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People want answers. They crave certainty amid chaos. But for a year filled with tremendous upheaval and so much newness, there have been notably few questions — and that’s a problem.
In pre-pandemic days, New Yorkers knew that Governor Andrew Cuomo was an abrasive bully, intolerant of those who didn’t share his political beliefs. Yet Cuomo’s eagerness to take charge matched the moment back in March. Cuomo comforted those nervous about COVID-19 by communicating clearly at his daily press conferences.
Seven months later, though, the picture is different. It’s clear that too much power has been ceded to Governor Cuomo. Not only have state legislators provided the governor with “nearly unchecked power,” but the media have too. Events now follow an all-too-familiar script. Consider, for example, the story surrounding the Satmar Hasidic wedding in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on Monday night. Governor Cuomo said something, reporters accepted it, and a negative narrative about New York’s Orthodox Jews took hold.
If you read or watch the New York Times, The Hill, New York’s NBC 4, ABC News, the Daily Beast, the Miami Herald, Britain’s Daily Mail, Australia’s Business Insider or countless other outlets, you may have heard “that upwards of 10,000 people were expected to attend” the wedding of the Grand Rebbe’s grandson. However, there are many questions that should have been asked — and indeed appear to have gone unasked — before Cuomo publicly blasted New York’s Satmar Hasidic community, and before the international media broadcast the story far and wide.
To recap, on Saturday, while Orthodox Jews were unplugged for the Sabbath, Cuomo told the media, “We received a suggestion that [an enormous wedding] was happening. We did an investigation and found that it was likely true.”
While some unquestioningly accept the governor’s remarks, I, for one, would like to know more about this investigation and the related activities.
For starters, is nobody else curious about — or perhaps troubled by — the decision to deliver the “Section 16 order prohibiting the mass gathering” on Friday evening? New York’s leaders know that Orthodox Jews are indisposed starting at sundown on Friday, when the Sabbath begins. So, when exactly did state authorities learn about this wedding?
Next, the government’s source was someone with known animus toward New York’s Haredi community who has since acknowledged in an op-ed that he had “other motivations” beyond saving lives. Did no one on the governor’s staff think it important to be absolutely certain of the facts before discussing this wedding so publicly?
Did anyone ask a Yiddish speaker to translate the public wedding invitation? It included a box — in red — that read: “Please follow all of the regulations from the health department scrupulously; they will be strictly enforced.” That this health notice appeared in Yiddish, a language all invited guests would speak, implies that this wasn’t virtue signaling.
As for logistics, the synagogue in question could never hold a crowd of 10,000, as Satmar leader Rabbi Moshe Dovid Niederman explained to Cuomo during a Sunday call, published in the Orthodox daily Hamodia. The hosting congregation even published a statement explaining that “this wedding was designed differently,” because of COVID-19. So, only “a small circle of close family members” were expected to attend the ceremony and celebratory meal. The statement also noted that “unwarranted attacks on this event” were “detached from the facts” before remarking, “It’s sad that nobody verified our plans before attacking us.”
Americans Against Antisemitism founder Dov Hikind considered that statement credible. During a call, he asked rhetorically, “Are the Satmar so out of their minds that they’re planning a wedding with 10,000 or even 1,000, and TV cameras would’ve been down there? It would have been a disaster.”
Another nagging question remains: Why didn’t Cuomo just call Satmar leaders? On Sunday’s call, Cuomo described knowing Rabbi Niederman for “over 20 years.” Given that, Cuomo could easily have buzzed Niederman to fact-check. Hikind commented, “Why didn’t the governor pick up the phone before making it into a national story? That’s being sensitive? That’s not being a friend.” A friend would inquire directly. Further, if anything in the original wedding plans didn’t fully comply with state health guidelines, a friend would offer private guidance on how to remedy shortcomings.
Cuomo’s response to Niederman during Sunday’s call truly stands out, though: “In this crazy world, everything gets blown out of proportion. And you’re right, the press comes to me, they ask me a question, with an asserted fact in it. ‘There is a wedding that’s gonna have 10,000 people, how can you let that happen?’ They assert the fact, and then it’s hard to say to the reporter, ‘Well, I don’t know if you, if that’s true or not.’ And I understand that things are said.”
But Cuomo clearly accepted the premise of a large wedding taking place, and his words have had consequences. Reporters descended on Williamsburg on Monday, something locals did not appreciate. Further, harassment and anti-Semitic graffiti continue apace for New York’s Orthodox Jews, as does the cementing of the dangerous narrative that Orthodox Jews deserve unique blame for COVID-19’s spread.
If New York is to conquer COVID-19, there must be universal compliance with public-health guidelines. However, public officials must simultaneously demonstrate true leadership. In Governor Cuomo’s case, that includes ending his recent, troubling pattern of singling out New York’s Orthodox Jewish community. Perhaps he could start by publicly taking responsibility for the response that launched a thousand nasty news stories.