For the past two weeks, since the latest uptic in Covid cases in lhredi Orthodox neighborhoods threatened a full-blown second wave and a city-wide shutdown, community leaders have been eager to point fingers at everyone but themselves. Primarily, they blamed the city for failing to properly “engage” with the community leaders to bring about compliance with social distancing guidelines.
I was enraged. We’re in a pandemic. How dare they demand “engagement” as a prerequisite to compelling their constituents to comply with measures designed to mitigate the spread of Covid — a horrible virus that has killed so many of our own brothers and sisters? Furthermore, I thought, what else could the city have done? After all, they made 200,000 robocalls, handed out tens of thousands of masks, placed dozens of ads in Orthodox newspapers, and consulted with multiple charedi leaders. So when community leaders tell The New York Times and other outlets that the city didn’t properly “engage” with them, what does that mean?
It’s not like anyone prevented community leaders from educating the community about the risks of Covid. In fact, Hatzolah, a volunteer emergency medical service in the community, has done that on multiple occasions. Yaffed has also mailed educational material about Covid to 20,000 chasidic households across the state.
The problem was no one could compete with the actions of charedi Orthodox leaders who were regularly found not to be complying with regulations. Massive indoor events with no masks led by those very leaders were held regularly. So if anything, this uptick has proven that engagement with community leaders doesn’t accomplish much. At most they will result in lip service about compliance, immediately undermined by actions to the contrary.
Unlike the first outbreak in March, leaders could no longer claim ignorance. They could no longer claim that this virus was novel to all and, like everyone else, they were not prepared. After the deaths of hundreds of our brothers and sisters, many of whom contracted it during Purim celebrations in mid-March, the only excuse they could come up with to distract from their own failures was “the city didn’t properly engage with us.”
So I kept wondering what such engagement would look like. As I was scrolling through Yiddish language newspapers, I came across a new phenomenon. One ad stated that “in order to prevent our Yeshivas and shuls from being shut down, everyone must wear a mask when they are outside.” Another ad stated that even if we don’t believe masks work, the nurses who care for us do believe masks work, and if we don’t wear them, they think we are being inconsiderate and might provide inferior care to Orthodox Jews.
Notice a theme? Both of these ads use the threat of persecution to appeal to people to do what should otherwise be common sense, or at least routine compliance with the rules and norms. Instead, the only reasonable appeal to charedi Orthodox Jews, the ads imply, is by framing it as an us-versus-them issue.
I am well aware of the history of persecution of the Jewish people. But any leader who claims that New York City, under Mayor Bill de Blasio, is unfairly discriminating against chasidic andcharedi Orthodox communities is being dishonest and manipulative.
Since assuming office in 2014, Mayor de Blasio has weakened restrictions on Metzitza B’peh, a dangerous technique performed during circumcisions; purposely dragged out an investigation of over two dozen yeshivas that were suspected of not providing adequate general education; and softened the findings of that investigation at the behest of community leaders. Under de Blasio, the city has directed hundreds of millions of dollars for yeshivas and other community programs through funding for security, child care vouchers, pre-K, special ed and more. Community leaders have long boasted of their close relationships to the mayor. Governor Cuomo has similarly been extremely generous to the Orthodox community and its institutions.
Yeshiva leaders push the persecution narrative to deflect any criticism.
But deploying the false persecution narrative is just too tempting for some of these “leaders.” Through it, they are able to absolve themselves and their community of responsibility. Instead they can fabricate calumnious accusations of anti-Semitism against government officials, journalists, and even members of the community who call them out.
A similar dynamic played out when the city and the state became aware that the education provided in many charedi Orthodox yeshivas is not even close to the minimum required by the state — and in some yeshivas secular education is completely absent. Instead of owning up to getting away with it for decades and making improvements, yeshiva leaders pushed the persecution narrative to deflect any criticism.
The persecution complex is not a harmless factoid; it is a form of radicalization. By declaring any scrutiny of the community to be anti-Semitic, these so-called leaders refuse to entertain the notion that certain systemic problems do in fact exist and should be addressed. And it becomes a downward spiral from there.
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For years, community leaders have cleverly used the persecution narrative to animate their followers in an us-vs-them dynamic and escaped scrutiny that other failed leaders would normally be subjected to. It may be backfiring now, as hundreds of community members who have been radicalized by these leaders over the years have stirred up violent protests against the imaginary persecutors, and are endangering themselves and others in the process.
Naftuli Moster is the founder and Executive Director of Yaffed.