NYC mayor warns ‘Jewish community’ as thousands at funeral of rabbi virus victim

Bill de Blasio slammed for generalizing in announcement of ‘zero tolerance’ of social distancing breaches; ultra-Orthodox congregation sorry for huge crowd at Chaim Mertz’s funeral

Thousands gather for the funeral of Rabbi Chaim Mertz, a COVID-19 victim, in Brooklyn on April 28, 2020, breaching social-distancing restrictions (Youtube screenshot)
Thousands gather for the funeral of Rabbi Chaim Mertz, a COVID-19 victim, in Brooklyn on April 28, 2020, breaching social-distancing restrictions (Youtube screenshot)

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has come under fire for appearing to warn all the city’s Jews of a crackdown after a funeral for a rabbi in Williamsburg drew thousands of mourners who didn’t observe social distancing rules.

Many accused the Democrat mayor of the US city worst-hit by the pandemic of generalizing against the Jewish community for the actions of a few in a predominantly ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhood, as anti-Semitic incidents have spiked in the area over the past months.

However, the congregation that held the funeral said it believed de Blasio’s remark “wasn’t ill-intentioned,” and it apologized over the incident.

The rabbi, Chaim Mertz, died of COVID-19.

De Blasio oversaw the dispersal of the large, tightly packed funeral and lashed out at the mourners who had gathered in defiance of social distancing rules. A police spokesman said Wednesday that the crowd was dispersed without arrests.

The spread of the coronavirus has hit ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in the New York area especially hard, and some members of those communities have resisted social distancing.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio wears a mask while honoring healthcare workers at Brooklyn’s Kings County Hospital Center at a ceremony during the coronavirus pandemic, April 24, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

At the same time, there have been warnings of rising anti-Jewish sentiment amid the pandemic, with some accusing Jews of being behind the virus or of profiting from it.

In a series of tweets on Tuesday evening, de Blasio announced a “zero tolerance” policy, while singling out the entire Jewish community of the city with the most Jews in the world.

“My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed. I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups. This is about stopping this disease and saving lives. Period,” he tweeted.

The series of posts drew fury online from public and political officials, both Democrat and Republican, with Anti-Defamation League head Jonathan Greenblatt calling the generalization “outrageous.”

“Would DeBlasio have sent this identical tweet with the word ‘Jewish’ replaced by any other religious minority? If not, why not? Laws should be enforced neutrally w/o targeting religious faith,” tweeted Texas Senator Ted Cruz.

Lis Smith, who was an adviser for Democrat Pete Buttigieg’s failed presidential bid, slammed de Blasio’s “criminal incompetence.”

Many other officials chimed in with strongly worded condemnations of the mayor.

Some 1.1 million of the city’s population of 8.6 million residents are Jewish.

The Tola’as Yaakov congregation, whose rabbi Chaim Mertz died of the coronavirus, issued a statement saying the original intention was to have many people attend the funeral, but with all social distancing regulations kept and enforced.

“Unfortunately, this didn’t pan out, and NYPD had to disperse the crowds,” the congregation’s secretary Jacob Mertz said in the statement. “We shall note that everyone followed the police officers’ orders and the vast majority had masks. Yet, the confusion and chaos led to scenes of large crowds.”

Regarding de Blasio’s comments, the statement said they were understandable. “As said, we thought that the procession will be in accordance with the rules, and we apologize that it turned out otherwise. It also hurts that this led to singling out the Jewish community, and for that we apologize to all Jewish people.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio marches in the 2017 Celebrate Israel Parade in New York City, June 4, 2017. (James Keivom/NY Daily News via Getty Images/via JTA)

“We know that the mayor’s reaction came from his concern to the health of safety of our community and the entire city, and it wasn’t ill-intentioned. We share that concern. Health and live takes precedence to anything else, and we shall all follow those rules,” it said.

However, others noted the crowds that gathered earlier Tuesday to watch a flyover by the Navy’s Blue Angels and the Air Force’s Thunderbirds to honor health-care workers.

“Only bigots have a problem when a few 100 Hasidim do what thousands of people in the same city have done the same day (not social distance).” the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council tweeted.

Many US states have begun lifting coronavirus lockdown orders, but New York — America’s economic engine and coronavirus epicenter — is in no hurry, with hospitalization rates still high.

New York is the worst-hit US state, with more than 17,300 COVID-19 deaths out of almost 292,000 confirmed infections. Almost 56,000 people have died across the country.

New York City is likely to be one of the last areas of the country to reopen. A poll out Monday showed residents overwhelmingly backed the shutdown.

De Blasio said Monday that at least 40 miles of streets would close to traffic to give the city’s residents more space to exercise outdoors, in a further sign that the end is far from in sight.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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