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A subway mask ban won’t fight antisemitism, but it will punish immunocompromised Jews like me

New York governor Kathy Hochul has raised the possibility of reinstating a mask ban in the subway after masked pro-Palestinian demonstrators threatened Jews

When I heard the news this week that New York Governor Kathy Hochul proposed a plan to ban masking in the New York City subway with the absurd claim that this public health measure endangers Jews, I was immediately brought back to the two weeks of isolation I spent with my second COVID-19 infection in November 2023. I contracted the virus at a hospital in New York, where masks haven’t been required since Hochul allowed mask mandates to expire last year. Only one of the three health care workers who treated me wore a mask.

The subsequent two weeks of isolation were the most alone I’ve ever felt in my life. I struggled to obtain at-home treatment. The NYC COVID-19 hotline worker wanted me to come to the hospital for infusions but I couldn’t get out of bed. Another doctor told me I couldn’t risk another hospital-acquired infection. I could hardly talk and struggled to breathe. Until I was finally able to access antiviral medication, I barely slept, worried about what would happen if I stopped breathing in my sleep.

I’m 29 years old, Jewish and disabled, struggling to find a cardiologist who will wear a mask while I seek treatment for a heart condition that gives me the cardiovascular health of someone in their 60s. Antisemitism is too often used as the excuse to condemn and suppress activists or campaigns, allegedly in the name of Jewish safety. And now, antisemitism is being used by the governor of New York as the excuse to ban masks.

It’s important we take real antisemitism seriously when we encounter it. It is equally important that we speak out against people in power who use false or bad-faith accusations for their own political gain.

Hochul’s argument is that banning masks will reduce instances of antisemitic harassment, because people will be less able to hide their faces. However, the incident that precipitated this announcement, in which an unmasked protester shouted that Zionists should get off the train, makes clear how flimsy the governor’s logic is. This proposed ban is not about combating antisemitism, but about the appearance of taking action against antisemitism. It’s nothing more than a political ploy.

Antisemitism isolates Jews, dividing us from our neighbors and making us the target of anger and condemnation. So, too, do bad-faith or false accusations of antisemitism, which also serve to divide Jews from other marginalized groups and liberation movements. I’ve read countless articles in Jewish and mainstream press positioning social justice organizing — Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, bail reform, and of course, any expression of Palestinian solidarity — in opposition to Jews (despite the active involvement of Jews in all of these causes). 

I’ve experienced a lot of antisemitism in my life. As a student at the University of Chicago during the Trump administration, my campus was regularly the site of Nazi recruitment posters that would go up overnight. Antisemitic, anti-Black and homophobic slurs were occasionally graffitied along with them.

I’ve also experienced antisemitism in progressive movement spaces. I’ve met (usually white) leftists who, while fighting against income inequality and the one percent, regurgitate conspiracy theories about banks and “the Rothchilds.” Antisemitism is a very real problem across the political spectrum, but banning masks to supposedly prevent hate crimes is not the solution. 

Contrary to what Hochul and New York City Mayor Eric Adams — who is a “strong supporter” of the proposal to ban masks “on our subway system, masks in protest and masks in other areas where it’s not health-related” — will tell you, I wear my mask on the subway every time I take it to protect my health, not just traveling en route to protests. For immunocompromised people like me, every situation where we wear masks is “health-related.”

Since first getting COVID-19 in March 2020, my symptoms from a number of chronic illnesses have worsened every time I develop an acute illness. When I breathe in too much bad air, such as concentrations of hazardous metals in the subway or toxins from Canadian wildfires that made their way to New York last summer, I get a fever, break out in hives, experience violent vomiting and have to spend several weeks recovering in bed.

When my heart is overexerted from exercise, stress or carbon dioxide exposure (subway cars routinely measure over 2000 ppm, and healthy air is between 400-900 ppm), I faint. I end up fainting a lot. I take 16 medications a day and pay $400 out of pocket to see one of 10 specialists in the country who is knowledgeable about my conditions.

It takes so much effort to try to maintain my health as an immunocompromised person, and it’s disappointing that any lessons as a society we might have learned from the coronavirus pandemic have been completely disregarded ahead of what the former director of the Centers for Disease Control Robert Redfield predicts will be an avian flu pandemic. I wish I weren’t so often the only one masking on the subway, and it’s terrifying to contemplate a total ban on masks.

We do need to tackle antisemitism in our movements and society at large. We need to focus on preventing hate through bystander intervention training, educating our neighbors and our elected officials on how to identify antisemitism, and building safety through solidarity with other marginalized New Yorkers.

Criminalizing masks will not decrease antisemitism and will negatively impact Jews and other minorities in New York. Black and brown New Yorkers who are disproportionately stopped by police, disabled New Yorkers who need to protect ourselves from illness, Palestinian solidarity activists who face a real risk of professional retaliation for simply attending a protest and Jewish New Yorkers will all bear the brunt of this ban. The Jewish community itself is already the face of the looming police harassment and health crisis that a mask ban would enable. Social media is filled with posts that the “Zionists” are to blame for the mask ban and that “Israel” told New York politicians to institute this policy. 

Despite her claim that this reckless measure is in service of Jewish New Yorkers, Governor Hochul’s mask ban not only endangers our health alongside our neighbors — it puts a target on our backs. 

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