Monday, May 20, 2024

Truly Brave In The Land Of The Free

A Yated Editorial Jews, perhaps more than any other people, are quick to count their blessings. Built into our golus history and our mental world is the awareness of how transient and precarious life is, how utterly dependent we are on the One Above for the things that give life its sweetness and joy. A people whose history is checkered with persecution, massacres, pogroms and expulsions will always be thankful for the privilege of living in a democracy governed by the rule of law, where human rights and civil liberties form the backbone of society.

Intellectually, we know that even in the finest democracy, government is comprised of human beings and is therefore imperfect. We know that unfair and discriminatory laws can – and have been – adopted by our government and can hurt us. We know that in the hands of egocentric public officials with unsavory agendas, even good laws can be twisted and manipulated to target the innocent.




Nevertheless, the concept of equal protection under the law is such a pillar of American society that it comes as a shock to discover that in this wonderful “land of the free and home of the brave,” we are not always equally protected.


Nothing illustrates this painful reality more profoundly than recent developments in the Orthodox Jewish community’s struggle to keep bris milah free of government regulation. One of the most disturbing elements in this battle is New York City’s retaliatory actions and harassment against the plaintiffs for taking part in the lawsuit.


That harassment has expanded to include this newspaper. We were shocked and dismayed to learn that the plaintiffs are being ordered to turn over copies of any communications they have had with our writers on the subject of the consent regulation and the bris milah lawsuit.


We have heard about journalists being sent to jail for refusing to disclose their news sources to the government. Little did we ever imagine that we would feel the sting of government harassment for doing nothing more than taking a principled stand in support of our belief that the city’s consent law violates key constitutional rights.


The city’s aggressive, irresponsible tactics do it no honor.


As shocking as these government tactics are, they fit a pattern of discrimination against Orthodox communities by New York municipalities and officials. From abusing zoning laws with the intent of keeping out Orthodox Jews to suing Jewish businesses that post “modest-attire” signs on their walls, this discrimination cannot be dismissed as paranoia by Jewish conspiracy theorists.


It’s happening today in real time, as fully documented in a friend-of-the-court brief by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington-based, non-sectarian public interest law firm dedicated to protecting religious traditions in this country.


“Recent examples of this hostility against the Orthodox Jewish community are lawsuits recently filed by the City’s Commission on Human Rights against seven Orthodox Jewish businesses in Brooklyn,” the Becket brief stated. “The lawsuits claim ‘gender discrimination’ because these businesses post dress code signs. The signs read, “No shorts, no bare feet, no sleeveless, no low cut neckline allowed in this store.”


The lawsuits allege that the Orthodox Jewish storeowners discriminate against women. “But not only do the signs apply equally to men and women, the city’s Commission on Human Rights turns a blind eye to upscale clubs and private schools that actually also mandate specific dress requirements for men and women. Under the city’s selective approach, the brief notes, “dress codes are illegal only if they are motivated by Orthodox Jewish beliefs.”


As the city’s lawsuit against these frum business owners proceeds to trial, we need to ask ourselves: If, in fact, citywide discrimination against our community is occurring, why has it slipped under the radar for so many of us? Why isn’t it talk around our dinner tables? Why are so few of us informed about it?


It’s human nature to resist knowing about the darker side of things because knowledge compels action. Action is painful. Costly. It demands sacrifice. And those who dare to act rarely get thanked for it. On the contrary, they are often scorned, ridiculed and blamed.




Thankfully, we are blessed with those who have the moral courage to act in the face of daunting opposition and who do so leSheim Shomayim.


Mr. Yerachmiel Simins, an attorney working pro bono with the legal team representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, who has been active for years in the effort to keep bris milah free of government regulation, deserves our esteem and support. Told several years ago by Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l to do all he can for the cause of milah, he certainly has dedicated his considerable intelligence and valuable time to protect the mitzvah.


The three courageous mohalim who chose to be plaintiffs for no monetary gain but purely to defend the mitzvah put themselves in the line of fire. Despite being targeted by government harassment and intimidation, they have not buckled. Their example is an inspiration.


The many individuals who have given their financial and emotional support to the cause of keeping bris milah free of government tampering have definitely earned the zechuyos that will stand by them and their loved ones on the approaching Yom Hadin. The organizations who are participating in this campaign deserve the community’s appreciation as well.




The posuk states, “Your destroyers will come from within.”


As many are aware, the bris milah lawsuit began with peaceful efforts to reach an understanding with the city over its Department of Health’s professed concern about possible health risks resulting from metzitzah b’peh (MBP).


