On the first day of Passover, a group of police officers found a small synagogue in the Hasidic hub of Monsey, in Rockland County, N.Y., where about 50 men had gathered to pray. They broke up the service, issuing eight summonses.
When Ed Day, Rockland’s county executive since 2014, posted about the incident on Facebook, he got nearly 100 comments. Most were messages of thanks for enforcing social-distancing rules. Several contained derogatory references to Orthodox Jews that some saw as anti-Semitic.
“I’m appalled after all that went on this week this community felt they had the right once again to put many human lives at risk,” read one. “Their defiance & lack of compassion for human life is outrageous.”
Day’s page “liked” the comment, fueling concerns among Orthodox Jews and people who monitor online anti-Semitism that he is not taking the rhetoric in such comments seriously.
The page, where Day often responds directly to both laudatory and critical comments, and the county executive himself, have become a major flashpoint for the swirling controversy around coronavirus and Orthodox communities like those in Rockland County, a place where tension between Hasidic residents and the secular world have played out for years.
Day’s is one of several Rockland Facebook pages that have seen hateful comments that some Jewish leaders worry could lead to anti-Semitic incidents or violence once social distancing orders are lifted.
Last week, after Day called for imposing a temporary containment zone on Monsey and some surrounding areas that are heavily Hasidic, some commenters called for physical barricading of those neighborhoods and suggested sewing “C” patches on those infected with the virus — shocking parallels to the ghettoes and yellow-stars mandated for Jews during the Holocaust.
“We are being flagged constantly about these comments,” said Alexander Rosemberg, the Anti-Defamation League’s deputy regional director for New York and New Jersey. “People are focusing on the few bad actors that are noncompliant with Covid social distancing rules, and using it to scapegoat the entire” community of visibly Orthodox Jews.
In a Facebook live video Day posted on Tuesday, responding to a question about anti-Semitic comments, he said that if people see bigoted posts on social media they should “call them out,” or contact the county’s Human Rights Commission. Referring to recent comments on his page that used Holocaust imagery, which he said he responded to directly, he said: “The language was getting to a point where it was starting to harken back to a time in our history, in the 30s in Europe, that nobody really has to be reminded of, obviously. I made a comment at the top of the page that said, this is not something you need to be doing. And it stopped.”
In an interview, Day said that the containment zone idea was “based upon logic, science, reality” — and not anti-Semitism.
“If I was truly anti-Semitic, I think probably one of the most anti-Semitic acts I could commit would be to let Jewish people get sick and die,” he said.
“I’m an ex-cop. I don’t like people being victimized,” he added. “When I can do something, I will. I do understand the angst. I have had a number of friends over the years of the Jewish faith, I get it.”
“Do we have enough barriers to blockade them in?”
Day’s page is hardly the only place on the Internet where ugly accusations blaming Jews for the spread of coronavirus have appeared. Michael D. Cohen, the Eastern Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which tracks and researches anti-Semitism, said anti-Semitic posts have increased across social-media in recent weeks, though he did not offer a metric.
In Rockland, Facegroup groups like “Rockland Mommies,” “Make Rockland Great Again” and “Clarkstown Community (uncensored)” have seen new vitriol with comments including: “Do we have enough barriers to blockade them in?” “Nuke them” and “They should be wiped off the planet once and for all.”
“We’ve seen a very significant spike across the board in anti-Semitic posts and pages in all regions,” Cohen said. “Unfortunately, what we’re seeing in the more local Facebook pages, including in Rockland County, are following those trends.”
Offline in Rockland, Hasidic residents have reported being yelled at while walking outside their homes and having their pictures taken from cars driving through their neighborhoods — pictures that often get posted online as evidence that visibly identifiable Jews are ignoring social-distancing orders.
Farther west, a local police officer commented on Facebook that a bomb should be dropped on Kiryas Joel, the Hasidic hub of Orange County, N.Y. And in Lakewood, N.J., where 70% of residents are Orthodox Jewish, a deputy county fire marshal was put under investigation late last month after he posted on Facebook that Lakewood “needs to be a hole in (the) ground” and suggested its residents were disobeying social distancing rules at higher rates than the general population — something that state police officials have said is not true.
Jews in Rockland County, where there have been huge fights between the Orthodox and secular communities over school-board politics, housing development and measles vaccinations in recent years, said that they have long ago gotten used to anti-Semitic and anti-Orthodox comments on social media.
“You open up one of the community groups and it’s there, it’s nonstop,” said Evan Karzhevsky, a Reform Jew who lives in Rockland County and is active on local Facebook groups. “For people to be upset, to be scared, it’s understandable. It’s when the language turns over into anti-Semitic tropes, that’s the issue.”
