Revisiting Governor Cuomo's Hostility Towards Orthodox Jews In Light of His "Fucking Tree Houses" Comment

Cuomo has no problem with progressive secular Jews. Orthodox Jews are "these people."

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Today, the New York Times published a lengthy profile of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. One passage offers an unvarnished view of Cuomo's animus towards Orthodox Jews.

[Cuomo] could also bridle at the indignity of voter courtship, growing especially irritated about an event celebrating Sukkot, the Jewish harvest holiday when the faithful gather outdoors beneath temporary shelters of branches and greenery. "These people and their fucking tree houses," Cuomo vented to his team, according to a person who witnessed it and another who was briefed on his comments at the time. (The spokesman denied both incidents, adding: "His two sisters married Jewish men, and he has the highest respect for Jewish traditions.")

I have five general reactions to this passage. First, I am generally skeptical of anonymous press accounts of Republican politicians. But I take far more seriously negative coverage of Democrats in an institution like the Times. The editors would not slip up on a quote like this. Moreover, the federal courts routinely cited anonymous press accounts about President Trump. Remember the "shithole countries" comment? Under TrumpLaw (which may have expired on January 20), this statement would be fair game to understand Cuomo's animus. At least for purposes of this post, I will assume the comment is accurate.

Second, a brief background of the holiday. Sukkot, also known as the Feast of  Tabernacles, is celebrated every fall to honor the harvest. During this week-long holiday, Jews eat all of their meals in a tent-like structure, known as a Sukkah. Often, branches are placed over the roofs of these structures. Hence, the "fucking tree houses" comment. Here, Cuomo is mocking and ridiculing one of the most lovely traditions the Jewish people have.

Third, when Cuomo says "these people," he was almost certainly referring to Orthodox Jews. Orthodox Jews will eat all of their meals in the Sukkah for the entire week. They build Sukkahs in their backyards. In Brooklyn, where space is sparse, Sukkahs are built on balconies. One must be able to see the stars in the Sukkah, so there needs to be a clear line of sight to the sky. In the fall, it can get quite cold in New York. But people persevere. In my experiences, non-Orthodox Jews will build a sukkah near the temple for ceremonial purposes, but are less likely to build one at home where they would eat all meals outdoors–especially in the cold. (That was the experience in my reform temple growing up. Correct me if I'm wrong.) I suspect Cuomo was invited to eat in an Orthodox Sukkah in the cold weather, and objected.

Fourth, let's just switch the facts for a moment. What would happen if Cuomo referred to a group of African Americans as "these people," and objected to their ceremony in a "fucking tree house." Does anyone think he would still be in office?

Fifth, the spokesman's response is all too typical. "His two sisters married Jewish men, and he has the highest respect for Jewish traditions." This is the anti-Semitic form of "I have lots of Black friends!" This comment proves nothing. One can have a sister who marries a Jew and still have hostility towards Jews. Moreover, both of Cuomo's sisters married non-Orthodox men, who likely do not eat in "fucking tree houses."

The Jewish people are not monolithic. As the old saying goes, "Two Jews, Three Opinions." Today, the divide between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews is quite large. I do not think Cuomo has animus towards non-Orthodox Jews. This group votes reliably Democratic, and shares the general values of secular society. Rather, I think Cuomo has animus towards Orthodox Jews. This group votes reliably conservative, and has habits and rituals that clash with secular orthodoxies. Most recently, they were unable to attend worship services on Zoom. Cuomo has long viewed Orthodox Jews in a transactional fashion: a simple voting block that can be negotiated with, the same way as a Union bargaining unit. But now we know what he really thinks about "these people" in "fucking tree houses."

Cuomo's "fucking tree people" comment sheds more light on his infamous October 8 press conference. The Second Circuit helpfully summarized his remarks.

