The limits of protest


The sometimes violent protests last week in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park were disturbing. Although the communal frustration that prompted the reaction may have been fueled by poor or misleading communications by New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo, much of the graphically reported response was upsetting. Simply stated, the lapses of public officials did not justify the chilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name) that followed from a small, violent part of the community.

We understand the frustration of the tigt-knit and insular Orthodox communities, which have been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and which chafe at what are perceived as unduly harsh restrictions that medical and government authorities feel necessary to control the spread of the coronavirus. And we recognize the significant value members of those communities place on collective prayer, in-person yeshiva and other Torah study activity, large wedding celebrations and the public honor of communal mourning at funeral services. But none of that justifies putting lives in danger or outright criminal behavior.

What is clear from numerous reports is that Gov. Cuomo blindsided the haredi community when he first told the leadership in an Oct. 6 conference call that if “community leaders enforced the 50% [occupancy] guideline, shuls would not be closed,” and then shortly thereafter announced that synagogues and other houses of worship in coronavirus “hotspots” would be limited to a maximum of 10 people, and that nonessential businesses in those areas would be closed. All of that after an earlier announcement that schools in hotspots would be closed.

Cuomo’s sleight of hand in the midst of the Sukkot holiday, and two short days before the festive Simchat Torah holiday, offended and frustrated the community, leading to demonstrations that turned violent and included burning masks and attacks on innocent bystanders — including journalist Jacob Kornbluh, a Chasidic national politics reporter for The Jewish Insider, who was attacked and labeled a “snitch” for his reports on the protests and apparent sympathy toward the regulatory restrictions.

Reactions to the violence within the haredi community were mixed. While some condemned and discouraged it in clear terms, others sought to justify the reaction and to rally more unrest. We condemn the “leaders” who promoted more violence.

There are legitimate means for protest, and many in the haredi community sought to pursue them, including an emergency application to the federal court to protect threatened religious rights and to enjoin the governor’s restrictions. That application was denied.

We regularly remind ourselves of our charge to be a light unto the nations. That responsibility encompasses every aspect of our public, communal lives, and is supposed to inform what we do and how we do it, even when it comes to protecting the free exercise of religion. Orderly, respectful and forceful protest is fine. Violence is not. We encourage our community to act as a beacon of light in these dark times — not by burning masks, but through the light of the Torah.

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