De Blasio’s Pivot to Antisemitism

Zoe Albion and Jonah ben Avraham

De Blasio’s crackdown on the Jewish community in New York has stoked antisemitism at a dangerous moment. He draws from a long playbook of state violence against Black and brown New Yorkers.

On Thursday, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio made good on his threat to use the NYPD to target the Jewish community. Social media posts from Brooklyn document heavy police presence in the Jewish neighborhoods of Borough Park and Williamsburg enforcing the mayor’s COVID-19 countermeasures. Reports from observers on the ground describe cops systematically targeting visibly Jewish people for enforcement while allowing non-Jews to go by without incident. Pictures of these punishments, some criminal court summonses but more often $1,000 fines, are circulating among Orthodox Jews, warning each other that they may be targeted for discriminatory enforcement. The chaos reached a fever pitch when, on Thursday, a group of Jews gathered for a funeral and dozens of NYPD officers showed up and aggressively broke up the procession. At least one arrest was made of a young Jewish boy, and the police were filmed chasing a minivan thought to be carrying the body of the deceased down the street.

New York’s antisemitic targeting of Orthodox Jews began Tuesday night when the funeral of Rabbi Chaim Mertz (z”l) drew hundreds of mostly young Jews out into the streets. When the event represented a clear breach of social distancing guidelines, de Blasio himself arrived on the scene and ordered the NYPD to disperse the gathering. Later that night, he took to Twitter, stating: “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.”

De Blasio’s tweet was not simply a misguided response to a problematic situation; his comments were intended to divert blame onto the Jewish community despite the fact that the city was directly responsible for the breakdown in social distancing at the event. The NYPD was aware of Rabbi Mertz’s funeral in advance, even meeting with Orthodox leaders to plan a security response which included shutting down several streets for the funeral to proceed. Plans were made for attendees to hand out masks, and speakers were scheduled–then abruptly cancelled the day of, only contributing to people clustering in the confusion. One frequent liaison between New York’s Satmar community and the NYPD even explicitly warned a Brooklyn precinct captain of the large crowd that would be drawn to the event. De Blasio’s cops knew about the potential for a high-density gathering and did nothing to mitigate the situation, resulting in the mayor himself showing up to disperse the crowd and cops issuing criminal summonses to some dozen attendees. Regardless of the NYPD’s role in the matter, de Blasio proved unwilling to take responsibility; it was the Jews who garnered the blame.

By naming “the Jewish community” in his tweet, de Blasio dramatically over-generalized who was responsible for continued gatherings. Jewish communities, like many others, have taken steps to reduce the spread of COVID-19, including closing synagogues and cancelling Passover gatherings. Even the common liberal refrain that only New York’s ‘ultra-Orthodox’ communities continue to gather is inaccurate; as early as March 23, six major U.S. Orthodox institutions signed a statement pleading with Jews to follow social distancing guidelines. With these efforts in mind, more than 100 Jewish leaders, from secular activists, to politicians, to Orthodox rabbis, wrote a strong letter to the mayor on Wednesday: “Laying blame upon Hasidic communities — among the most visible members of our Jewish family — will not stop the spread of COVID-19, and referring to these particular communities as ‘the Jewish community’ both flattens a diverse group of New Yorkers into a single bloc and fuels the anti-Semitic hatreds that bubble beneath the surface of our society.”

Moreover, in singling out Jews, de Blasio has clearly applied a double standard. On Tuesday, just hours before the controversial funeral, thousands of New Yorkers congregated all over the city to watch the flyover by military planes in honor of front-line workers. No such gatherings elicited mayoral or police response, not to mention criminal summonses. Nor has the mayor’s “enough-is-enough” attitude extended to the much more prominent causes of COVID-19 spread. With no alternative transportation options, essential workers have been forced to continue crowding into New York subways to get to work every day. And while activists have demanded increased protections for New York’s 60,000 unhoused people, de Blasio’s expanded housing has been limited to some 6,000 of New York’s 100,000 empty hotel rooms, leaving the NYPD and MTA to respond to unhoused people with a campaign of increasing policing.

Unwilling to take responsibility for New York’s abysmal COVID-19 response, de Blasio instead scapegoated Jews, relying on generations of antisemitism and bigotry against religiously observant Jews for support. The media spotlight is now on New York’s Hasidic community, which has seen a dramatic spike in antisemitic street violence this year, deepening the global trend of rising anti-Jewish violence for the last several years. By providing white nationalists and others sympathetic to anti-Jewish bigotry with new language for scapegoating Jews, de Blasio has effectively painted a target on the backs of Jewish New Yorkers, regardless of whether or not they actually practice social distancing.

