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When Covid-19 rules are flouted by ultra-Orthodox Jews, it isn't anti-Semitism to call it out

When the Jewish community says that it is, it obscures true anti-Semitism while providing leeway not to comply with restrictions needed to stop the spread of the virus.
Image: COVID-19 Hotspot Protest in Borough Park, Brooklyn, NYC
A sign reads "we will not comply" at a protest against Covid-19 restrictions in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of New York City on Oct. 7.Michael Nagle / Redux

As authorities scramble to confront a second wave of Covid-19 building across America, anger is mounting against government efforts to stop the spread within a population among those hardest hit by the pandemic: the sprawling ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of metropolitan New York.

For the ultra-Orthodox to complain that they're being discriminated against when they come under extra scrutiny is essentially to complain that it's anti-Semitic to notice what they're doing.

With the pandemic in its eighth month and restrictions cutting into the religious practices of the tight-knit, strictly observant subculture, it's understandable that weariness and impatience would set in. Unfortunately, that's leading to a growing sense in the community that it is being singled out unfairly for deprivation of its religious rights, often accompanied by open complaints of anti-Semitism as the cause for the lockdowns.

It's a dangerous misperception, for both the ultra-Orthodox and their neighbors. The virus doesn't single out groups by religion, race or national origin; it's an unbiased scourge. Nor are New York officials' containment efforts guided by any such bigoted motives. Enforcement goes where the germs are. And the germs, tragically, are hitting ultra-Orthodox Jews with special fury.

From the beginning of the crisis in March, densely populated ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens and key suburbs emerged as leading viral hot spots in hard-hit New York. Their outsize vulnerability was due in large part to a traditional religious culture built on a continuous cycle of obligatory, large-scale gatherings for prayer, study, weddings and funerals, all cherished rituals that can and apparently did serve as super-spreader events.

Compounding these risks has been the mundane physical structure of the insular ultra-Orthodox lifestyle, built on large families' living in cramped homes packed into dense neighborhoods, making social distancing extraordinarily difficult.

But because those are religious obligations and cornerstones of their Jewish identity structure, government-mandated lockdowns and social distancing can and too often did look from an ultra-Orthodox perspective like government assaults on the religion itself.

It might seem surprising that the community's behavior hasn't been dictated from start to finish by the fundamental Jewish principle known as "protection of human life" — the commandment that nearly all religious rules be suspended if a human life is the balance. And, indeed, while many respected rabbis urged members of the community to follow that guidance, it appears that the principle was hard to visualize when the threat wasn't an enemy gun or a car crash — events that Jews regularly violate religious restrictions to address — but an invisible bug.

That difficulty wasn't helped by a small but influential minority within the community that has been nodding toward a competing principle — that of sanctifying God's name by openly defying oppressors' bans, even at risk to one's own life and limb. While rarely stated aloud right now, this notion has been encouraged by a handful of well-known rabbis, most of them Israelis with strong followings in the United States, and, more subtly, by a deep-seated distrust of the modern world and its dictates, which often take the form of medical directives.

After a long spring of cat-and-mouse police chases after clandestine synagogue services and other attempts by the ultra-Orthodox to evade quarantine, followed by the summer slowdown in infections, the New York City health department reported startling new statistics in late September showing that certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, most of them featuring large ultra-Orthodox populations, were reporting virus test results averaging 4.7 percent positive, compared to just over 1 percent in the rest of the city. Two weeks later, the average jumped to more than 6 percent.

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The nine "red zone" ZIP codes on the state map of the highest infection rates at that time — which carried the heaviest public restrictions as a result — were nearly all major ultra-Orthodox population centers. Among other things, houses of worship in red zones were limited to 10 attendees at a time under a policy announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Ultra-Orthodox community leaders maintain — and government authorities largely agree — that most ultra-Orthodox Jews are following government mandates and that violators represent only a minority. That minority, however, seems to be large enough to push the entire community into vastly disproportionate infection territory, given that observance by a vague "most" isn't sufficient to stop the virus.

Yet the reaction of much of the ultra-Orthodox community has been to protest the lifesaving government restrictions — sometimes violently — and to paint them as anti-Semitic. In a typical example, a weekly tabloid with a mostly Orthodox readership touted on its front page an essay headlined "De Blasio And Cuomo Have Declared War On Us," which accused the governor and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio of "treachery and blatant anti-Semitism" and claimed that they "want to destroy our schools and way of life."

And in a toned-down critique, Agudath Israel of America, the main advocacy body representing ultra-Orthodox Jews, argued that while the ban on large services "discriminates against all religions," it "disproportionately impacts the religious services of Orthodox Jews," who would be shut out from traditional synagogue observance of two major religious holidays.

But for the ultra-Orthodox to complain that they're being discriminated against when they come under extra scrutiny is essentially to complain that it's anti-Semitic to notice what they're doing. And in this case, defiantly maintaining tradition doesn't risk just their own lives, which is their prerogative, but their neighbors' lives, as well. The trap they're caught in is tragic, but society has a right and an obligation to protect its people's welfare.

Indeed, the greater anti-Semitism threat likely comes not from failing to defend Jewish rights but from trying too hard. When Jewish communities, Orthodox or not, ask for special accommodations to meet their particular needs, it's often seen by other communities as cutting in line, wheedling extra privileges while broader needs go unmet.

To be sure, part of the ultra-Orthodox misperception that anti-Semitism is at work comes from memories of long centuries when anti-Jewish powers forced Jews to give up their traditions or take them underground. These memories, and the alarms they trigger, are familiar to Jews of every religious and ideological stripe.

Throughout their history, Torah-observant Jews have faced emergencies that have forced them to compromise and bend some laws, sometimes permanently.

At the same time, it's precisely this history that should serve as a guide for the ultra-Orthodox community today in combating Covid-19. Throughout their history, Torah-observant Jews have faced emergencies that have forced them to compromise and bend some laws, sometimes permanently.

Disasters, usually in the form of anti-Semitic persecution, have forced them to drop some practices and amend others to survive until better times returned. So it was after the Roman destruction of Solomon's Temple in ancient Israel and during the Spanish Inquisition, the medieval Polish-Ukrainian pogroms, the Soviet era and the Holocaust.

But America isn't any of those things. Instead, it is the ultra-Orthodox community itself that right now poses the most danger to its own continuity.