A Clash Of Values

Ultra- Orthodox Jews in New York City have displayed fierce resistance to government lockdown restrictions aimed at controlling the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

Like their counterparts in Israel, they have been reluctant to accept, much less obey, temporary measures to contain the deadly contagion, even as some of their rabbinical leaders have professed to support them.

Several days ago, in the face of a potentially dangerous upsurge  in new cases in neighborhoods heavily populated by haredim, New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced that another round of restrictions would be imposed on synagogues, non-essential businesses and schools in Brooklyn, Queens and the northern suburbs of New York City, which include Rockland and Orange counties.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio

New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, said that the new restrictions would be enforced by police, who would respond to illegal large gatherings and acts of violence, and that offenders would have to pay fines ranging from $1,000 to $15,000.

His announcement prompted a rowdy demonstration in one of these districts, Borough Park, during which hundreds of ultra-Orthodox men, the majority maskless, set fire to masks and beat up a Jewish reporter covering the event.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Borough Park, New York, burn masks and block traffic to protest new Covid-19 restrictions

The demonstrators were convinced that the state was unfairly targeting ultra-Orthodox Jews, arguing that the state and the city tolerated mass gatherings during Black Lives Matter protests this past spring.

And in a letter posted online, four Orthodox politicians — a state senator and assemblyman and two municipal counsellors — condemned Cuomo. “We are appalled by (his) words and actions. He has chosen to pursue a scientifically and constitutionally questionable shutdown of our communities.”

Cuomo, in fact, was fully justified in ordering the restrictions, which already has killed more than 20,000 New Yorkers and 200,000 Americans nation-wide.

Andrew Cuomo

In so-called “hot spots” where many ultra-Orthodox Jews live, fresh outbreaks have increased by five percent rather than one percent elsewhere in the city.

And in Kiryas Joel, an upstate New York community comprised mostly of ultra-Orthodox Jews from the Satmar sect, the infection rate soared to 27 percent, the highest in the United States. In Rockland county, which is home to substantial haredi communities, the positivity rate was nine percent as of early October.

Kiryas Joel

As Cuomo explained, “To the extent there are communities that are upset, that’s because they haven’t been following the original rules. That’s why the infection spread, because they wern’t following the rules.”

He added, “The rules weren’t being enforced because the community didn’t want to follow them. I understand that, but that’s why we are where we are. Make no mistake.”

Shortly afterward, Agudath Israel of America, a national ultra-Orthodox organization, sued Cuomo, branding his executive order as “appalling to all people of religion and good faith” and “deeply offensive.”

The Roman Catholic dioceses of Brooklyn filed a similar suit,  claiming the restrictions would force at least 24 churches in Brooklyn and Queens to close.

On October 9, federal judge Kiyo Matsumoto issued a ruling in which he upheld Cuomo’s preventive policy. While expressing empathy with the plight of the ultra-Orthodox community, the judge rejected the argument that Cuomo had acted unfairly against a religious minority.

As she correctly pointed out in her verdict, the burdens caused by the restrictions were simply outweighed by the imperative to stop “the most significant health crisis in living memory.”

The New Jewish Agenda, a liberal Jewish advocacy group, endorsed Cuomo’s position. “We condemn the lack of compliance with public health directives and recent violent reactions from some individuals within the Orthodox Jewish community,” said 450 rabbis in support of New York’s “data-driven, geographically-based efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19.”

It’s clear that the tension between Cuomo and the ultra-Orthodox community boils down to a fundamental clash of values.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews

Cuomo properly regards the coronavirus pandemic as a major public health crisis that must be addressed by various means, even at the risk of offending and inconveniencing some New Yorkers.

Tradition-bound, insular ultra-Orthodox Jews live by their own rules and conventions and are willing to act on their beliefs if the rhythms and routines of their daily lives are tampered with or interrupted by government edicts.

Their approach might have been suitable in an East European shtetl. But in a modern society coping with a pandemic, their antiquated ways and customs are widely viewed as self-centred, selfish and counter-productive.