On October 5th Andrew Cuomo held a press conference where he all but directly blamed the Hasidic Jewish community for any future spikes in COVID-19 cases in New York. As with all previous press briefings, the Governor utilized a supplementary powerpoint presentation. On the slide entitled "Religious Gatherings", the Governor displayed two photographs of what New Yorkers have recently been conditioned to view as backward and primitive disease-carriers; a vast sea of black hats donned by members of the Hasidic Jewish community. The Governor warned the public that these photos, showing Hasidic Jews disregarding the State’s outdoor gathering limit of 50 people, were taken at gatherings in recent weeks.
Shortly after, it was discovered that one of the photographs Cuomo used was actually from a 2006 funeral. The blunder suggests that whoever compiled the presentation was more concerned with the narrative than with the truth.
The next morning, on October 6th, the Governor held a private conference call with leaders of the Jewish community in an attempt to calibrate efforts and hopefully rebuild trust, which had slowly been decimated since the start of the COVID-19 crisis.
That afternoon, just hours after speaking with the Jewish leaders, the Governor held a press conference where he announced his new "Cluster Action Initiative", which would greatly restrict religious gatherings. Governor Cuomo implied he had implemented these restrictions in coordination with the Jewish community on the call earlier that morning,
"I said to them I need their cooperation, I need their partnership, they're very cohesive communities, and I asked for them to work with me to follow these guidelines and that was positively received [by them]". Jewish leaders immediately responded and denied that the new restrictions were developed in coordination with them, or that they were informed of the new restrictions beforehand and "positively received" them.
The following night, On October 7th, frustration due to the announcement boiled over in the Borough Park neighborhood in Brooklyn. We've all seen the footage by now. Approximately 80 Hasidic Jewish men took to the streets. A pile of masks was set ablaze in the middle of a street. One journalist was attacked and injured. The incident was universally condemned by members of every level of government in the United States. Jewish institutions, Rabbis, journalists, activists, etc took to Twitter to express their shock at what had unfolded.
It was wrong. We all know it.
The violent protest was immediately depicted as an extremist backlash and a rejection of guidelines intended to curb a pandemic, but in reality the anger unleashed in the street that night was more likely the product of months of misunderstanding, frustration, and a perception among Hasidic communities that their unique challenges weren't taken seriously while other communities were granted latitude and empathy.
Just weeks prior to Cuomo's cluster-zoning initiative, there was a massive solidarity protest in Brooklyn for Breonna Taylor's family. Just days before Cuomo’s announcement, there was a large religious procession of Shia Muslims in Queens. Neither event abided by an outdoor gathering limit of 50 people and neither event was on display in Cuomo's powerpoint presentation. These two gatherings capped off an entire summer of mass protests, protests that received little objection from Albany and a degree of actual support from Mayor Bill Deblasio.
Before the Borough park protest, Andrew Cuomo’s focus on the Jewish community was unacceptable, but his rhetoric was careful and non-combative. He sent obvious hints that he believed the Jewish community should be viewed as a unique threat (eg. the PowerPoint debacle), but he never outright blamed the Jews.
After the Borough Park protest, Cuomo doubled down, and his rhetoric regarding Hasidic Jews went from intimations to what could easily be called antisemitic.
On October 9th, Governor Cuomo was interviewed on CNN. In response to a question regarding a lawsuit by the Diocese, Cuomo made it abundantly clear who he viewed as the problem, "The cluster is predominantly an ultra orthodox cluster, the Catholic schools are closed because they happen to be in that cluster. But the issue is with the Ultra Orthodox community".
On October 14th Cuomo told MSNBC that Jewish religious practices were responsible for spreading the virus, "We're now having issues in the Orthodox Jewish community in New York, where because of their religious practices etc we're seeing a spread".
That same day Cuomo repeated himself in a different televised interview. He stated, "Right now we have [clusters] in some orthodox Jewish communities for a peculiar set of circumstances and we're attacking them".
