Brooklyn’s Anti-masking Protests Betray a Broken Culture

The demonstrations say less about one particular community than they do about the brokenness of the American condition.

A protester holds up a Trump-Pence sign.
Spencer Platt / Getty

Over the past week, ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn have engaged in anti-mask, anti-shutdown protests. It may be tempting to see these protests as the product of communities that are at odds with the dominant culture, adamantly refusing to comply with American behavioral and social norms, but that gets the story precisely backwards. The protests are profoundly American. The members of these communities are so at home in the American public square that they can air their grievances without fear of retribution, as their own particular expression of their constitutional rights. The callousness of these protests and of their cause testifies to a larger brokenness of the American condition more than it does to the failings of some members of this one particular community.

Moreover, the iconography and language of the protests—crowds dotted with American flags and Keep America Great signs, the protest leader Heshy Tischler telling reporters that “blue lives matter” and that the crackdown reflects an attempt to suppress a pro-Trump vote in an otherwise solidly Democratic state—were revealing. Instead of positioning themselves orthogonally to state power, the protesters demonstrated that their grievance was avowedly partisan. There seems to be no better way to be publicly American right now, and the keenest observers of the protests all seem to be noticing more kinship to American political culture than resistance to it.

But even as the protesters have internalized some American values and behaviors, their actions betray their failure to grasp something essential about the nature of citizenship in a democracy. Last night, after New York police arrested Tischler and charged him with inciting violence against Jacob Kornbluh, a reporter for Jewish Insider who covered the protests, a crowd gathered outside Kornbluh’s home, waving a Trump flag, chanting, and jeering.

In this radical and dangerous moment, the protesters have forgotten that the very American right to free speech—to criticize government, to assemble, and to peacefully protest—hinges on responsible citizenship. As the philosopher Michael Walzer puts it, “Citizenship means collective self-determination, which is both a responsibility and a benefit.”

Citizenship requires us to recognize those responsibilities. Right now, we owe it to ourselves and others to wear a mask: In the hierarchy of moral sacrifices, “Do no harm” is the lowest rung, not the highest. We must also stay home when we can, and maintain social distance when we cannot. Beyond that, elected officials should not be timid in asking Americans to contribute funds—in the form of more equitable taxes, and in the form of philanthropy—to remedy the social gaps that the pandemic has highlighted.

But the idea of obligation as a key element of citizenship—a burden that citizens take on themselves, and that is also expected of them by their leaders—is embattled. The Brooklyn protesters, then, are less an exception than an extreme example of a national trend. In the midst of a populist wave, they are following the lead of Tischler, an opportunistic radio host who—like the president—paints coronavirus restrictions as attacks on religious liberty, instead of as communal acts of sacrifice to prevent the spread of a deadly illness. Americans are being told that rules requiring personal sacrifice to advance the public good are a violation of their civil liberties, rather than the foundation on which those liberties stand, and that government is at odds with religion. There is enormous irony in the conjunction of these two beliefs, of course; religious communities are deeply committed to the very idea of mutual obligation these protesters are attacking.

At other moments when America has faced extraordinary crises, our leaders turned to the American people and made demands. If presidents and other elected officials understood that their responsibility was to provide for our physical safety and our economic well-being, they also understood that leadership requires creating cultures of collective responsibility for the greater good, which includes sacrifice.

From Abraham Lincoln introducing the income tax in 1861, to fill the Union’s coffers to fight a war for its own survival, to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s efforts to rebuild the American economy following the Great Depression, and conscript young men to fight in the Second World War, presidents understood the need to ask citizens to sacrifice for a cause that was greater than themselves. In John F. Kennedy’s memorable 1961 inaugural address, he called Americans to service and sacrifice: to “ask what we can do for our country.” This was a language of obligation rooted not in crisis but in power; the speech pulses with the belief that America and the world were capable of overcoming differences and confronting collective common enemies: “tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.” Kennedy said that “each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty.” The loyalty he invoked was not to nation or to party, but in service of a greater vision—setting aside differences, and some measure of economic and political liberties, in the belief that our hardest challenges could be surmounted.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn are American Jews; they are Americans; they are at home in America. Their protests represent another aspect of this American crisis—a crisis of democracy, in which our leaders fail to inspire us to live up to our greatness, thinking that what we need is to be pampered and infantilized, and instead encourage us to think of restrictions on our movement and on our autonomy as something imposed on us rather than something that reflects our commitment to the greater good.

Americans, including Jews, are the principals of our great society, the architects of triumph over adversity. What we have now in Brooklyn is not an ultra-Orthodox crisis, or even a pandemic crisis; it is a citizenship crisis. The coronavirus is ours to defeat, if we are prepared to ask what we can do for our fellow Americans. To be American is to be obligated. People of faith should be the first to understand that, lining up—six feet apart—to restore public health, and rebuild American democracy.