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.
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.
Police response pic.twitter.com/KcVZYV9C2s
— Reuven Blau (@ReuvenBlau) April 29, 2020
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.
Something absolutely unacceptable happened in Williamsburg tonite: a large funeral gathering in the middle of this pandemic. When I heard, I went there myself to ensure the crowd was dispersed. And what I saw WILL NOT be tolerated so long as we are fighting the Coronavirus
— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) April 29, 2020
“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.
We have lost so many these last two months + I understand the instinct to gather to mourn. But large gatherings will only lead to more deaths + more families in mourning. We will not allow this. I have instructed the NYPD to have one standard for this whole city: zero tolerance.
— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) April 29, 2020
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.”
Hey @NYCMayor, there are 1mil+ Jewish people in #NYC. The few who don’t social distance should be called out — but generalizing against the whole population is outrageous especially when so many are scapegoating Jews. This erodes the very unity our city needs now more than ever. https://t.co/jcYO9QQred
— Jonathan Greenblatt (@JGreenblattADL) April 29, 2020
“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.
NYC has been a refuge for Jews fleeing persecution and death for decades and more.
How on earth does the mayor of NYC single them out for persecution in the middle of a pandemic?
Words do not exist to describe the criminal incompetence at City Hall. https://t.co/1bc2IoBcJt
— Lis Smith (@Lis_Smith) April 29, 2020
This is an antisemitic statement. Delete it w/ an apology @NYCMayor …further, your authoritarian tactics are anti-American as well and I can't imagine the NYPD targeting Jews that are gathering.
We need to pay attention to what is happening to our nation because of fear https://t.co/FLoelp8WYE
— Sara A. Carter (@SaraCarterDC) April 29, 2020
It is NEVER ok for an American elected official to single out the Jewish community like this. That de Blasio is the mayor of the most Jewish city in the country makes this that much worse. https://t.co/9AcmAQFkBb
— Seffi Kogen IS SOCIAL DISTANCING!!! (@seffikogen) April 29, 2020
Poignant to be celebrating Yom Ha'Atzmaut on the day Bill de Blasio announces he has ordered the NYPD to crack down on Jews in public.
This is why.
— Seth Mandel (@SethAMandel) April 29, 2020
I can't imagine de Blasio saying this about any other community. It's pretty amazing. And for the record, MANY of the leaders of the Jewish community have taken strong stands on social distancing. https://t.co/aqlL7Yr8Xs
— Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro) April 29, 2020
Dangerous choice of words, Mayor — accusing the entire Jewish community of the misbehavior of a minority. Would you dare to say this about any other group in this city? https://t.co/dpqDP2tDoA
— Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt (@avitalrachel) April 29, 2020
What's amazing about this is he could have done this in a way that every Jew on your timeline would be cheering him. But nah, after last year's anti-Semitism spike in NYC, he does it like this. https://t.co/BjGSvoFzkn
— Karol Markowicz (@karol) April 29, 2020
— Josh Hammer (@josh_hammer) April 29, 2020
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.”
“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.