This open letter from Rev. Dr. Andrew Bennett, Director of the Religious Freedom Institute’s North America Action Team, was delivered to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, expressing concerns that his actions as governor are placing religious freedom at risk in New York, particularly with regard to the Jewish community.
October 21, 2020
The Honorable Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor of New York State
NYS State Capitol Building
Albany, NY 12224
Dear Governor Cuomo:
I write as the Director of the North America Action Team of the Religious Freedom Institute, an organization devoted to defending religious freedom for all. We are very concerned that your actions as governor are placing religious freedom at risk in New York.
This week, a Facebook user posted a video of himself driving through Borough Park and screaming in a threatening manner at an Orthodox Jew walking down the sidewalk, talking on the phone. “Put your [expletive] mask on! There’s Covid cases! Hurry up! Put it on!” The Jewish man jumps in fear and complies.
The video has received thousands of likes and shares. Virtually every comment on the video consists of mockery of the Jewish man, and many scapegoat the Jewish community. One user wrote: “Yesss bro let those [expletive] know they the top reason we haven’t passed this covid [expletive].”
Governor Cuomo, you have repeatedly made the Orthodox Jewish community, and your critique of their level of compliance with Covid-19 restrictions, the subject of your public addresses. You have stated that “the issue is with that ultra-orthodox community.” Last week, you warned them: “If you’re not willing to live with these rules, then I’m going to close the synagogues.” You imposed new, severe restrictions on religious gatherings in Jewish neighborhoods in the midst of the Sukkot holiday. And now you have threatened to withhold funding for Jewish schools in those neighborhoods. In doing so, you speculated that Covid-19 persists in New York due to the influence on local government of “a lot of these Ultra-Orthodox communities, who are…very politically powerful.”
To speak frankly, your words and actions directed at the Orthodox Jewish community seem motivated by fear rather than evidence. That community has committed to observing social distancing guidelines for the preservation of the health of all. There is no scientific basis to conclude that the Orthodox Jewish community is the primary reason for the persistence of the Covid-19 epidemic in New York, but you are speaking and acting as if they are. With respect, Governor Cuomo, by targeting the Orthodox Jewish community with government action and confrontational public rhetoric, you are creating a public mood of hostility and scapegoating of the Orthodox Jews. In short, your comments are anti-Semitic and are fostering anti-Semitic attitudes towards Orthodox Jews in New York state.
History tells us that during times of fear and social instability, religious minorities suffer, and Jews understand this all too well. No one should fear to walk the streets of New York because of their religion. I urge you to treat the religious communities in your state with respect as partners and fellow citizens rather than as problems. And I urge you to use language in public that has the effect of promoting public order and harmony rather than hostility and scapegoating; to forgo government actions targeting Jewish neighborhoods and institutions; and to ensure that your actions in addressing the epidemic be based on empirical evidence rather than fear.
Rev. Dr. Andrew Bennett
Director, North America Action Team
Religious Freedom Institute
CC: Secretary to the Governor of New York; Governor’s Office of Faith-Based Community Development Services
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