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Members of the Orthodox Jewish community speak with New York Police Department officers on a street corner Oct. 7 in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. (John Minchillo/AP Photo)

Targeting places of faith?

In New York’s Orthodox Jewish communities, the question of fair enforcement of coronavirus lockdowns hangs in the air

A New York moment: 

Last year I reported on the measles outbreak in New York. Measles is much more contagious than the coronavirus, but a high level of vaccination stops community spread.

The outbreak of the measles virus came in communities with lower levels of vaccination: some Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Rockland County, some Christian homeschool co-ops, and liberal, hippie pockets of the vaccine-skeptical. But media attention centered on the Hasidic communities where measles was spreading.

At that time there was a good relationship between local Orthodox Jewish leaders and the city. Mayor Bill de Blasio during the outbreak kept in close touch with rabbis, and the rabbis worked with the city health department to urge vaccination for the healthy and isolation for those who were already sick. 

That relationship strained in 2020. Early in the pandemic, in response to a large Brooklyn funeral for a rabbi who died from the coronavirus, de Blasio dashed out a series of tweets decrying the “Jewish community” for spreading the virus.

So this month, when de Blasio and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a sudden lockdown in largely Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in the middle of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, some residents felt targeted again. 

According to a recording of a call between Cuomo and Jewish leaders a few hours before the governor’s announcement of the new restrictions, Cuomo had promised them officials would only limit occupancy for houses of worship by 50 percent. Hours later Cuomo instead announced that houses of worship in the “red zones” would be limited to 10 people total. That fanned more outrage. 

Cuomo’s administration said it was still in conversations with epidemiologists about red zone restrictions when the governor had the phone call with Jewish leaders. But de Blasio now says he regrets how he handled the sudden lockdown, even though he didn’t have final say on the restrictions.

"I certainly got very frustrated at times when I saw large groups of people still out without masks,” he said. “But I think more dialogue would have been better. So I certainly want to express my regret that I didn’t figure out how to do that better.”

Two federal lawsuits, arguing Cuomo had targeted religious groups unfairly, have foundered in federal court so far. The Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn filed a federal lawsuit against the restrictions, as well as Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish group. 

They argued it was unfair to limit houses of worship to 10 people when essential businesses had no capacity limitations. The Brooklyn diocese’s lawsuit said the restrictions amounted to “targeting of religious practice for unwarranted, disparate treatment,” even though its churches had been operating for months “without any COVID-related incidents whatsoever.” The diocese supported caps on attendance, but said “the governor’s new restrictions go way too far, infringe way too much, and have no legitimate basis.” 

But federal courts have generally given government leaders a long leash in their efforts to contain the coronavirus.

“The government is afforded wide latitude in managing the spread of deadly diseases under the Supreme Court’s precedent,” wrote a federal judge in Brooklyn in an initial ruling against the Catholic diocese. 

What would make a difference in those cases is if the city or state enforced the lockdown unfairly, by targeting religious gatherings but not other gatherings. But so far the New York City Sheriff’s office (a small department of 150 that suddenly had to become the COVID-19 regulation enforcer) has enforced the new restrictions against a variety of offenders, including houses of worship, restaurants, and an illegal rave party.

The lockdown comes at a terrible time for local Catholic schools, which so far haven’t had any COVID-19 outbreaks. The shutdown of schools is “what’s most upsetting to us,” said Ed Mechmann, a lawyer and head of the child protection programs for the Archdiocese of New York.

“Brooklyn and we have spent millions of dollars getting our schools into COVID compliance, we’ve had virtually no cases, and now we have no idea when our schools will be open again or if parents will continue to send their kids,” he said in an email. “Plus having to lay off hundreds of employees since there’s no more PPP (thanks, Washington). Our schools are already financially vulnerable, and this is a very dangerous threat to their continued existence.”

Becket Law recently filed another lawsuit on behalf of two Jewish students whose Jewish schools were closed in the red zones despite having no cases. Five days after Becket’s filing, Cuomo removed the red zone restrictions on that particular neighborhood in Far Rockaway, Queens.

Meanwhile, the same Orthodox Jewish groups that fought the measles last year are also trying to stop COVID-19 flare-ups. The Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association, which includes nurses working in New York hospitals, held a recent Zoom call to answer community questions about COVID-19, like how to travel safely during Sukkot. As positive case numbers start to come back down in the hot-spot neighborhoods, the question of fair enforcement still hangs in the air. 

This week I learned: 

More about Jacob Kornbluh, the Jewish journalist attacked in his own Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn during protests over Cuomo’s lockdown order. He talked on WNYC about being caught between Orthodox resentment of the lockdown and outsiders’ resentment toward the Orthodox.

