A minor miracle occurred last week: Officials and pundits
from across the political and social spectra came together in a show of unified
determination. No, not to encourage social distancing or to discourage early re-opening
of businesses. To condemn Bill de Blasio.
That would be New York’s mayor, of course, whose tweet calling
out “the Jewish community” for violating social distancing guidelines after the
funeral of a Chassidic rebbe, Rabbi Chaim Mertz, the Tola’as Yakov Rebbe, drew a
reported 2000-plus onto the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
“My message to the Jewish community,” the mayor wrote, “and
all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed.”
Those who piled on ranged from conservative thinker John
Podhoretz, shock jock Glenn Beck, Donald Trump Jr. and ex-ambassador Nikki
Haley to the ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt, Jews for Racial & Economic Justice,
and a number of people associated with the Reform movement. An assortment of New
York Assemblymen joined in the tackle.
Some of the critics stood up for the bereaved chassidim who
attended the funeral, some decried the insinuation that such crowding was more prevalent
in the chassidic community, and some seemed outraged that the acts of some
chassidim were being blamed on all Jews, even non-observant ones like
Grounds for criticism there were. As a statement from
Agudath Israel noted, “The Jewish community as a whole, and the Orthodox Jewish
community in particular, are heeding social distancing rules, including at funerals.”
And the funeral had been coordinated with the New York Police Department.
Apparently, the crowd turned out to be larger than expected.
But while the mayor’s choice of words was misguided and
regrettable, they didn’t, as some rashly claimed, evidence any animus for Jews.
Not only has Mr. de Blasio been a stalwart supporter of Israel and condemner of
the BDS movement, he has enjoyed a warm relationship with New York’s Orthodox
His ill-considered focus on the “Jewish community” was
simply the gut reaction, emotion-driven response to a scene of many hundreds of
identifiably Jewish Jews crowded together, in violation of state regulations,
at a time when a contagious disease was spreading and killing people.
Yes, other groups were also guilty of not heeding spacing
requirements, as some of de Blasio’s critics were quick to point out online, including
in their postings photos of well-populated beaches and groups of people
watching an air show. But those violators were not members of any specific, identifiable
group. How were they to be called out?
“My message to the beach-going community and all
communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed”?
Doesn’t quite work, no?
And there had been other crowded funerals attended by crowds
of identifiably Orthodox Jews too, something that no one who saw photos of them,
presumably including the mayor, can’t unremember.
The truly justified grievance against the mayor’s tweet is
what Agudath Israel’s statement went on to say: “No matter how well-intentioned
the Mayor might be, words that could be seized upon by bigots and anti-Semites
must be avoided at all costs.”
Mr. de Blasio seems in fact to have recognized that fact, since
he eventually apologized for his misbegotten tweeting on a conference call with
Orthodox Jewish media outlets.
The apology, though, that I found truly compelling, not only
in the fact of its existence but because of its tone and eloquence, was from Jacob
Mertz, the secretary of Tola’as Yakov, the congregation whose leader’s funeral had
sparked the brouhaha.
“Our Rabbi was revered
by thousands as a holy, humble and caring person,” a letter he signed read
in part, “and they wanted to participate
in the funeral.
“We came up with a
plan to have many streets closed, so that people participate and walk the
coffin while following the social distancing rules and wearing masks…
Unfortunately, this didn’t pan out, and NYPD had to disperse the crowds…
“We understand Mayor
Bill de Blasio’s frustration and his speaking out against the gathering. 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[s] take precedence to anything else, and
we shall all follow those rules.”
In the tumultuous world in which we Americans live today,
where invective has largely replaced dialogue and grievances are settled at
best with insults and at worst with guns, we sometimes need to remind ourselves
that, even in a free country and protected as we are by a Bill of Rights, we
are still in galus. It may not look
like the galus of ancient Babylonia
or Czarist Russia, but it is still galus.
And, while an acknowledgement like Tola’as Yakov’s might
strike some, including some Jews, as overly modest and deferential, it was not.
It was the perfectly Jewish response.
© 2020 Rabbi Avi