Two weeks ago, the Simon Wiesenthal Center learned about a Facebook post by Sam Joshi, vice chair of the Edison New Jersey City Council, who posted an inappropriate “joke” implying that the Jewish community in Lakewood was contributing to the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s associate dean and director of global social action and I immediately reached out to demand a retraction and apology.
To his credit, council member Joshi quickly understood the potential harm his words had caused. The next morning, Joshi and I drove to Lakewood. Together with Rabbi Aaron Kotler of Bais Medrash Gevoha, we extensively toured Lakewood and saw the padlocks on public Jewish institutions and learned of other community-wide efforts to ensure compliance with all government life-saving directives.
Here is the statement Joshi posted on social media after his tour of Lakewood.
“This morning I drove to Lakewood, New Jersey, and was blessed to meet Rabbi Aaron Kotler from Lakewood, the largest Yeshiva outside of Israel, and with Michael Cohen from Simon Wiesenthal Center. Lakewood is totally shut down including all schools, yeshivas, and synagogues. It was saddening to see that the synagogues were padlocked—shut due to COVID precautions. Contrary to outside opinions, I saw first-hand there was practically no one outdoors.
I stress this because I made a huge error of judgment in this age of viral social media. I posted about the Corona pandemic with a reference to Lakewood, New Jersey. During these tense times of combating a deadly virus and social isolation for all of us, the post should never have been made. As soon as I was made aware it could have been used by anti-Semites to spread their hateful agenda, I immediately took the post down. To Lakewood, to the Jewish community in Edison, my Jewish friends, to all my neighbors of all faiths, creeds, and ethnicities, my sincerest apologies. I ask for your understanding and forgiveness. I will strive to better in the future for all my neighbors in New Jersey—in good times and bad.”
Council member Joshi has also committed now to returning to Lakewood after the COVID-19 crisis to see what the community is like during normal times and to work with the local Jewish leadership in Edison and the Simon Wiesenthal Center to ensure that this unfortunate incident yields increased inter-communal understanding and collaboration.
Let’s remember that it was just 10 weeks ago that we were marching across the Brooklyn Bridge and in our local communities against a spike of anti-Semitic hate crimes not seen in years. From Jersey City to Monsey, Jews were being targeted and attacked, and we must be cognizant of the fact that bigots breed on fear, on crisis and on panic.
Social media is the main medium for the spreading of the virus of Jew hatred, witness anti-Jewish petitions on change.org and the viral spreading of a religious Jew being refused service at a Toyota service center.
But the Simon Wiesenthal Center is also urging that Jews everywhere to be aware that anyone who violates the rules laid down by authorities and endorsed by all rabbinic authorities will be endangering not just themselves, their friends and loved ones, but also their neighbors. Every incident in these unprecedented times of crisis will also fuel anti-Semitism.
Of course we will continue to combat the burgeoning anti-Semitism surrounding COVID-19; that is why the corrective actions taken by Councilman Joshi are so critically important. We need leaders to help us expose anti-Semitic tropes for what they are. This is why we commend Joshi for taking anti-Semitism seriously. But our community’s main defense during the pandemic is living up to our people’s values and to continue to care for and help amily, friends, neighbors and the stranger during this crisis. To paraphrase Prime Minister Netanyahu, may we have a safe and meaningful Pesach this year by following the rules so we can all be together next Pesach.
Michael D. Cohen is the eastern director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.