An executive at a voter- and government-reform organization is coming under criticism for referring to the Orthodox Jewish community in New York City as “an extremist bloc.”
Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, made the comments to Gothamist for an article posted Friday about mayoral candidate Andrew Yang’s surge in support among the Orthodox Jewish community for his opposition to government interference in yeshiva education.
The Gothamist article noted that “the introduction of ranked-choice voting this year may play a complicating factor in the mechanics of the ultra-Orthodox bloc vote,” and paraphrased Lerner that ranked-choice voting “is likely to reward candidates who can build strong coalitions and may ultimately reduce the influence of the Orthodox voting bloc.” The article then quoted Lerner as saying, regarding ranked-choice voting, “One of its goals is to build a consensus majority, and you don’t do that by taking extreme positions. If you’re pandering to an extremist bloc, you’re perhaps not being strategic.”
Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein lashed out at Lerner’s comments, tweeting Sunday, “Hey @CommonCause! How is it acceptable for the NY chapter Executive Director to refer to Orthodox Jewish New Yorkers as an ‘extremist bloc’??? You claim to be an organization that promotes ‘equal rights, opportunity, and representation for all.’”
Jewish leaders replied to Eichenstein’s tweet with similar critical tweets, and called for Lerner’s apology or resignation. Chaskel Bennett, a community activist and co-founder of the Flatbush Jewish Community Coalition, wrote, “Once again negatively labeling Orthodox Jews gets a free pass that no other community or ethnicity would or should tolerate.” Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, Agudath Israel’s director of government relations, wrote, “This is a reprehensible statement coming from the head of @commoncauseny who call for honest and open government. Susan Lerner should immediately apologize or resign and all good people of conscience need to call this out.” Councilman Chaim Deutsch wrote, “This hostility towards a minority group is quite pathetic,” and Councilman Kalman Yeger tweeted at Lerner and Common Cause, “We’re tired of being your punching bag.”
Criticism to Lerner’s comments came from outside the Orthodox community as well.
Councilman Joe Borelli tweeted, “This isn’t OK. Leaving aside the obvious antisemitism of calling a large groups of #NYC religious folks extremists, THE GOAL OF @CommonCause @commoncauseny AND RANKED CHOICE VOTING WAS TO LIMIT THE INFLUENCE OF CERTAIN VOTERS?” Councilman Mark Treyger said, “What is extreme is risking harm to people that have been subjected to record level hate crimes and anti-Semitic attacks. We have work to do to build a more inclusive society and democracy, but this unacceptable labeling is dangerous and moves us in the wrong direction.” And Assemblyman Robert Carroll wrote, “The Orthodox community has reason to be upset by Susan labeling them as an “extremist block. Good government groups [should] be building bridges and promoting political engagement/democracy not feeding into stereotypes or stigmatizing whole groups of voters.”
Lerner responded to the criticism, tweeting, “Happy to clarify: it is an extreme position to offer to flout the NYS substantial equivalency law to the benefit of voters who’ve made it a litmus test issue. Common Cause/NY has said that many times, and will insist on the meshugana position that politicians uphold the law.”
Eichenstein replied to Lerner’s clarification, “SPINTRASH. You called our entire community an “extremist bloc.” Had a chance to apologize. Instead, you doubled down on your hate. If I called an ethnic group an “extremist bloc” you’d call for my resignation. There should be no place for bigoted hate @CommonCause. Resign.”
Naftuli Moster, advocate for government oversight over yeshiva education, tweeted support of Lerner, writing, “The vast majority of New Yorkers absolutely think adopting policies that allow certain schools to deny kids an education is considered extreme (as opposed to a consensus). The outrage against Susan is manufactured.”
The controversy comes as the yeshiva-education issue has taken on a prominent role in the 2021 mayoral campaign. The New York State Board of Regents is in the midst of formulating secular-studies guidelines for private schools, which, in New York City, would be enforced by the schools chancellor, appointed by the mayor. Yang’s pro-yeshiva position has led to support in the Orthodox community, and criticism from advocates of government oversight of yeshivas. Another leading mayoral candidate, Eric Adams, has come under criticism in the Orthodox community for comments in a Hamodia interview this month seen as supporting enforcement of a government-mandated curriculum in yeshivas. Adams has subsequently sought to mend fences with the Jewish community, telling BoroPark24 that “it is really essential that the government works with different communities and cultures to adopt structures that reach communities’ needs so that we can really deliver the best education,” and that “we want to get the best outcomes of students and not rely on heavy-handed investigations that lead to distrust.”
Yang’s latest pro-yeshiva comments were given at a mayoral forum hosted by the progressive New York Jewish Agenda last Thursday, where he said, “When I look at the yeshiva question … the first thing I wanted to see [is] what were the outcomes, what is the data. Like, I do not think we should be prescribing a curriculum unless the curriculum can be demonstrated to have improved impact on people’s career trajectories and prospects afterwards. I mean, if a school is delivering the same outcomes, like, I do not think we should be prescribing rigid curricula. And I will also say that when I was in public school, we studied the Bible for a month – Bible as literature. If it was good enough for my public school, I do not see why we somehow are prioritizing secular over faith-based learning.”
Yang’s comments were consistent with his response to a questionnaire posted by the Forward earlier this month, where he wrote, “As mayor, I will always respect religious freedom including the freedom of parents to do what’s best for their kids educationally. Thus, we shouldn’t interfere with their religious and parental choice as long as the outcomes are good.”
But Politico reported last week that in response to its own questionnaire to likely mayoral candidates in December — before Yang officially announced his campaign — Yang had written, “Schools failing to meet baseline standards should be investigated, but they need to trust that the next mayor has a coherent policy and is working in good faith to both respect religious freedom and ensure curriculum guidelines are being met,” in response to a question about whether he would investigate religious schools and cut funding from those in violation of education guidelines.
Eichenstein, speaking to Hamodia on Monday, once again called for Lerner’s resignation.
“In the context of explaining how ranked-choice voting reduces the influence of the Orthodox Jewish community, Susan Lerner labeled the entire orthodox Jewish Community in New York as an ‘extremist bloc.'” Said the Assemblyman. “This is divisive and hateful language that has no place in our political discourse, let alone in an organization that prides itself on promoting equal representation and rights for all. Let’s be honest: had Lerner made these remarks about any other ethnic group, there would have been massive protests calling for her resignation. Lerner had over a day to apologize, but her refusal to do so confirms her hateful sentiments. She must resign now.”
Lerner, reached by telephone on Monday, referred Hamodia to her spokesperson, who did not respond to Hamodia’s request for comment.
Updated Tuesday, February 23, 2021 at 12:19 pm .