The NYPD’s ability to march into Jewish neighborhoods and, seemingly overnight, launch a campaign of harassment and intimidation against New York’s Orthodox community is alarming, but far from unprecedented. The blueprint for this week’s actions was developed and honed in the NYPD’s ongoing war on Black and brown New Yorkers, and takes cues from the nationwide blaming of Asian people for the spread of the virus. The scenes on Thursday of large police contingents occupying neighborhood blocks to terrorize a population of others are evocative of a normal weekday in Black New York now half a century into the war on drugs. Targeting low-income community members with large fines for minor infractions is a play straight out of the Giuliani playbook of broken windows policing. ‘Broken windows’ is a strategy meant to force compliance not by focusing on the most serious infractions, but by exposing as many community members as possible to frightening disciplinary interactions with police, even for petty transgressions. It is this strategy, not simple irresponsibility, that caused one cop to give a Jewish man in Brooklyn a $1,000 fine for simply taking out his trash without a mask, in full view of many other maskless pedestrians.

And while the targeting of Black and Latinx New Yorkers is best understood as an edifice built over more than a century, the blitz of NYPD cops into the neighborhoods and ritual gatherings of a religious minority group in response to a communal trauma is a strategy that New York deployed in the wake of 9/11. In that case as in this one, actions were taken not because Muslim New Yorkers were to blame for the tragedy, but because the exercise of state violence against them could produce the illusion of responding effectively to crisis.

These connections, rather than pointing toward a false equivalency between the relationships of Jews and non-Jewish communities of color to the state, ought to create a shared framework for co-resisting state violence. Even in the hours the NYPD was preparing to roll into Brooklyn to begin hyper-policing Jewish neighborhoods, de Blasio attempted to escape scrutiny by using Twitter to stoke animosity between Jews and Black New Yorkers. But through the police actions in Brooklyn, de Blasio has created natural allies: the victims of the NYPD’s tactics of occupation and intimidation.

The violence initiated this week by state actors is sure to be carried on by far-right vigilantes: on social media, responses to the mayor’s comments have been rife with antisemitic bigotry. White nationalist Richard Spencer was among de Blasio’s supporters on Twitter, and one response by an antisemitic conspiracy theorist featuring an ominous image of a Punisher skull with the caption, “Nothing can stop what is coming. Nothing” had been retweeted and liked over 13,000 times as of Friday afternoon. Offline, the far-right protests against Stay at Home orders around the country have frequently featured antisemitism with signs bearing messages like “The real plague” next to a rat with a Jewish star, and “Arbeit macht frei/work shall set you free,” the words adorning the gate into the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Although not officially endorsed by mainstream politicians, the rhetoric and actions of these antisemites are supported by the targeting of Jews carried out by the NYPD. They are only emboldened as antisemitism becomes more mainstream.

Photo credit Dennis Kosuth

The events of the past few days highlight the shaky foothold of Jews in the United States. While many Jews appear to be accepted into the fold of American society, holding a Jewish identity remains a dangerous game, particularly for working-class Jews, visibly Jewish people, and Jews of color. No matter how comfortable with Jews the Christian-centric landscape of the United States claims to be, a bedrock of distrust and scapegoating remains. In this case, from one ignorant statement came not only a torrent of slurs and blatant antisemitism, but also discriminatory policing and state violence only possible due to the legacy and enduring institutional infrastructure of anti-Jewish oppression in the U.S. From de Blasio, the very mayor that described antisemitism as “loathsome hate,” came orders to increase patrols in Jewish neighborhoods and crack down on Jewish communities. The slew of recent media coverage of New York’s Hasidic communities, most of which describes them as defiant, irresponsible, and dangerous, reveals an antisemitism that is alive and well in New York. As news of arrests, police brutality, and antisemitic street violence roll in, we should prepare to counter this antisemitism, and not allow these events to create animosity between Jews and their neighbors in what should be a common fight against police violence wherever it persists.

Zoe Albion is a Jewish socialist activist and bug enthusiast in Chicago, IL.

Jonah ben Avraham is a socialist labor activist and member of Jewish Voice for Peace in Columbus, OH. Follow him on Twitter at @thatrednjb.