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Jewish Americans Say They Are Scapegoated For The Coronavirus Spread


Some of the first New Yorkers to contract the coronavirus were Jewish. In the weeks that followed, several Jewish weddings and funerals violated public health orders. And then came the backlash. Here's Matt Katz of our member station WNYC.

MATT KATZ, BYLINE: As soon as Yaacov Behrman got engaged in early March, a family friend pulled him aside and said...

YAACOV BEHRMAN: Get married and do it fast because we don't know what's going to happen.

KATZ: Coronavirus was on the march. And so the following Sunday, Yaacov and Shevi Behrman were married in a backyard wedding in Brooklyn with two witnesses, a rabbi, only a few siblings and no cousins but 2,800 people watching socially distanced dancing on Facebook Live.


KATZ: Behrman sacrificed the big wedding for the greater good. But in a series of high-profile incidents, not all religious Jews like himself have done the same, with police in Brooklyn breaking up several large Orthodox Jewish funerals and weddings. This cellphone video shows officers using bullhorns to disperse crowds.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Everybody go home. It is finished.

KATZ: After one such funeral, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted that the, quote, "Jewish community" must follow social distancing rules. The fact that the mayor singled out Jews drew condemnation, especially since images abound of bikini-clad young people lounging in groups in New York parks throughout this pandemic. People of all kinds are not abiding by health restrictions, Behrman says.

BEHRMAN: I think that's also what's so painful and upsetting about the mayor's tweet 'cause the vast majority of Orthodox Jews have given up - I gave up a wedding. What are you generalizing for, Mr. Mayor?

KATZ: Orthodox Jews have been scapegoated elsewhere during the pandemic as well. In Lakewood, N.J., a local news station reported that a bus was carrying children to a Jewish school illegally opened. Turns out, the bus was just delivering food to homebound families. In nearby Jackson Township, town council president Barry Calogero made a speech at a council meeting indicating that Judaism itself made Jews recalcitrant when it comes to following the rules.


BARRY CALOGERO: Unfortunately, there are groups of people who hide behind cultures or religious beliefs and put themselves, our first responders and, quite honestly, all of Jackson at risk

KATZ: Calogero denied his statement was anti-Semitic, but after criticism, he resigned days later, citing health reasons. Others have faced coronavirus backlash. Hate crimes against Asian Americans are on the rise. But Bari Weiss, author of the book "How To Fight Anti-Semitism" and a New York Times opinion writer, says Jews have been uniquely scapegoated over centuries for spreading plagues. Rats may have brought the Black Death to Europe in the 1300s...

BARI WEISS: But rats weren't blamed. Jews were blamed, and there was something like massacres in 60 Jewish communities across Europe.

KATZ: When all Jewish people are negatively lumped together, that's dangerous for those who publicly wear traditional Orthodox garb, like black hats for men and long dresses for women. Especially since even before the virus, anti-Semitic hate crimes were at historic highs.

WEISS: In any moment, but especially in this one, I think that our public officials need to be incredibly careful about the kind of language that they use.

KATZ: The Anti-Defamation League reports that community Facebook groups are now loaded with false claims that Jews are spreading the virus, calling for them to be fire-hosed, tear-gassed, denied medical care. One New Jersey man who sent threatening Facebook messages was even charged with a crime - making terroristic threats during a state of emergency.

For NPR News, I'm Matt Katz.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIAM THOMAS' "NEEDED LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Matt Katz