On Wednesday, three Orthodox Jewish congregations in Rockland County, N.Y., sued Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) for issuing a “blatantly anti-Semitic” coronavirus order restricting religious services in Jewish areas, just before three sequential Jewish holy days. Cuomo falsely blamed the Orthodox Jewish community for a surge in COVID-19 cases in New York, referring to the surge as “a predominantly ultra-orthodox cluster,” and he admitted the lockdowns were based on “fear” rather than science.
According to the lawsuit, Cuomo’s October 6 executive order “is blatantly anti-Semitic, creating religious-observance based color coded ‘hot-spot’ zones directed towards particular Jewish communities.”
The order “not only flagantly flies in the face of scientific evidence and the Soos Injunction” — a legal injunction preventing New York from subjecting religious services to extra restrictions over secular gatherings — but it also “specifically singles out the orthodox Jewish community in what has proven to be the latest extension of Governor Cuomo’s streak of anti-Semitic discrimination.”
Rabbi Moshe Rosner (representing Congregation Yesheos Yakov in Monsey, N.Y.), Rabbi Samuel Teitelbaum (representing Congregation Oholei Shem D’Nitra in Spring Valley, N.Y.), and Rabbi Chaim Leibish Rotterberg (representing Congregation Nitzach Yisroel in Monsey, N.Y.) filed the lawsuit. Ron Coleman and Harmett Dhillon with Dhillon Law Group and the Center for American Liberty are representing them in court.
The lawsuit alleges that Cuomo violated: the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment, the Freedom of Assembly Clause of the First Amendment, the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Cuomo issued the order on October 6. It went into effect “no later than October 9,” the date of the sacred Jewish holy day of Hoshana Rabbah. The next two days are also holy days, Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah. The order singled out a “Red Cluster Zone” in Rockland County that includes 133 synagogues, 20 yeshivas, and 14 Jewish day schools. According to the Rockland County official dashboard, only 26 people in the county are currently hospitalized for COVID-19. Daily COVID-19 deaths have continued to decline since mid-April.
On October 5, the day before Cuomo issued the order, the governor said, “I have to say to the Orthodox community tomorrow, if you’re not willing to live with these rules, then I’m going to close the synagogues… I’m going to say to the Orthodox community tomorrow, if you don’t agree, then we will have to close down your religious institutions. If the religious leaders do not agree to abide by these rules then we will close the religious institutions, period.”
In an October 6 phone call with Jewish leaders, Cuomo admitted, “This is not a highly nuanced, sophisticated response, this is a fear-driven response, this is not a policy being written by a scalpel, this is a policy being cut by a hatchet, it’s just a very blunt.” He attempted to blame New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for the fear-driven response, but then admitted that he worked with de Blasio in adjusting it.
“It’s not the best way to do it, but it is a fear-driven response, the virus scares people, hopefully we get the numbers down in the zip codes, the anxiety comes down, and then we can have a smarter, more tailored approach,” the governor added. “Hopefully we get it under control in a few weeks, people take a deep breath, and then we can have a more intelligent, sophisticated policy.”
The rabbis cited this gobsmacking admission in their lawsuit.
They also explained the vital importance of religious gatherings in Orthodox Judaism.
“Orthodox Jewish men have a strict religious obligation to engage in three daily prayer services on every weekday – one each in the morning, afternoon and night – and four on the Sabbath and most festival days. These prayers were ordained to correspond to the public sacrificial offerings ordained in the Torah and which in ancient times were brought in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem,” the lawsuit explains.
Cuomo’s attacks on the Jewish community proved particularly painful for residents of Monsey — where two of the congregations are based — after a man invaded a Hanukkah celebration last December and stabbed or slashed five people in the city, the lawsuit adds. The suspect, Grafton Thomas, is awaiting trial after pleading not guilty.
New York officials have repeatedly singled out Jews in a disgusting double standard on coronavirus restrictions. While protesters and rioters ran rampant on the streets of the Big Apple at night, de Blasio had police disperse Jewish mothers and their children from a playground in broad daylight.
The mayor also repeatedly singled out Jews for COVID-19 warnings.
“My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed. 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,” he tweeted in April.
My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed. 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.
— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) April 29, 2020
In May, de Blasio sent officers to break up outdoor funerals for rabbis where the mourners were masked.
When members of the Jewish community protested the new lockdowns early this month, de Blasio announced he would not tolerate unrest, a marked departure from his lax attitude toward the George Floyd protests and the destructive riots they spawned.
It is high time for these rabbis to fight back, and Dhillon and Coleman will handle the case well.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.