“There’s this distrust of the government,” Kornbluh said. “The community has to believe the government is not declaring war on religion. They are not out to get us because they hate us. They actually want to deal with the problem. The fact is, if you look at their long-held record, both Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo have a long-standing relationship with the community. They’ve even gotten criticism from their own party for their standing with the Jewish community on certain issues and their stance on Israel.”

He continued: “I believe that if government understands that there are certain restrictions you cannot impose on the community, especially in the midst of a holiday ... the community will understand that there has to be a collective effort to actually bring down the infection rate.” 

Culture I am consuming: 

Deep Work by Cal Newport. Although the book is oriented toward the goal of professional success, it has helpful guidance for achieving focused work in a distracting world. 

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Abdullah Asiran/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

People take part in a demonstration against China’s persecution of Uighurs at Dam Square in Amsterdam, Netherlands on Dec. 29, 2019. (Abdullah Asiran/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Xinjiang deniers

A growing number of far-left activists are denying China’s repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang

On Sept. 5, Margaret Kimberley, editor and columnist of the far-left Black Agenda Report, tweeted to her 28,000 followers a screenshot of a headline comparing the conditions in China’s Xinjiang to Nazi Germany. She wrote: “These are lies. There is no evidence of Uighur ‘concentration camps.’ More hybrid war against China.” Two weeks later, she appeared at a talk with Green Party presidential candidate Howie Hawkins in the Bronx. 

Less than a week later in an interview on the Chinese state-sponsored CGTV, she declared the United States has the worst incarceration system in the world and it “is in no position to talk about human rights in China or anywhere else.”

Kimberley is one of a growing number of far-left activists arguing the Chinese oppression of Uighurs in Xinjiang is a creation of the imperialist United States to manufacture a new Cold War with China. This comports well with China’s denials of reports about the massive detention of more than a million Uighurs in re-education camps. Chinese state media and “wolf warrior” Chinese officials on Twitter eagerly retweet and amplify these voices of doubt.

Initially the Chinese government denied the existence of re-education camps in Xinjiang in 2018. But the evidence began building: Relentless investigations by Radio Free Asia (RFA) reporters with wide connections in Xinjiang found local officials and residents willing to talk. German researcher Adrian Zenz used public documents online to uncover the government construction of massive camps. Satellite images pinpointed their locations, distinguishable by guard towers and surrounded by razor-wire walls popping up in the deserts of Xinjiang. 

Then came personal testimonies: Kazakh nationals who had been swept up in the crackdown told international media about their experiences after being released from the detention centers, while Uighurs, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz shared about their family members disappearing into camps.

The Chinese government pivoted to justifying the camps as “vocational training centers” to rid Uighurs of extremist thoughts and improve their livelihoods. State media began publishing propaganda pieces about how happy and prosperous Uighurs have become thanks to the Chinese Communist Party. They alleged the researchers and groups investigating the camps are funded by the CIA or other Western intelligence agencies.

Now the Western far-left Xinjiang deniers use similar tactics. They question the motives of the U.S. government’s push against Chinese actions in Xinjiang and try to discredit researchers as well as the Uighur diaspora who speak out against the camps. They try to prove the reports are based on shoddy research while whole-heartedly accepting Chinese propaganda as fact.

Some deniers write for smaller online publications such as Black Agenda Report, L.A. Progressive, Popular Resistance, and the magazine CounterPunch, according to a report by Coda Story. The Qiao Collective, which calls itself “a diaspora Chinese media collective challenging U.S. aggression on China,” has more than 28,000 followers on Twitter and published an in-depth analysis to counter “Western misinformation” about Xinjiang.

One of the most notable groups in pushing this narrative is The Grayzone, a far-left news site founded by Max Blumenthal that positions itself against U.S. interventionist foreign policy. The site also supports the Assad regime in Syria, questioning accusations of the Syrian president’s abuses; backs Venezuela’s dictator Nicolas Maduro; and claims Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters are backed by the CIA. Blumenthal, who has 206,000 Twitter followers, has been interviewed by Russian state-controlled RT as well as China’s CGTV and the nationalistic Global Times.

A December 2019 Grayzone article claims the figure of more than 1 million Uighurs in re-education camps is based solely on two “highly dubious” studies from 2018, one by Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) and another by Zenz published in the academic journal Central Asian Survey. Researchers admit the difficulty in getting accurate data on the exact size and scope of the camps due to the Chinese government’s clampdown and the high risks of those who speak out. Yet they used a variety of sources and data to support their estimates. 

First, Grayzone tries to discredit the background of the two studies, claiming CHRD is inherently untrustworthy because it receives U.S. government funding while Zenz works for Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, which Grayzone considers a far-right group established by the U.S. government. The writers also particularly take offense at Zenz’s faith, calling him an “evangelical religious fanatic” who “believes he is ‘led by God’ on a ‘mission’ against China.”

They fault the CHRD study for basing its claims—that 1 million Uighurs were being held in re-education camps and 2 million were forced to attend mandatory re-education sessions—on interviews with only eight Uighur individuals.

