Ultra-Orthodox Power Grows in Brooklyn
All politics is local, as Tip O’Neill famously said, and it turns out this is especially true among the ultra-Orthodox. Observers had wondered if American haredim would have any detectable response in New York’s September 10 Democratic primary to the much-publicized sexual antics of candidates Anthony Weiner (for mayor) and Eliot Spitzer (for city comptroller). Apparently not. At press time, though courted by both candidates, the community seemed focused on two seamy policy priorities of its own. One is the degree of willingness candidates express to block regulation of metzitzah b’peh (MBP), a controversial circumcision practice with shocking health implications; the other, the reelection of a district attorney widely seen as soft on haredi sex offenders.
Haredim in Brooklyn and in New York’s other boroughs have pressed candidates to reverse the minimal health measure imposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg on MBP, the direct mouth-to-penis suction done (primarily) by haredi mohels after they cut off the baby’s foreskin. MBP can transmit the virus for herpes simplex 1 (HSV-1). Because neonates have weaker immune systems, they run the risk of becoming severely ill, and once infected they carry—and transmit—the virus for the rest of their lives. MBP-transmitted HSV-1 infections have caused at least two deaths and one case of severe brain damage in the city over the past decade and put other babies in the hospital for days or even weeks. A documented history of MBP-related deaths and epidemics stretches back to the early 1800s.
After years in which haredi rabbinic leaders promised to self-regulate and didn’t, New York City instituted a requirement that parents sign an informed consent document before MBP is done on their baby. Haredi rabbinic leaders responded with outrage, labeling Bloomberg everything from a Nazi to a self-hating Jew. They also filed suit against the city in federal court, alleging that the city’s informed consent requirement was a violation of their right to practice their religion freely.
The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that freedom of religion does not mean religious groups can put children at risk. Noted appellate attorney Nathan Lewin, who has successfully argued many freedom of religion cases for the Orthodox and haredi communities, recently told the haredi news website Vos Iz Neias (VIN) that he turned down the MBP case because it is “not unreasonable, even in the area of religious observance, for the city to require parents to sign a form that says that their eight-day-old baby can have this controversial procedure performed . . .[it] falls within the kinds of things that are ordinarily regulated even if there is a religious duty attached.”
Haredi rabbis have pursued the suit anyway. Meanwhile, though, they have extracted promises from all the mayoral candidates—except, to her credit, Christine Quinn—that, if elected, they would find ways to mitigate or even cancel the informed consent requirement.
The other notable haredi behavior this election has been the community’s continued loyalty to 79-year-old Kings County (Brooklyn) district attorney Charles Hynes, challenged in the primary by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Thompson. Hynes has been criticized for years for his deep ties to haredi rabbis and his alleged resulting reluctance to prosecute haredi crimes, particularly sex offenses. Lately he has been hit by scandal after scandal—from fundraising quirks, to patronage positions in his office, to an Orthodox prosecutor in one of those patronage positions making appointments with hookers from his office phone, to an allegedly corrupt prosecutor who has been castigated by judges for withholding exculpatory evidence from defendants.
Hynes’s opponent was endorsed by the city’s largest union, the entire Brooklyn Congressional delegation and powerful haredi State Assemblyman Dov Hikind. (Because of the way New York ballots work, Hynes can run in the general election on the Republican line regardless of the primary’s outcome.) Even so, at press time, Hynes remained the Brooklyn haredi rabbis’ favorite. City Councilman David Greenfield, long seen as a mouthpiece for haredi rabbinic groups, warned haredim that Thompson, who is African American, was an anti-Semite who would “target Jews.” Greenfield made the remark with Hynes at his side, surrounded by supportive haredi leaders.
Critics say haredi leaders support Hynes because he under-prosecutes haredi criminals in return for haredi bloc votes. The two supposed exceptions—Hynes’s prosecution of accused pedophile Rabbi Baruch Mordechai Lebovits in 2010 and of Satmar counselor Nechemya Weberman last year—both actually support that claim. The Lebovits conviction was overturned on appeal on a technicality, while Hynes spent much more effort and publicity bringing extortion charges against whistleblower Samuel Kellner, who had brought Lebovits’s alleged victims to the district attorney.
Weberman, convicted of sexually abusing a young girl from ages 12 to 16, got a lengthy jail term. But not before the victim and her family had withstood an onslaught of harassment, intimidation and apparent witness tampering from within their Satmar community—actions that Hynes has failed to prosecute with any vigor. None of the four Satmar Hasidim arrested for coercion, bribery and related crimes in this case will serve any prison time.
Traditionally, haredi voting patterns don’t reflect candidates’ views on specific issues but rather the rabbinic leaders’ sense of the candidates’ loyalty. They convey this judgment to their followers by the way they receive candidates who come calling. This election is no exception, despite the sleaze. A well-connected Hasid told me recently that all Brooklyn politicians are bad, Hynes included, and dirty deals happen; but Hynes isn’t the worst, and he’s been our friend, so why change now? Hynes, of course, doesn’t see it that way. He attributes his widespread support from haredi rabbis as a reward for his good outreach skills—and to his childhood stint as a Brooklyn neighborhood “Shabbos goy.”
Shmarya Rosenberg blogs at failedmessiah.com