The physical violence and burning of masks that occurred this week in Brooklyn is nauseating. It is completely reprehensible and utterly dangerous, and we demand that those responsible be held accountable. Our hearts are with our friend Jacob Kornbluh, who was assaulted in his own community for supporting mask-wearing as an urgent public health mandate.
Requiring masking and social distancing of religious communities does not impede on our religious freedom. Enforcement of these lifesaving precautions in the Orthodox community is not antisemitism. Stigmatizing all Orthodox Jews based on the actions of a few, however, is.
We need to ask ourselves: why are we––especially those of us who call ourselves progressive Jews––so complacent about and comfortable with the singling out and generalizing of the entire Orthodox Jewish community? This community isn’t monolithic; it’s heterogenous, nuanced, multi-faceted, and complicated. Parts of it experience high rates of poverty, low rates of health literacy, language barriers, and deep, multi-generational mistrust of government, stemming from centuries of persecution and medical abuse at the hands of public health authorities. We have a duty to hold ourselves and our siblings in the Orthodox community to the highest standards in protecting human life, understanding our commitment to pikuach nefesh. But we must also demonstrate compassion and a willingness to understand and listen. We must call out the bad behavior of those loud but few who act poorly, while also elevating and uplifting the voices of the many that act as good neighbors and good citizens. Only through this balance will we grow together as a broad and diverse Jewish people.
Again, the behavior we witnessed is unconscionable, inexplicable, and shameful. But the definition of bigotry is allowing the bad behavior of the few to define the whole––a New York Orthodox Jewish community of more than half a million people. At a time of rapidly rising and violent antisemitism, we all have an absolute obligation to push back on that narrative by anyone who perpetuates it. This includes our elected leaders, Mayor DeBlasio and Governor Cuomo, who must continue to demand enforcement of the mask-wearing and social distancing rules, while also refusing to allow or perpetuate the wholesale vilification of any select group of people.
When it comes down to it, we urgently must remember: It isn’t “us” and “them”. We are all one people, and we must protect one another.