02:04 - Source: CNN
De Blasio condemns large crowd in controversial tweet
New York CNN  — 

Hours after issuing stern warnings broadly to “the Jewish community” in the wake of a large Hasidic funeral gathering in Brooklyn Tuesday night that resulted in a dozen summonses, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio apologized for his language, but said he had “no regrets about calling out this danger.”

“If in my passion and in my emotion, I said something that in any way was hurtful, I’m sorry about that,” de Blasio, a Democrat, said at a Wednesday news conference. “That was not my intention. But I also want to be clear: I have no regrets about calling out this danger and saying we’re going to deal with it very, very aggressively.”

The mayor drew criticism from Jewish leaders and others for a series of tweets he sent Tuesday night after he and New York Police Department Commissioner Dermot Shea took the unusual step of personally visiting the scene of a funeral for a prominent rabbi in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, home to an ultra-orthodox sect of Jews known as the Satmars.

Although community leaders had coordinated with the NYPD to have police on location to monitor social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic, the crowd quickly grew to “several thousand people” crammed into one block, Shea said, and video obtained by CNN showed dense groups of people, some without face masks, gathered on the streets.

The mayor and police commissioner were visibly frustrated as they discussed the illegal gathering – both noting that actions in the community were putting lives in danger including those of city police officers.

“We’re here to protect human beings and people were put in danger last night,” de Blasio said. “Members of the Jewish community were putting each other in danger. They were putting our police officers in danger.”

Ongoing issue comes to a head

Controversy over the mayor’s remarks threatened to detract from the underlying issue, which is that large gatherings, particularly connected to funerals, have been a persistent source of tension in certain Orthodox Jewish communities.

Earlier this month, police used sirens and played social distancing messages over their public-announcement system in another Brooklyn neighborhood, Borough Park, to break up a large gathering for a Hasidic funeral that did not follow social distancing guidelines, CNN reported.

At a news conference two weeks ago, the mayor said he would send police to a synagogue, also in Borough Park, after a reporter told him the location had failed to enforce social distancing policies.

In the case of the funeral Tuesday for Rabbi Chaim Maertz, police learned about his death that afternoon, around 3:30 pm ET, according to the police commissioner, and “within minutes” they were in touch with clergy liaisons and members of the community to formulate a plan for the expected gathering.

Police anticipated that about 5,000 people might attend, according to a senior NYPD official, so they set up barriers to deter people from congregating near the synagogue and played a social distancing message over their public-announcement system.

Despite their efforts, about 2,500 people arrived to mourn the rabbi, in a scene de Blasio called “deeply, deeply distressing.” Video of the event shows hundreds of adults and what appear to be children milling about the streets, as police attempt to get them to disperse. Police ultimately issued 12 criminal court summonses, including seven for violation of the mayor’s executive order on social distancing and five for disorderly conduct related to failure to disperse.

Though the city doesn’t break down coronavirus-related data by religion, it has put targeted resources into outreach programs that focus on the Orthodox community, including robocalls that have gone out in Yiddish and Hebrew and Passover ads in community newspapers.

Where de Blasio went wrong

“My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed,” de Blasio tweeted afterward. “I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups. This is about stopping this disease and saving lives. Period.”

The mayor’s broad reference to “the Jewish community,” in which he didn’t differentiate between these smaller, particular sects and the wider community of more secularized Jews, sparked backlash Wednesday.

Ronald Lauder, the cosmetics billionaire and president of the World Jewish Congress, said he would convene the group’s leadership to “formally censure” the mayor.

“Last night, the Mayor painted the Jewish community as lawbreakers and unconcerned about the city’s public health,” Lauder said. “This type of horrible stereotyping is dangerous and completely unacceptable at any time, but particularly while the world is gripped in fear and the worst among us are looking for scapegoats.”

And Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt accused de Blasio of over-generalizing his criticism. “Hey @NYCMayor, there are 1mil+ Jewish people in #NYC. The few who don’t social distance should be called out — but generalizing against the whole population is outrageous especially when so many are scapegoating Jews,” Greenblatt tweeted. “This erodes the very unity our city needs now more than ever.”

Some prominent voices in New York politics, however, defended the mayor from some of the harshest criticism, saying his language, though perhaps unfairly sweeping, didn’t deserve to be labeled as anti-Semitic.

“Have known @NYCMayor for over 20 years,” said Howard Wolfson, a longtime political strategist and deputy mayor under de Blasio’s predecessor, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, tweeted Wednesday. “We’ve disagreed a lot and his tweet was offensively worded. But the idea that he is anti Semitic is totally absurd and deeply unfair.”

New York City Councilman David G. Greenfield said the mayor’s remarks had “crossed the line and seemed to blame ALL Jews (!) for all social distancing problems in NYC,” but called any suggestion of anti-Semitism on the mayor’s part “absurd.” “[He]’s been one of the most responsive Mayor’s to the entire spectrum of NY’s Jewish community,” Greenfield said.

Though de Blasio encountered some initial difficulty with New York City’s Orthodox community over a circumcision policy early in his first term, he has since enjoyed significant support in what is considered an important voting bloc. In his news conference Wednesday, he spoke about that relationship, saying, “for decades I’ve made it my business to stand up for the Jewish community, and people know that. Won’t tolerate anti-Semitism, won’t allow it to grow in the city.”

And while the mayor offered an apology for his language, he reiterated his concern about the Hasidic community. “My message was to all communities, and that was written in black and white,” he said.

“But it was also to be clear that what I saw I had not seen anywhere else, and I was trying to be honest about the fact that this is a problem that people have to come to grips with and deal with, or else people in the community will die.”

CNN’s Pervaiz Shallwani contributed to this report.