this month, New York Gov.Â Andrew Cuomo announced a new initiativeÂ to put in place restrictions on large gatherings in geographic â€œclustersâ€ where there is a high density of COVID-19 cases. The â€œred zones,â€Â where the virus is most widespread, must adhere to having 10 people only in houses of worship, takeout dining onlyÂ and various other restrictions. The map of red zones overlaps with many largely Orthodox Jewish communities in and around New York City.Â The zones are determined by the rate of positive tests recorded in the area, according to state ofÂ New YorkÂ metrics.
Cuomo said the neighborhood-specific rules are necessary because of a lack of compliance in the Orthodox Jewish community.Â
â€œThe Orthodox Jewish community. â€¦ Whatâ€™s happening there is the rules were never enforced in these communities,â€ said Cuomo during an Oct. 8 conference call with reporters.
Violators of the red zone restrictions can face finesÂ of up to $15,000. Some Orthodox Jews say the enforcement is unfair. On Oct. 20, aÂ video went viralÂ that appeared to showÂ an inspector fining a kosher restaurant with no customers in it for having its door open.Â
The Democratic governor and possible candidate for the 2024 presidential election has used his support for Israel to defend his actions to Jewish New Yorkers.
â€œYou havenâ€™t had a governor who is a greater friend of Israel and the Jewish community,â€ said Cuomo during the Oct. 8 conference call. â€œNobody has traveled more to Israel.â€
Cuomo pointed to his executive order divesting state funds from the controversial boycott, divestmentÂ and sanctions (BDS) movement, which supports a variety of boycotts against Israel for its treatment of Palestinians.
â€œNobodyâ€™s fought anti-Semitism more aggressively than I have, first governor to do BDS,â€ he said on the call.
A lot of the criticism is focused on Haredi and Hasidic Jews, who are known for their high levels of religious observance and relatively isolated communities vis-a-vis modern Orthodox Jews. The Haredi and Hasidic JewsÂ are often referred to as â€œultra-Orthodox,â€ though someÂ dislike this term.Â
The conflict is not new. In April,Â de Blasio singled outÂ the â€œJewish communityâ€ in a tweet afterÂ Haredi Jews held a large funeral in Brooklyn for a rabbi at the height of pandemic. De Blasio also went to the area himself to ensure the crowd was dispersed. He later saidÂ he should have resorted to more dialogue.Â
Brooklynite political analyst Yossi Schlussel said that the funeral was a mistake, but that the mayor did not apply such rigorous enforcement to all New Yorkers.
â€œThere was a rather large funeral, which understandably shouldn’t have happened,â€ Schlussel told Al-Monitor. â€œBut the response from the mayor tweeting about it and personally coming down to disperse the crowd was devastating while people all across the city were allowed to spend time non-distanced in parks.â€
Protests broke out in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in the New York City borough of Brooklyn this month against the stateâ€™s new virus rules. Radio talk showÂ host Heshy Tischler has emerged as a leader of the demonstrators. His actions have come under scrutiny. On Oct. 7, a group of Orthodox Jews attackedÂ Hasidic journalist Jacob Kornbluh, who reports on the virus situation in the community for Jewish Insider. Tischler was arrested Oct. 11 for his alleged role in the incident, but denies any wrongdoing.
Tischler, who is running for a city council seat, remains adamant that the anti-virus measures have gone too far and praised news of Jews cutting locks to enter closed parksÂ over the summer.
â€œThis entire community locked itself up: March, April, May, June,â€ Tischler told Al-Monitor from his Brooklyn office. â€œIt never ended. So I went out there and cut the locks. I opened the parks and said, â€˜Look, people, youâ€™re free.â€™â€
Israel finds itself in a similar situation to New York. Protests have occurred throughout the pandemic against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who recently instituted restrictions on protesting amid a large COVID-19 outbreak. Haredi Jews and Israeli police frequently clash over the enforcement of social distancing measures. Much of the Israeli public blames the Haredi community for the virusâ€™ resurgence, and this sentiment is threatening Netanyahuâ€™s alliance with Haredi Jewish parties.
It is therefore no surprise that Israeli media areÂ covering the issue in New York extensively. The Times of Israel conducted a lengthyÂ interview with Tischler on Oct. 15. Two days earlier, the center-left news outlet Haaretz held aÂ discussionÂ on how the virus has affected Orthodox communities in both New York and Israel.Â
Some Israeli media outlets have amplified harsh criticismÂ of Cuomo by Jewish leaders. Arutz Sheva published anÂ interview with Brooklyn Rabbi Hillel Handler on Oct. 7Â in which he called the governor a â€œmass murdererâ€ due to the COVID-19 deaths in New York nursing homes earlier this year.
Israel connects to the issue in several ways. Many Orthodox Jews follow events in Israel and some, like Tischler, have family there. Haredi Jews are divided on their views towardÂ Zionism, with some rejecting the legitimacy of the State of Israel. Other Orthodox Jews support the Jewish state.
US President Donald Trumpâ€™s support for Israel is one reason he is popular in the Orthodox community. Secular Jews, on the other hand, are more often Democrats and open to criticism of Israel. Tischler is supportive of Trumpâ€™s foreign policy, including his role in theÂ normalization agreementsÂ the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed with Israel.Â
â€œHeâ€™s one of the first presidents Iâ€™ve ever seen thatâ€™s not had a war,â€ said Tischler. â€œHe promised to make peace between Israel and its neighbors. Everybody laughed. He actually did it and he did it with some serious countries.â€
Tischler promoted the Jews for Trump parade that took place Sunday on Twitter.
Views on the situation in Israel vary in New York. Meyer Labin is from the suburb of Chestnut Ridge, New York, which has a significant Haredi Jewish population. He also spends time in Israel and blamed the conflict with Haredi Jews in particular in part on poor dialogue.Â
â€œThereâ€™s been a lack of communication on both sides,â€ Labin told Al-Monitor. â€œItâ€™s also the Haredi communities communicating their problems and their concerns.â€
Labin said that protests occurring in both Israel and the United States in defiance of social distancing guidelines created a rift between authorities and Haredi Jews, who view communal prayer and learning as absolutely necessary.
â€œFrom a secular perspective, if you understand that for the continuity of democracy as an institution you have to not put any limits on protest, I can understand why a Haredi person would say, â€˜So is communal prayer for us,â€™â€ he said.
The isolated lifestyles of Haredi Jews in particular mean they see the virus situation differently than some others. This way of life contrasts with the secular nationalism that many Israelis subscribe to, according to Labin.
â€œThis is a community that actually made a conscious decision after the Holocaust to isolate themselves,â€ he said. â€œThey didnâ€™t take the Zionist approach of militarism.â€
â€œThey see themselves as Jews from Sinai first,â€ added Labin, referring to the mountain where Jews believe Moses received the Ten Commandments. â€œTheir commitment lies first and foremost with their traditions and their way of life.â€
Labin said that the Haredi communityÂ in both countries would benefit from greater leadership. This could include consultations from rabbis on what to do when government restrictions interfere with Jewish religious observance.
â€œThereâ€™s a void of leadership in the Haredi world in Israel and America,â€ said Labin.Â â€œSome of them havenâ€™t respected the rules as much only when it interfered with things Haredi people saw as essential to Jewish life.â€
â€œThere hasnâ€™t been enough rabbinical leadership to give them direction.â€