The tone of the recent Facebook rhetoric has some Jewish leaders in the county worried that it could boil over into real-world violence.
“Now they’re just talking on social media,” said Steve Gold, the co-president of the Jewish Federation & Foundation of Rockland County. “But once the virus is over, you’re going to see a huge uptick — I hope I’m wrong — in anti-Semitic incidents targeting the Orthodox.”
Gold said he spoke to Day, the county executive, last week about the comments on his own Facebook page and others, and told him he should use the platform “to ask people to stop the hate, or to stop the blame.”
Rosemberg said that his organization has been asking Day for years to take a more active role in addressing the more extreme comments made on social media about Orthodox Jews. Those comments, Rosemberg said, often come from people who feel threatened by the growing Hasidic community, which they worry will destroy their suburban, low-density neighborhoods.
“What he may be doing is basically not holding back that voter base,” Rosemberg said.
Day says he is not worried about a potential rise in hate incidents.
“The people of Rockland County are not a bunch of crazy people who are gonna go out and kill Jews now,” he said. “That’s not what they are.”
Day said in an interview that he has an administrator who monitors his offiical Facebook page, and that there are automatic filters for certain words, like “Nazi” and “Hitler.” He also said that he was not aware of the “blockade” comment that was posted on his page, and would have deleted it if he had been. But he also said that deleting comments creates “a First Amendment issue,” since he is a public official, and he is wary of “elevating” bad actors on social media by calling attention to them.
“There are larger issues when you do respond,” he said. “It’s not as simple as saying, you’re a bad boy, you did something wrong. It’s that I am paying attention, as county executive, to what you, moron, are saying. And then there’s a response back — that’s not a good look.”
‘There goes the Hasidic Jew disobeying the social distancing order’
The data in Rockland County do not currently show a higher rate of coronavirus infection in Orthodox areas than other places. More than a week ago, however, Monsey and the increasingly Hasidic town next to it, Spring Valley, led the county in the rate of known cases, which may have sparked some of the online outrage, and which Day said spurred him to propose a temporary containment zone for those areas.
Towns in the northern part of the county with few, if any, Hasidic residents have since caught up. Now, the towns of Garnerville and West Haverstraw, relatively far from the Hasidic centers, lead the county with over 3% of their population known to be infected, according to data published on the county government Website.
Yet, the county health department has recorded the highest rate of complaints of people violating social-distancing orders in the town of Ramapo, which includes Monsey.
“That’s not to say that the complaints are all valid,” said John Lyon, Day’s communications director. “But when you’re seeing 100 complaints in one place, and only 15 to 20 in another place, it speaks a little bit to the issue of what’s going on and what people are seeing out there.”
Daniel Hyman, a captain with the Ramapo Police Department, said that the majority of complaints received are anonymous, and that they often turn out to be unfounded. Hyman said that commercial areas frequented by Hasidic Jews are in fact enforcing social distancing, and that the synagogue where the summonses were issued on Passover now has a monitor at the door making sure it stays below the 10-person limit.
“We’re noticing a higher level of compliance now than we did at the beginning, from all areas of the town,” Hyman said.
But religious Jews have reported being criticized for doing things that were until recently or still are actually allowed under the guidelines, such as taking walks around Rockland Lake, playing golf or taking their children to the park. (The lake and all golf courses were closed this week.)
“We’re doing what everybody else is doing,” said Yisroel Kahan of Monsey. “It’s just that when I go out in the park they say, there goes the Hasidic Jew disobeying the social-distancing order.”
Kahan, who works as a liaison between the Hasidic community and medical centers and law enforcement, said that part of the issue is posts like Day’s lauding police for issuing summonses. He said he would have preferred if the post had been framed as: “Over three days of holidays, hundreds of synagogues, tens of thousands of residents, we only found one synagogue with people praying.”
Day said that while he doesn’t think that Hasidic Jews are spreading the virus more than others, he does think that Hasidic Jews are violating-social distancing orders more.
“When the larger community of this county abides by the rules, and then you have other folks who are perceived not to be, that creates resentment, that creates anger,” he said.
Recalling his time as a police officer, when he knew that how he behaved would reflect on others wearing blue uniforms, he suggested that Hasidic Jews should understand that, because they dress similarly, their actions will be perceived as representing all Hasidic Jews.
“People should think about that, when they conduct themselves in their own lives, and realize that there are times, their actions will speak for an entire community,” he said.
‘It’s there, it’s nonstop’: In Facebook groups in Hasidic areas, Jews blamed for virus spread