The New York Times: 128 Years of Blaming Jews for Spreading Deadly Disease
The New York Times home page has been featuring a small Covid-19 graphic with a list of “where cases per capita” are highest. When I checked it this week, the list was North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Montana, Iowa, Wyoming, Nebraska, Alaska, and Utah. What do these states have in common? Not one is a major center of Hasidic Judaism.
This is surprising, because a regular Times reader might come away with the impression that Orthodox Jews are the only, or primary, way that the virus spreads. The recent course of the virus outbreak undercuts that accusation. It has only underscored how wildly disproportionate and biased the Times coverage has been, perpetuating pernicious classical antisemitic stereotypes about Jews as spreaders of disease.
Some comparisons demonstrate the double standards.
Compare Times coverage of a supposedly large hasidic wedding in Brooklyn N.Y. that didn’t happen on any great scale, against a South Dakota motorcycle rally that actually did happen.
The Times threw reporters and headlines at the story of the Jewish wedding that did not draw a big crowd. “10,000 Guests at a Hasidic Wedding in Brooklyn? N.Y. Says No,” reported Mihir Zaveri in the New York Today column. Comments on that story were the usual Times cesspool of hatred directed at Jews. “One of the most selfish, arrogant, demagogic, chauvinistic, contemptuous, narcissistic, uncaring and un-American groups in existence,” was one comment, recommended with an upvote by 33 Times readers. Another comment accused the Hasidic Jewish community of attempting “to wage biological warfare on the rest of humanity.”
Another Times reporter, Matthew Haag, wrote the same article a second time with reporting contributed by a third Times reporter, Liam Stack, this time under the headline, “N.Y. Shuts Down Hasidic Wedding That Could Have Had 10,000 Guests.” Then the Times used precious scarce space on its op-ed page on the days before the presidential election to run an opinion article by Shmuel Rosner addressing the wedding cancellation issue and accusing religious Jews of a “general stiff-necked mentality.” And that’s just this one wedding; it’s not even counting similar Times articles the same month focusing on Orthodox Jews and the virus, such as one blaming “heavily Orthodox” Jews for a statewide surge of cases in New Jersey and another headlined in part “Few Wear Masks in One Orthodox Suburb.”
Compare that to Times coverage of the Sturgis, South Dakota motorcycle rally. While the Orthodox big-wedding-that-didn’t-happen was covered by three reporters, a full-length opinion article, and open season in the comment section, the South Dakota motorcycle rally was staffed by a single Timesman, Mark Walker. On the op-ed page, it merited a mere parenthetical sentence in a Paul Krugman column. The Times news coverage had been so low-key that Krugman’s single sentence hyperlinked to a Washington Post article. Krugman wrote that “The Sturgis motorcycle rally, which drew almost a half-million bikers…may have played a key role in setting off the viral surge.”
“Almost a half-million”! That’s fifty times the crowd of the 10,000-person Hasidic wedding that did not happen. Why didn’t the Times give it 50 times the coverage?
The US story is mirrored internationally. By the count of Johns Hopkins University, Israel is not in the top 25 countries globally in terms of confirmed coronavirus cases, deaths, case-fatality ratio, or deaths per 100,000 population. Romania, South Africa, the Netherlands and the Bahamas all have more deaths per 100,000 population and a higher case fatality rate, by the Johns Hopkins data, even though the Bahamas is not a hotspot of Hasidism.
Yet the Times has provided breathless, saturation coverage of the coronavirus outbreak in Israel, while determinedly averting its editorial gaze from the Covid-19 situation in places where there are not a lot of fervently Orthodox Jews available to be blamed. “As in New York, the crowded conditions in Israel’s ultra-Orthodox communities have already proved fertile ground for increased transmission,” a Times dispatch from Jerusalem not-so-helpfully explained. “Many ultra-Orthodox are flouting rules and getting sick,” another Times dispatch from Jerusalem reported, coming right up to the edge of suggesting that they deserve it. A third Times dispatch from Jerusalem reported, inaccurately, at least by the John Hopkins count, that “death rates soared to among the highest in the world, and ultra-Orthodox areas top the virus hot spots.” It also said, “Having large families crammed into typically small apartments has contributed to the high infection rates within the community. The independent Haredi school system has remained at least partly open while state schools have been closed. And as in Brooklyn, inter-communal tensions have been fueled by scenes of large weddings, funerals and religious gatherings in ultra-Orthodox communities.”
There’s a possible explanation for the disparity that involves structural issues rather than antisemitic bias. News is what happens where a reporter or editor sees it. While the New York Times aspires to be a global newspaper, it is based in New York City, not in South Dakota. Many Times editors and reporters live in Brooklyn, where there are a lot of Hasidic Jews. The Times has a bureau in Jerusalem, but not in the Bahamas or Bucharest (though the Bahamas post might be coveted if it were to open, at least when it isn’t hurricane season).
While that may explain some of the excesses of the Times coverage, though, it can’t possibly explain all of it. Part of the issue may be that Hasidim are distinctively dressed or bearded and therefore noticeable in ways that Bahamians or Romanians are not. But part of it, too, has to do with the age-old hate.
A year before the coronavirus hit, the Times was blaming Jews for the spread of measles. But it goes back even further than that.
A 1921 Times editorial headlined “Typhus Still a Menace” declared, “the immigration danger has been obvious for decades,” complaining about “the problems of infectious disease brought here by immigrants.” What was that a reference to? A Times editorial from 1892, headlined “Typhus and Immigration,” holds an answer: “Two weeks ago the steamship Massilia brought to this city 248 Russian Hebrews, and within the last two days it has been discovered that about one-third of these immigrants are suffering from typhus fever, one of the most virulent and menacing of the diseases which test the powers of sanitary officers. …Typhus fever is a disease caused by filth, overcrowding, destitution, and neglect of the fundamental laws of sanitation… This outbreak of dreaded disease must bring forcibly to the attention of all intelligent citizens the evils of unrestricted immigration. The Times has made the sufferings of the persecuted Hebrews in Russia the subject of a notable investigation, the results of which our readers are familiar. No one will accuse this journal of having failed to appreciate the hardships of these unfortunate persons… But it is the duty of the people of this country to protect themselves against the importation of such persons as these whom the Massilia brought to this port. Especially it is the duty of the people of New-York to protest against the admission of those whose habits and condition invite deadly infectious diseases and who carry with them the seeds of a plague that can be stamped out only by the most energetic measures of a large body of sanitary officers. Such immigrants are not wanted either in this city or in any other part of the United States. They should excluded. The doors should be shut against them.”
The 1892 editorial is still available on the Times website with no correction, apology, or retraction appended, not even a trigger warning.
What’s remarkable here is the continuity. The New York Times has been blaming Jews for the spread of deadly diseases in New York City for 128 years. The newspaper did not want us here in America to begin with. It would have preferred that we perished in Europe. Shmuel Rosner writing on the Times op-ed page in 2020 with the absurd claim that “Ultra-Orthodox Jews tend to be poor by design” and the assertion that they “live in densely populated areas” sounds like an echo of the 1892 Times editorial about “destitution” and “overcrowding.”
If the New York Times had been publishing in Europe between 1348 and 1350, it would be blaming the Jews for the Black Death.
But enough looking backward. What about the future?
With any luck, the Jews will be around in another 100 years. As to whether the Times will be around then to blame us for the latest pandemic—well, that’s a different question. One hopes that the market for this sort of scapegoating is diminishing over time.
Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. His media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.