But a look at the study shows that researchers interviewed dozens of Uighur villagers in several counties and then asked interviewees in eight different villages in Kashgar Prefecture to estimate the number of people in their village who had been taken to re-education camps. Answers ranged from 8 to 20 percent, with an average of 12 percent. 

The study noted that based on these interviews, as well as numbers provided by high-level Xinjiang officials, the authors conservatively estimated at least 10 percent of villagers in Southern Xinjiang, or 660,000 people, were detained in re-education centers while 20 percent, 1.3 million people, attended day/evening re-education sessions. They cautioned against generalizing the 10 percent figure for all of Xinjiang (which would equal 1.1 million in camps). But given that other minorities were also being sent to camps, “the numbers may not be inconceivable.”

Grayzone also claims Zenz’s estimate is derived from a dubious source: a report by Istiqlal TV, a Uighur exile media organization based in Turkey, which was republished by Newsweek Japan. Istiqlal TV published a table of re-education detainee figures allegedly leaked by Chinese authorities that totaled 892,000. The Grayzone writers also tried to discredit the other evidence claiming Radio Free Asia is “a U.S.-funded news agency created by the CIA during the Cold War to propagandize against China.” 

Yet RFA’s Uighur services, which is the only Uighur-language news outlet in the world independent of the Chinese government, is considered one of the most reliable sources of information on what is happening in Xinjiang. Even as the reporters’ own family members are detained, they place hundreds of calls each day to Xinjiang to talk to local officials, verify claims and numbers, document the experiences of residents, and break stories on the oppression in the region. 

What Grayzone leaves out is that Zenz’s paper also goes in-depth into publicly available evidence of the camps from official Chinese sources: government websites, media reports of “transformation through education training centers,” government construction bids, local budget reports, and employment ads for security positions. He also draws on the satellite images from researcher Shawn Zhang, who used Google Earth to verify the construction based on timing and floor sizes. Zenz concluded, “It is reasonable to speculate that the total number of detainees might range anywhere between several hundred thousand and just over 1 million.”

Since Zenz first published his report, much more information and data have come out. The Kazakh organization Atajurt recorded thousands of testimonials from family members outside China who have loved ones in the camps. The Xinjiang Victims Database lists nearly 11,000 people in camps, forced labor, detained in prison, or kept in police custody. Foreign journalists took reporting trips to Xinjiang in 2017 and early 2018—before police largely closed off the region—documenting emptied villages, oppressive surveillance, and sprawling detention camps. 

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Photo by Byambasuren BYAMBA-OCHIR/AFP/Getty Images

Mongolians protest against China’s plan to introduce Mandarin-only classes at schools in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, at Sukhbaatar Square in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, on Sept. 15. (Photo by Byambasuren BYAMBA-OCHIR/AFP/Getty Images)

China’s crackdowns: From Tibet to Inner Mongolia

To understand what’s happening to ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, look to Tibet

Teachers, students, and parents staged rare protests earlier this month in Inner Mongolia as the government began requiring schools to teach key subjects in Mandarin rather than the Mongolian language. Students will begin taking Chinese language classes one grade earlier and must use new Chinese textbooks for language and literature, morality and law, and history classes. 

Fearful the abrupt changes would erode their language and culture, thousands of ethnic Mongols signed online petitions against the new bilingual programs. Students walked out of class, parents pulled their children out of schools, and demonstrators held signs written in flowing Mongolian script outside government buildings and schools. 

In response, authorities arrested thousands of protesters and petition-signers, and dispatched heavily armed riot police to protest locations. Officials noted that if parents continued to keep their kids out of school, they would lose their jobs, government subsidies, and the ability to take out bank loans. High school students would be expelled and blocked from taking college entrance exams. 

Police went door to door forcing Mongols to sign pledges not to oppose the education program. They detained those who didn’t comply and placed them under police surveillance, according to the Los Angeles Times. Public security bureaus published names and images of protesters, accusing them of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles,” a charge that could lead to five years in prison. 

The aggressive move to assimilate Mongols is reminiscent of how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has treated Tibetans and Uighurs in Xinjiang—the CCP also replaced their minority language education with Mandarin in the past few decades. While Tibet and Xinjiang have long been considered restive regions, Mongols are seen as the “model minority” living in peace with the growing number of Han Chinese in the region. 

The crackdown on Uighur culture and language has spread to what international observers call a genocide: The Chinese government has thrown more than a million Uighurs into reeducation camps, pressed them into forced labor, and implemented a campaign of depopulation through forced abortions, forced sterilizations, and even infanticide. The CCP used many of the tactics now seen in Xinjiang first in Tibet: Xinjiang’s Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, who oversaw the oppression in Xinjiang, was previously the party secretary in Tibet. 

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