By JONATHAN GREENBLATT and DEVORAH HALBERSTAM
for the NY Daily News
Typically, at this time of year in New York, the arrival of the Jewish New Year is characterized by large celebrations, communal meals in sukkahs, dancing with the Torah in the streets and gatherings of extended families for meals and prayer. It is this thrum of cyclical celebration that makes being Jewish in this city such a joy.
COVID-19 has changed everything, of course. In the Crown Heights neighborhood where Devorah raised her kids, and now her grandkids, the majority are practicing social distancing and wearing their masks.
Still, as has been widely reported, not everyone is following the rules. That is true.
We are extremely disturbed that some are still refusing to wear masks. Until this pandemic goes away, it is everyone’s personal and collective responsibility to take this simple precaution against the virus, because everybody is at risk.
We also understand the collective public frustration that some people continue to gather in large numbers, flouting the advice and guidelines set by city and state health officials. This public frustration and anger is justifiable when people are falling ill and losing jobs and loved ones to the ongoing pandemic.
At the same time, however, as a mother who lost my son Ari in an anti-Semitic terror attack, and as the head of the leading organization fighting anti-Semitism, we are extremely concerned about the way some in our city are using language and sending cues that the spread of the virus is the fault of the entire Jewish community.
This great city is made up of 8.5 million people. Coronavirus has not afflicted any one single community; it has affected everyone. When the numbers of those infected are up in one neighborhood or zip code, they are down in another. This unpredictability means people need to be doing everything necessary to protect themselves from the virus — social distancing, wearing masks and avoiding large crowds.
Responsibility also means not blaming an entire community for a disease that has spread around the world and afflicted millions. We know how words have a way of snowballing from statements of blame into scapegoating of the entire community, and even violent anti-Semitism. News stories and social media posts about restrictions being imposed on diverse neighborhoods that only use images of Haredi Jews, when the problem is more widespread, incite and evoke anti-Semitism.
This canard and subliminal message of Jews being “responsible” for the virus has unfortunately been perpetuated again and again.
Jewish communities have been blamed and scapegoated over centuries for spreading viruses. We are concerned that this kind of language could escalate into something more serious. Indeed, over the past week, we have already seen instances of Jews being refused service. We have also unfortunately seen protests against restrictions, which have turned violent. This is why it is time for everyone to dial down the rhetoric.
COVID-19 is a virus that doesn’t discriminate. It knows no religion, no ethnicity and no borders. It doesn’t matter if you are White, Black, Asian, Catholic, Jewish or Muslim. It doesn’t matter if you live in Brooklyn or the Hamptons. Everyone is at risk, and no one community or religion or country bears sole responsibility for its spread.
We also need to remember that anti-Semitism is lurking just beneath the surface of this pandemic. Like the virus itself, noxious anti-Semitic coronavirus conspiracies are spreading on social media and infecting our public discourse. In the middle of a pandemic, this is the last thing we need. Our concern is that this can quickly snowball from words to actual violence.
With last year’s scourge of unprovoked attacks against visibly identifiable in Brooklyn still fresh in people’s minds, and hateful incidents against Jews across the country at an all-time high — not to mention last year’s bloodshed against Orthodox Jews in Monsey and Jersey City — we don’t have the luxury to sit back and wait for the next attack based on hateful stereotypes about Jews.
In the final analysis, we need to be cognizant of what feeding this frenzy can lead to. All of us need to be responsible and careful so that anti-Semitism is not one of the side effects of this scary and capricious health scare. Because COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate, neither should we.
Greenblatt is CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Halberstam is a community leader and an outspoken activist on anti-Semitism and one of the founders of the Jewish Children’s Museum, which was dedicated in the memory of her son, Ari.