Temperatures Rising Quickly

Around the world, clashes between religious groups and civil authorities are rapidly escalating in response to the Coronavirus-related shutdowns and policies. As Mark and I noted in our most recent podcast, one of the problematic features of these conflicts is that they become more acute just as the earliest and most extensive shutdown policies begin to ease. Once we enter the period of discretionary decision-making, the unity in the face of danger that we saw in the earliest period of the crisis begins to fragment, and the old fault lines reappear.

See, for example, this stunning video taken a few days ago of a priest officiating a Mass in Gallignano, Italy, who was confronted several times by a policeman at the behest of the local mayor and ordered to cease the Mass, disperse the congregants, and put on a mask.

By the priest’s telling, there were 14 people in the church at the time, well spread out. The priest tells the policeman, “All right, I’ll pay the fine, or whatever there is to pay.” The priest goes on several times to decry the abuse of power of the local government. Italy, I am informed by my friends and colleagues, has decided on a date certain to reopen several parts of the country, including museums. Not so for churches. But the public-health related reasons for the political decision to distinguish between churches and museums have not been made plain.

See also the new decision by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to arrest those who violate the social distancing rules. Yet the way the Mayor put it in the following tweet yesterday seems to single out “the Jewish community” as somehow specially subject to the order. Or perhaps it’s religious groups generally.

I have seen images on the news of Orthodox Jewish groups congregating in Brooklyn. But I have also seen images of people gathering to watch airplanes flying around, congregating in parks, and not keeping to the social distancing rules in other public places like stores and subways. Yet the mayor didn’t see fit to single out these communities as specially problematic and perhaps specially subject to the new arrest policy. There are other controversies, too, that–whether they ultimately turn out to be justified criticisms of the mayor or not–contribute to the heightening anger and sense of unfairness.

UPDATE: When I posted, I had not seen this New York Times story, which contains the following response to de Blasio’s tweet:

Chaim Deutsch, a City Council member who represents a section of Brooklyn with a large Orthodox Jewish population, expressed anger and disbelief on Twitter, writing, “This has to be a joke.”

“Did the Mayor of NYC really just single out one specific ethnic community (a community that has been the target of increasing hate crimes in HIS city) as being noncompliant??” Mr. Deutsch wrote. “Has he been to a park lately? (What am I saying – of course he has!)”

I do not say that these policies and political judgments are not justified. They may well be necessary. But political decisions about who gets to “reopen” and who does not, or who gets targeted for arrest and who does not (decisions that are said by politicians to depend on that all-powerful modern criterion, “health”) will come under increasing scrutiny in the coming weeks and months and are likely to be the subject of increasing anger. It’s a dangerous moment, in my view.

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