By Melissa Braunstein
Sometimes, you’re sure there’s a back story; you just don’t know what it is. For example, four Democratic legislators representing Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn took the striking step of accusing Gov. Andrew Cuomo of a “duplicitous bait-and-switch.” A Jewish leader described feeling stabbed in the back by the governor.
But now that the Orthodox Jewish daily Hamodia has shared a recording of what Cuomo told Orthodox rabbis privately on a call on Oct. 6, certain things start making sense: What Cuomo says to Orthodox Jews is totally different from what he says and does about them.
Cuomo opened the call saying he was speaking and acting “out of love for your community.” He then explained to the participating rabbis, “The current rule is no more than 50% in any indoor gathering, 50% of capacity. That’s in a church, in a mosque, in a synagogue, in any venue, any private venue. It’s 50% of capacity. That’s the current law.” He continued, “We have to follow that law. If we don’t follow that law, and the infection rate gets worse, then we’re gonna have to go back to close down. And nobody wants to do that.”
Cuomo repeatedly mentioned “50%” on the call. So, listeners were justifiably surprised when Cuomo implemented a “25% capacity, 10 person maximum” limit on houses of worship within “red zones,” areas with a cluster of COVID-19 infections. Notably, there is no adjustment for building size.
If that sounds illogical, consider Cuomo’s jaw-dropping answer to a question about New York’s new COVID rules:
This is not a highly nuanced, sophisticated response. This is a fear-driven response, you know. This is not a policy being written by a scalpel; this is a policy being cut by a hatchet. It’s just very blunt. I didn’t propose this, you know; it was proposed by the Mayor [Bill de Blasio] in the City. I’m trying to sharpen it and make it better. But it’s out of fear. People see the numbers going up – ‘Close everything! Close everything!’ It’s not the best way to do it, but it is a fear-driven response. The virus scares people. Hopefully, we get the numbers down in the zip codes, the anxiety comes down, and then we can have a smarter, more-tailored approach … the fear is too high to do anything other than, ‘Let’s do everything we can to get the infection rate down now, close the doors, close the windows.’ That’s where we are.
In other words, Cuomo doesn’t insist he’s following the science, which might require more attention to promoting good habits statewide, including in regions without sizable Orthodox populations. Rather, Cuomo wants to do something visible to allay public anxiety. True leadership would require sustained, good-faith engagement with leaders in New York’s Orthodox Jewish community, as well as any other community that faces an uptick in cases. COVID-19 is a dangerous virus that doesn’t discriminate based on background.
Yossi Gestetner, founder of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council, calls Cuomo’s approach “reckless,” telling me that Cuomo “is making stuff up in the name of health on the go, and if it means choking off religious services along the way and blaming Jews for the rise, then so be it.”
For his part, Dhillon Law Group partner Ron Coleman told me, “Fear is a terrible way to make policy. It’s an even worse way to violate the Constitution.” Dhillon Law Group is a New York firm currently involved in a suit against Cuomo.
Worse yet may be the inflammatory way Cuomo continues to speak about New York’s Orthodox community. Cuomo, who is promoting his new book on leadership amid the virus crisis, is calling out New York’s Orthodox community, blaming “their religious practices” for the spread. And in an epic Freudian slip, Cuomo asserted, “But we see it, we know it, we understand it — because we’re doing more testing than anyone else, and then you have to attack them” [emphasis added].
Brooke Goldstein, executive director of The Lawfare Project, told me in an email, “Governor Cuomo’s continued attacks against the Jewish community are outrageous. Never in my life did I think I would see this type of blatant Jew hatred from our public officials. Singling out New York Jews for blame in the Coronavirus spread is unconscionable and discriminatory.”
But Cuomo wasn’t finished. About 10 minutes into a Wednesday call with reporters, Cuomo complained, “The enforcement from the local governments is very uneven. Especially when it’s politically sensitive, and that’s where we’re running into, with a lot of these ultra-Orthodox communities, who are also very politically powerful. Don’t kid yourself.” He reiterated that sentiment later in the call, saying that New York’s religious Jews are “a politically powerful community. You know it, and I know it.”
Shortly after, Cuomo assured reporters, “I guarantee if a Yeshiva gets closed down and they’re not going to get state funding, you will see compliance.” On Oct. 6, Cuomo issued an executive order closing schools in “red zones” through Nov. 5.
All of this marks a seismic shift. In January, Cuomo stood with the state’s Jewish community, denouncing anti-Semitism as “repugnant” and “anti-American” at New York City’s march against anti-Semitism. By contrast, Cuomo’s recent comments dangerously echo centuries-old charges about Jews spreading disease and having outsized political power that have repeatedly endangered Jews’ safety.
Of all people, the governor of New York should know he’s not punching up in this fight. Americans Against Antisemitism founder Dov Hikind, who reiterated the importance of universal compliance and enforcement of public health guidelines, told me that Cuomo “must understand his words have repercussions, and they do, and he continues to double down. This is not leadership.”
Hikind added, “I’m hearing stories from everyone, the looks they’re getting, the comments they’re getting. The governor has painted an X on my back [as an Orthodox Jew] … He’s stoking the virus of anti-Semitism.”
Lest anyone doubt that it’s increasingly dangerous to be visibly Jewish in New York, of the 180 hate crimes reported to NYPD between Jan. 1 and Sept. 7 this year, 74 targeted Jews — more than 40%. New reports are already surfacing of harassment and assault in Brooklyn and Rockland County.
As former congressional candidate Lindsey Boylan tweeted, “I am hearing about this kind of hate perpetrated on our visibly Jewish community daily. It is unacceptable and one of the many reasons why the words of our leaders matter. How we speak about complicated issues matter. And hate and fear-mongering is never a public safety tactic.”
Now, if only someone would tell Gov. Cuomo.