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Tensions between police and members of New York City’s Hasidic Jewish community flared again Thursday as officers interrupted a crowded funeral procession to crack down on social distancing violators.
Video posted on social media showed officers in protective masks chasing a minivan through Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood as it carried the body of a deceased rabbi. The officers can be heard shouting at dozens of people marching behind the van to get out of the street and onto the sidewalk.
A 17-year-old boy was taken into custody and issued a summons for disorderly conduct after he was accused of pushing a police official, according to a police spokeswoman, Sgt. Mary Frances O’Donnell.
Thursday’s confrontation came two days after Mayor Bill de Blasio stoked divisions with a series of tweets after he went to Brooklyn to oversee the dispersal of thousands of people who crowded the streets of Williamsburg for the funeral of another rabbi.
New York has banned any gatherings, of any size, for any purpose as the coronavirus has been linked to at least 18,000 deaths in the city in just a few weeks.
De Blasio called the large gathering “absolutely unacceptable” in one tweet and wrote in another: “my message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed.”
The mayor called the incident “absolutely unacceptable” and said that he has allowed the NYPD to start issuing summonses or even start making arrests for those not cooperating at such events. On Wednesday he said he was sorry if anyone took his words the wrong way and insisted they were “tough love” meant to help avoid more deaths.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, sent a letter to Attorney General Bill Barr on Thursday urging the Justice Department “to closely monitor New York City” for potential religious discrimination in the wake of de Blasio’s tweets.
State Senator Simcha Felder, who represents Borough Park, posted a tweet after Thursday’s confrontation saying “terrorizing people by sending in armies of cops during such stressful times is not helpful at all. @NYCMayor – we need real leadership. Stop the chaos now.”
Dov Hikind, a former state assemblyman who’s the founder of a group fighting anti-Semitism, said he’s been assured that de Blasio ordered the police department to crack down on social distancing violations across the city, not just in the Jewish community.
He said he’s requested data from City Hall to make sure that’s true.
Still, the former lawmaker said de Blasio’s singling out of Jews in his tweets “crossed every line.”
“It encourages anti-Semitism and scapegoating of the Jewish community,” Hikind said. “The mayor played right into the hands of the anti-Semites. I know that was not his intention. I know he’s a decent guy. He didn’t have the decency to just say the simple words, ‘I’m sorry I made a mistake.'”
Billionaire businessman and activist Ronald Lauder said Wednesday that the World Jewish Congress would move to censure De Blasio for his remarks. Lauder said the gathering was inappropriate but said the mayor’s remarks had gone too far.
Borough Park, where Thursday’s funeral was held, has had at least 2,300 people test positive for the virus, according to city data. That’s the sixth most of any ZIP code in the city.
Hikind said people violating social distancing rules in Brooklyn are relatively small in number and are behaving in ways that goes against Judaism’s central tenant of preserving life.
“I’ve begged and pleaded with the minority that exists within our community that don’t give a darn — don’t give a damn — about themselves, their families or the community,” Hikind said.
“You can’t have funerals with hundreds of people. You can’t have people praying in synagogues. You can’t do those things when people’s lives are on the line. It violates everything in Judaism,” he continued.
As for Tuesday’s incident that sparked some of the ill-feelings toward de Blasio, the synagogue that held the gathering issued an apology for the crowds of thousands of people who lined the streets for the local rabbi’s funeral.
Twelve people were issued summonses for violating social distancing orders and failure to disperse in that gathering, according to NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea, who spoke out against the event that he said put “cops’ lives at risk.”
The funeral on Tuesday was held for Rabbi Chaim Mertz, who died at 73 from COVID-19 — one of the city’s over 12,500 deaths from the highly contagious virus that has forced nearly the entire country into quarantine.
His synagogue released a statement Wednesday saying they had a plan in place for mourners to pay respects while observing social distance and rules. They apologized if things didn’t work out that way, but said it “hurts” that the Jewish community was singled out. They also said they did not believe Mayor Bill de Blasio’s statements were ill-intentioned.
“We understand Mayor Bill de Blasio’s frustration and his speaking out against the gathering. As said, we thought that the procession will be in accordance with the rules, and we apologize that it turned out otherwise,” said Jacob Mertz, a spokesperson for the local synagogue.
Crowds of Hasidic men and women were packed tightly onto sidewalks and in the streets for the funeral, some wearing masks — but all other social distancing measures were completely disregarded, pictures posted on Twitter showed.
However, with the mayor’s criticism aimed directly at “the Jewish community,” advocates fear there is a double standard in how social distancing measures are being enforced around the city. Others called out the mayor for singling out Jews, or lumping all members of the faith in with a small minority who belong to the sect and participated in Tuesday’s funeral.
The Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council said de Blasio failed to enforce social distancing when it came to the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels flyover earlier in the day, an event that brought people out of their homes and in common areas to watch.