Four months ago, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s relationship with Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish communities was solid as it ever was.
Amid a 20% uptick in anti-Semitic violence in the city, the mayor announced in December that his police department would beef up patrols in Borough Park, Crown Heights and Williamsburg. That same month, the de Blasio administration was found to have delayed the release of a report on education at the city’s Orthodox yeshivas, a probe that eventually found only two of them in compliance with state standards. And in January, de Blasio intervened to return to prison a woman named Tiffany Harris, whose early release on bail after an alleged anti-Semitic attack had outraged Jewish leaders.
What a difference a pandemic makes — at least, temporarily.
The mayor’s Tuesday night tweet slamming “the Jewish community” after Hasidic mourners defied social-distancing guidelines drew outrage from all corners of New York’s Jewish world. Criticism poured forth from the Anti-Defamation League, which had been the mayor’s partner on responding to the anti-Semitic violence with security and education initiatives, and from city councilmen like Chaim Deutsch, who represents a significant Orthodox population.
“My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed,” de Blasio said in the tweet, which received more than 38,000 replies. “I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups. This is about stopping this disease and saving lives. Period.”
The leadership of the Satmar Hasidic sect that planned the funeral protested, saying that the procession had been coordinated with the police and was known to City Hall. The mayor and his police commissioner did not address these claims in a news conference Wednesday morning.
In his press appearance, de Blasio offered an apology “if the way I said it in any way gave people the feeling of being treated the wrong way,” but defended himself against accusations of hypocrisy and concern that he was singling out the Orthodox for condemnation.
“I understand politicians, everyone, who said this is like people gathering in the park,” the mayor said. “It’s not like people gathering in the park, it was thousands of people.”
The funeral imbroglio illustrates the push-pull relationship that Mayor de Blasio has had with the Orthodox communities of New York City during his mayoralty and throughout his time in public life.
On the one hand, he faces allegations that he gives religious Jews special treatment in exchange for their votes and donations - that the Orthodox see few consequences for skirting state and city policies like those governing secular education in religious schools, measles vaccinations and a risky circumcision practice known as metzitzah b’peh.
On the other hand, he has sometimes faced criticism from the same community he works to please, and that’s what happened on Wednesday. Jews have periodically accused his administration of disproportionately focusing on Jewish misdeeds, such as when he complained about their low vaccination rates while other communities with similar lack of herd immunity went uncriticized. Others have argued that he was slow to combat anti-Semitic assaults in Brooklyn when (or perhaps because) it became clear that the crimes were largely perpetrated by young men of color and not white nationalists. In the long run, however, his relationships with Orthodox leaders are likely still solid, despite the sourness occasioned by his Tweet about the funeral.
The mayor’s relationship with New York’s Orthodox world goes at least as far back as 1999, when he was working as a campaign manager to then-United States Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. De Blasio did damage control after Clinton was photographed greeting the wife of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat with a kiss. A call to Rabbi Yitzchok Fleischer, the founder and executive director of an organization associated with the Bobover Hasidic dynasty, smoothed things over and established a relationship that would serve — and sometimes torment — de Blasio for the rest of his political career.
In 2001, de Blasio ran for and won the City Council seat that governs District 39, which includes the heavily Orthodox neighborhood of Borough Park, after visiting synagogues — even at midnight — to speak to future constituents.
On the city council, de Blasio made a good name for himself among religious Jews by defending a program aimed at helping parents afford childcare and after-school programs, known as “Priority 7” or “P7” vouchers, that overwhelmingly benefitted Orthodox families in Borough Park, Williamsburg, Crown Heights and Midwood.
He endeared himself to Orthodox New Yorkers again, during his campaigns for mayor, and during his time in office — and in return, he received much-needed support.
In 2013, a prominent Satmar leader, Rabbi Moishe Indig, threw a fundraiser for de Blasio and helped deliver what’s estimated to be 7,500 votes in the Democratic primary from the Aroni faction of the Satmar community.
In exchange, Politico reported at the time, de Blasio agreed to overturn a Bloomberg-era requirement that parents sign a consent form acknowledging the dangers of metzitzah b’peh, oral suction after circumcision, that can spread sometimes fatal cases of herpes to baby boys.
In 2015, the mayor signed a bill that would reimburse private and parochial schools for the cost of hiring unarmed guards to the tune of $20 million each year. That bill was supported by the Orthodox Union.
And most recently, in December, a joint report released by the New York City Department of Investigation and the Special Commissioner of Investigation for the New York City School District accused the mayor of “political horse-trading” to delay the release of a damning report about the quality of instruction for secular subjects like English and math at Orthodox yeshivas. The report called out a “generally accommodating approach” to scheduling school visits and negotiating with the lawyer representing the yeshivas.
Naftuli Moster, the head of YAFFED, an education advocacy organization that originally brought forth a complaint about secular education at yeshivas, said de Blasio has taken part in a “continued effort to shield Hasidic leaders from criticism.”
But despite this history, de Blasio got hit hard by a range of critics after Tuesday night’s social media storm. The next day, bleary-eyed and fiddling with a pen, de Blasio sought to turn the page on the episode. “Again, this is a community I love,” he insisted.
And it’s likely that the community still loves him back. Organizations like Agudath Israel that criticized him for giving fodder to anti-Semites, still took pains to back up his points about the importance of social distancing. And even the synagogue of the deceased rabbi tried to help smooth things over, saying it recognized that de Blasio was reacting because of his concern for the health and safety of Jewish people.
“New Yorkers walk the streets daily, thus, a funeral – we thought – shouldn’t be different, as long the rules are followed,” the synagogue said in a statement. “Unfortunately, this didn’t pan out, and NYPD had to disperse the crowds.”
Virginia Jeffries and Jordan Kutzik contributed reporting.
De Blasio soured his relationship with the Orthodox