New York Mayor Bill de Blasio came under heavy criticism Wednesday for appearing to warn 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 at the helm of the world’s largest coronavirus hotspot 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.
Critics include Jewish community leaders and members of de Blasio’s own city council, who accused him of singling out the Orthodox Jewish community for censure when others have violated social distancing rules as well.
“This has to be a joke,” City Councilman Chaim Deutsch, who represents a large Orthodox Jewish constituency, tweeted. “Did the Mayor of NYC really just single out one specific ethnic community (a community that has been the target of increasing hate crimes in HIS city) being noncompliant??”
This has to be a joke. Did the Mayor of NYC really just single out one specific ethnic community (a community that has been the target of increasing hate crimes in HIS city) as being noncompliant?? Has he been to a park lately? (What am I saying – of course he has!) https://t.co/LYKnUZm2Mc
— Councilman Deutsch (@ChaimDeutsch) April 29, 2020
Responding to the outcry Wednesday, de Blasio said he had “no regrets about calling out this danger,” but also apologized for causing offense.
“If in my passion and in my emotion I said something that in any way was hurtful, I’m sorry about that. That was not my intention,” he said at a City Hall press conference.
“I have a long, deep relationship with the Orthodox Jewish community…. the notion that people would gather in large numbers and even if they don’t mean to would spread a disease that would kill other members of the community is just unacceptable to me,” he added.
He said it was the largest gathering that he knew of since New York began putting social distancing regulations in place over a month ago.
Police Commissioner Dermot F. Shea said several thousand people had attended the funeral in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, and 12 summonses were issued, including for refusal to disperse.
“Make no mistake, large gatherings such as this is putting members of my department at risk and it cannot happen and it will not happen,” he said.
Images posted on social media showed large crowds for the funeral of a rabbi who had died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Some but not all of the mourners wore face coverings.
A police spokesman said Wednesday that the crowd was dispersed without arrests.
Tipster says this is the Williamsburg funeral today of Rabbi Chaim Mertz who died from COVID-19 pic.twitter.com/wsTvCrlzpb
— Reuven Blau (@ReuvenBlau) April 29, 2020
De Blasio tweeted following the funeral that “My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed.”
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.
— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) April 29, 2020
In another tweet, de Blasio said, “Something absolutely unacceptable happened in Williamsburg tonite: a large funeral gathering in the middle of this pandemic.” He said he went there to ensure that the crowd was broken up and added, “What I saw WILL NOT be tolerated so long as we are fighting the Coronavirus.”
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
Jewish City Councilman Kalman Yeger said it was unacceptable of the mayor to condemn an entire community for the actions of a few.
“Mr. Mayor, your words are unacceptable. To condemn our entire community over one group of people is something you would not do to any other ethnic group, and I know you long enough to know that you know this,” Yeger tweeted.
Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt tweeted that generalizing about the whole Jewish population of New York City “is outrageous especially when so many are scapegoating Jews.”
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
Texas Senator Ted Cruz said de Blasio’s comments would have been considered unacceptable had it targeted another religious minority.
“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,” Cruz tweeted.
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. #ProtectFreeExercise https://t.co/dMVcX0bin4
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) April 29, 2020
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.
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.
The coronavirus causes only mild symptoms in many, but it can cause serious illness or death for some, particularly older adults and those with certain health conditions.
In the months since the virus began spreading across the world, adherence to social distancing guidelines has been a challenge in some Orthodox Jewish communities, where large families often live in crowded neighborhoods and trust in secular authorities is low.
Leaders of several US Orthodox organizations issued a statement last month urging their members to heed social distancing rules after the Fire Department had to break up a large Orthodox wedding in Brooklyn.
That effort was an unusual step among disparate groups to help shut down multiple daily prayers and other traditional practices that are central to many Orthodox Jews’ daily lives.
However, the New York “Jewish community” that de Blasio addressed in his tweets is significantly larger than the Hasidic groups that live and pray in large numbers in Williamsburg as well as the Crown Heights and Borough Park neighborhoods of Brooklyn.
New York’s Jewish population is estimated at 1 million-plus, including non-observant Jews. Among American Jews, 10% identify as Orthodox, according to a 2013 study by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. The majority of Jews identify with the Reform Jewish movement or do not identify with any specific Jewish group.
The Israeli city of Bnei Brak outside of Tel Aviv became a coronavirus hotspot after some ultra-Orthodox community members flouted orders to stay home. Public anger over a funeral there attended by hundreds led to a police crackdown on the city, which was later put under curfew.