In a teleconference with journalists on October 14th, Governor Cuomo invoked an antisemitic trope. While discussing the need for strict enforcement on the local level, Cuomo opined on why local officials weren't forcefully enforcing rules in Hasidic communities, stating, "Because it's politically sensitive and let's be frank and candid at this point in history. The community we're talking about today is a politically powerful community. You know it and I know it. So I understand [local governments] don't want to incur the wrath".
The real reason for poor enforcement probably has more to do with incompetent and disorganized leadership, as well as the hands-off precedent regarding outdoor gatherings and protests that was established through the summer. But for Cuomo it's probably easier to fantasize about politically powerful Jews that intimidate authorities with their fiery wrath. None of the journalists on the call asked the Governor for a clarification. Details of the teleconference were reported in mainstream outlets, and none reported this disturbing comment by Cuomo.
Cuomo's defenders, including quite a few Jews, have somehow given him a pass. They claim his intentions and policies are positive and the antisemitic statements are mistaken anamolies. Many have even justified the comments by saying he has a point! The Hasidic Jewish community does have a high infection rate and there have been plenty of reports of Hasidic Jewish groups not taking the pandemic rules seriously. That may all be true and serious issues, but in what way does creating a scapegoat out of the Jews improve the situation? There has to be better outreach initiatives than PowerPoint slides of Jewish crowds and calling the virus an “Ultra-Orthodox Jewish problem”, right?
On October 12th, a recording of that October 6th conference call between the Governor and Jewish leaders was leaked online. Remember, this conference call took place before the Borough Park protest and before Governor Cuomo’s anti-Jewish campaign.
Much has been reported on this leaked phone call. The Hasidic community was vindicated in their claim that Cuomo lied and never informed them about any new restrictions. The call reveals that he did not. Throughout the call Cuomo refers to a 50 percent restriction on houses of worship and never mentions the new rules that he intended to announce only hours after the call. Cuomo also embarrassingly contradicts months of insistence that his policies are all based on "the science". In the call he tells the Jewish leaders that none of these regulations are fine-tuned, but are actually measures designed out of fear.
One of the more baffling and disturbing aspects of the conference call was the heartfelt concerns by Cuomo for the Jewish community. Early in the call Cuomo issues a clear and direct warning to the Jewish leaders about the very real danger and possibility of people scapegoating Jews:
"The infection rate is spiking in communities in proximity to Orthodox communities. Everybody is afraid. From a relationship point of view, and I have worked on the relationship between the Orthodox community and the larger community, between the Orthodox community and surrounding neighborhoods. I've worked on that relationship for a long time, whether it's in New York City, Crown heights, Williamsburg, whether it's in Rockland. We don’t want to give any other community a reason to say 'we've caused...the Orthodox community has caused hardship'. This is not a time to be pointing fingers and I want to make sure nobody points fingers”
Near the conclusion of the conference call, Governor Cuomo repeats the warning:
"I don’t want anyone pointing fingers, now or when this is over. You know, people love to blame right? It’s not a kind part of our personality, but people tend to blame, especially when they get scared and they get angry. And i'm worried that they're going to point fingers and they're going to say 'this is where it came from'''.
If on October 6th, Governor Cuomo was keenly aware of the danger of Jews being scapegoated for the pandemic, why then did he spend the next week and a half singling out Jews in many television appearances? (See above).
Was Cuomo warning the Jewish community of possible dangers, or was he telling them what could happen and what he was capable of doing if they didn’t play by his rules?
Whatever the reason or the motivation, whether the warnings were initially legitimate and then corrupted or a veiled intimidation from the start, it’s reasonable to conclude, absurd as it seems, that Cuomo warned the Jews about Cuomo. We should listen.
Joe Duenas is a writer and independent filmmaker from south Florida. His latest documentary, "The Conspiracy Libel", explores the history of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and can be seen at Gofundme.com/the-conspiracy-libel