It soon became clear that no negotiation or compromise was possible. Mayor Michael Bloomberg openly demonstrated his disdain for Orthodox Jews. He taunted the religious community, announcing to the media that he wasn’t afraid to face down “thousands of hostile, screaming men in black hats.”


Backed by the powerful Department of Health, the mayor proclaimed a crusade to have MBP banned. Last October, the Department passed a law to that effect: the consent regulation.


Only then did Orthodox groups and individual mohalim create a coalition for the purpose of having the law overturned.


None of these groups or those who took the reins of leadership in uniting them were looking for a fight. They formed a legal front only when the Department, after libeling MBP as dangerous to babies, adopted the regulation and forced Jewish and mohalim into an impossible dilemma: violate your conscience or the law of the land. 




In light of events happening today in Germany, we know that the danger of Bloomberg’s agenda – seeking to abolish a religious practice based on his personal hostility to it – has implications not only for Jews in New York City or even in America. The collateral damage of having a law on New York’s books that says MBP is deadly to babies is crossing international borders. It’s being felt globally.


A rabbi living in Germany was brought up on charges for practicing MBP. German authorities were quoted in the media as saying that New York (state) has banned the practice and the German government should follow suit.


The fact that they have it wrong, that New York has not banned the practice (at least not at this point), is not what matters. What counts is the world’s perception that despite the state of New York’s huge Orthodox population, the “consent” law has been proclaimed illegal. That is bound to embolden MBP foes and circumcision opponents everywhere, and to open the floodgates for government intervention in the sacred mitzvah of bris milah.


Thanks to the psychological dynamics behind the success of the Big Lie, something like this is already happening in certain parts of our own community. Steady exposure to the City’s hostile rhetoric, to talk show hosts, to so-called experts and to other detractors who have bought into the anti-MBP libels have manipulated opinion even in religious neighborhoods.


It’s time to take stock of how this came about. Note the bizarre fact that a crusade has been launched to wipe out an almost non-existent disease. Neonatal herpes is in fact so rare that there have barely been any studies on it. [The City’s single study on it has been debunked as flawed.]. Out of an average of 125,000 New York City births each year, an average of 15 infants develop herpes. Research shows that ninety percent of the afflicted infants (about 14 out of the 15) contracted the herpes infection prior to — or during – birth. The source of infection in the remaining infected infant has yet to be identified–meaning no one knows how he contracted herpes.


In simple English, the phenomenon is so rare, no one has scientifically examined the possible sources of infection, which include hospital staff who handled the baby, as well as the infant’s parents, siblings and caregivers.


There is almost no data on this subject at all. And the City has resisted requests by the Orthodox community to obtain that data through DNA testing. That has prevented researchers from tracing the infection in these infants to its most likely source.


None of this has stopped the DOH, however, from arbitrarily singling out mohelim as the culprits, and trying to ban MBP. At the same time as it imposes restrictions on MBP, the Department has taken no action to investigate herpes infection that arises in female infants and neonatals who are not circumcized with MBP, even when these numbers are so much higher. Why not? By what stretch of logic can this be called “science?”


That’s exactly what had people baffled after an independent study of experts came to light in recent months. The study was conducted by Penn Medicine’s Center for Evidence-Based Medicine. They criticized the “evidence base” used by the DOH’s study as too small and limited to support its claims that MBP poses an increased risk of herpes in newborns. That’s what the plaintiffs have been saying all along.


We need to examine the public susceptibility – even in some quarters of the religious community – to the opinions of “experts,” public officials and Mayor Bloomberg’s various hatchet men who are paid to echo the party line.


If you read the affidavits submitted to the court in support of the City, you’ll see that none of these experts ever examined the medical records of the infants with HSV1 who were the subjects of the study. They had no firsthand information about these cases, and no idea how these newborns contracted herpes or what sources of infection they were exposed to. What it boils down to is that they’re simply echoing the DOH.


So it’s time to ask some hard questions: Why all the commotion? What is the Department of Health’s rationale for trying to eradicate a disease that almost never strikes? What is its rationale for trying to abolish a religious practice that no hard evidence anywhere in the world has ever linked to MBP?


Let’s do our thinking for ourselves and reach the obvious conclusions.


And let us draw inspiration from the brave individuals for whom “the land of the free” is far more than a pretty cliché. This famous synonym for America alludes to the inviolate rights built into the very fabric of American government and society, rights for which its citizens must at times make sacrifices and do battle to protect.



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