An executive at a voter- and government-reform organization who referred to the Orthodox Jewish community in New York City as “an extremist bloc” due to its support for yeshiva independence, has apologized and said her comments were taken out of context, more than a week after doubling down on remarks for which she received sharp criticism.
“I apologize for causing anyone offense when words I used imprecisely were taken out of context,” Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said in a statement Tuesday, adding that she regrets her “ poor word choice distracting attention from the important issues New Yorkers face.”
The controversy began after Lerner was quoted Feb. 19 in a Gothamist article about mayoral candidate Andrew Yang’s support in the Orthodox Jewish community due to his opposition to government control over 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,” 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 tweeted criticism of Lerner’s comments, writing, “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.’”
Other elected and communal officials piled on quickly, criticizing Lerner’s reference to the Orthodox community as “an extremist bloc,” and for implying that ranked-choice voting, for which she had advocated, was intended to reduce some groups’ influence.
“We cannot accept labeling the Orthodox Community as ‘extremist,’” tweeted State Sen. Brian Benjamin. “Those running good government groups should know better than anyone not to traffic in stereotypes or stigmas.” Councilman Robert Holden tweeted, “Categorizing Orthodox Jewish voters as ‘extremist’ is unacceptable. Trying to marginalize religious New Yorkers is exactly the opposite of the inclusion and tolerance we need to move our city and our country forward.” And 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?”
Lerner doubled down on her comments, tweeting on Feb. 21, “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.”
The criticism continued, with some calling for Lerner to apologize or resign. Mayor Bill de Blasio on Monday called Lerner’s comments “unacceptable” and a “really horrible characterization and unfair characterization.”
On Tuesday, 11 days after the Gothamist article appeared and nine days after Eichenstein started the wave of criticism, Lerner apologized and said her remarks were taken out of context.
“In public debate voters are best served when an argument is about how to solve problems, not labeling the people involved on either side,” Lerner said in a statement. “I apologize for causing anyone offense when words I used imprecisely were taken out of context, allowing Common Cause New York’s long-standing position on New York’s substantial equivalency law to be misconstrued. On the policy our position is unchanged; as a public figure I regret my poor word choice distracting attention from the important issues New Yorkers face in a political era begging for less heated rhetoric and more enlightened problem solving.”
Lerner’s comments were initially given Tuesday to The Forward, a secular Jewish and progressive outlet. Subsequently contacted by Hamodia, Lerner’s spokesperson provided the same statement. The spokesperson had previously ignored multiple requests for comment from Hamodia since the Gothamist article first appeared.
After providing Hamodia with the statement Tuesday, the spokesperson did not respond to a follow-up email asking for clarification on the correct context of Lerner’s original quote.
In response to Lerner’s statement Tuesday, Eichenstein tweeted, “Better late than never. We welcome Susan Lerner’s apology and recognition that labeling an entire community is wrong. As a public figure, she should be engaging with all New York’s diverse communities, not demeaning them. Thank you for your apology.”
But Councilman Kalman Yeger was having none of it, tweeting, “Please. If this were an actual apology, [Lerner] wouldn’t have done it ‘in an exclusive statement to the Forward.'”
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 (known as “substantial equivalency”) for private schools, which, in New York City, would be enforced by the schools chancellor, appointed by the mayor.
Updated Tuesday, March 2, 2021 at 9:30 pm .