As of last week, there were 704 documented cases of measles in the United States thus far in 2019, amid the largest outbreak of the virus in decades. Two-thirds of those cases have been reported in the Rockland County and Brooklyn areas of New York City, where many ultra-Orthodox Jews live. At least nine Jewish schools or daycares have been ordered shut for violating a citywide emergency order making vaccinations mandatory.
These facts are indisputable, but they don’t tell the entire story. According to the New York State Health Department, the average vaccination rates for measles at 200 Jewish schools in Brooklyn is 96 per cent – six points higher than the average for private schools across the state. So while it is correct to note that the current measles outbreak is significantly connected to ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York, it is entirely wrong to link the rising number of cases to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community at large.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that some people would look to pin the spread of a virus on the Jews – it certainly wouldn’t be the first time. But in New York City, ultra-Orthodox Jews have even more reason to be concerned.
On May 4, a Shabbat, an ultra-Orthodox man was walking in Williamsburg when someone walked up to him and punched him in the face. Another assailant shouted anti-Semitic slurs at the man, who was wearing the traditional shtreimel and bekeshe of many ultra-Orthodox Jews. A few days later, a Hasidic man was punched in the back of the head, reportedly by a Hispanic attacker. In the video of the assault, you can see the Jewish man walking down the street when the apparently younger attacker appears on screen and cold-cocks him. The previous week, a 42-year-old ultra-Orthodox man was assaulted in Williamsburg by four men who punched him in the face while yelling “We hate Jews.” In a subsequent interview, the victim described experiencing “terrible pain on the teeth and on the eyes.”
The trend is undeniable. Anti-Semitic attacks against New York’s ultra-Orthodox Jews are becoming de rigueur. For months now, new stories about someone being insulted, punched, spit at, choked, chased down the street have been reported at an alarming pace. According to the New York police department, hate crimes in that city are up 67 per cent in the first quarter of this year. Out of 145 incidents so far in 2019, 82 were anti-Semitic. That’s an 82 per cent increase over last year.
Outside the Jewish community, these stories are rarely reported. One reason may be that those attacking New York’s ultra-Orthodox Jews don’t necessarily fit a specific type – rather, they come from all sorts of backgrounds and have all sorts of different skin colours. That kind of heterogeneity, some commentators have argued, does not conveniently fit into the easy, binary narratives of our times.
But really it’s quite simple: ultra-Orthodox Jews are being assaulted by anti-Semites for being ultra-Orthodox Jews. You can’t get any more binary than that. It’s hard not to wonder whether any other religious or ethnic groups would get the same sort of silent treatment were they to experience similar strife. The silence is deafening.