Ultra-Orthodox Power Grows in Brooklyn: Some New York Politicians Bend over Backwards to Accommodate Hasidic Demands

By Rosenberg, Shmarya | Moment, September-October 2013 | Go to article overview

Ultra-Orthodox Power Grows in Brooklyn: Some New York Politicians Bend over Backwards to Accommodate Hasidic Demands


Rosenberg, Shmarya, Moment


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.

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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] fails 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. …

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