Before issuing the Order, the Governor made public statements indicating that the restrictions were motivated in part by concerns about religious gatherings. For example, he noted that the source of the first coronavirus hot spot in New York "was an Orthodox Jewish man who went to a temple" and observed that "Orthodox Jewish gatherings often are very, very large and we've seen what one person can do in a group." The Governor then said that he would be meeting with members of the "ultra-Orthodox [Jewish] community," and if they would "not agree to enforce the rules, then we'll close the institutions down." One day later, he issued the Order. Three days after issuing the Order, the Governor explained that it addresses "a predominantly ultra-orthodox cluster." Five days later, he said the State was "having issues in the Orthodox Jewish community in New York, where because of their religious practices, . . . we're seeing a spread." He said that state-level enforcement was necessary because the "ultra-Orthodox communities . . . are also very politically powerful.

During the Governor's presentation, he included a slide of "super spreader" events. He included a photograph of Jews wearing black hats in a mass gathering. Cuomo said the photos were "from the past couple weeks."

But the photos used were not recent. Not even close. One of the photos was from the 2006 funeral of Hassidic rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum. And the photo wasn't even from New York City. It was taken in the Orange County village of Kiryas Joel, the location of a famous Supreme Court case concerning the Free Exercise Clause. The Governor's staff simply found a clip art of Jews congregating. The Governor's spokesperson blamed a "staff error."

Regrettably, Governor Cuomo played on old, deeply rooted, and painful anti-Semitic tropes: that Jews spread diseases. Throughout the ages, Jewish communities were scapegoated as super-spreaders of "Jewish" diseases, such as the bubonic plague, tuberculosis, and typhus. This stereotype had led to a rash of anti-semitic attacks during a 2019 measles outbreak in New York. Cuomo could also be understood as suggesting that Jews are controlled by their rabbis, and that Jews are outsiders that should be blamed for societal problems. These tropes are pernicious, and harken back to painful times for the Jewish people.

On October 8, I wrote a post titled "Understanding Governor Cuomo's Hostility Towards Jews." I explained that Cuomo's press conference demonstrated hostility towards Orthodox Jewish people. My post was well received in the Orthodox community. I received many emails from people I did not know, who said I articulated how the Orthodox community viewed the then-unstoppable Governor. The reaction from non-Orthodox Jews was very different. They wrote that I did not understand anti-semitism, that Cuomo was a dear friend of the Jews, and that Orthodox Jewish people deserved to be singled out for their failure to abide by COVID protocols.

The "fucking tree house" comment should give my critics some pause. Cuomo is a friend of some Jews, but not all Jews. For what i's worth, the Anti-Defamation League awarded Cuomo the highest honor in June 2020. Yet, as of the close of business, neither ADL nor its President has said a word about Cuomo's remarks. I will have much more to say about ADL and anti-semitism in due course.

NEXT: 6th Cir. Upholds Ban on Doctors Performing Abortions Knowing the Reason Is Down Syndrome

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  1. My neighbors kids love their “fucking tree house.”
    But that line is the least of Cuomo’s worries.

    1. The ADL is now Greenblatt, an employee of Soros and an agent of Obama. It opposes arming Jews to fire back when Democrats attacks them. The ADL is not dismissed. The Democrat Party is the mortal enemy of Israel. NY Jews still support because of their surrounding culture.

    2. If the kids had gone through my backyard with hatchets and chopped branches off *my* trees, that I had planted, I’d be rather p*ssed and one does have to ask where these people, IN A CITY, are getting these tree boughs.

      If they are *buying* them from vendors who cut them on their *own* land — great. (Or even if the congregation has a woodlot somewhere, whatever.) But if they are stealing them…

      1. The kids “fucking tree house” was built by their dad, Treehouse Dan from store-bought materials

      2. No idea why you’re making up bizarre scenarios, but stolen s’chach would make a sukkah unkosher, so, no, observant Jews are not going into random fabulists’ backyards and chopping branches off their trees.

      3. The most common types of sukkah covering in NYC are bamboo poles and pine branches, both of which are typically bought from vendors who have legitimate title to them. Bamboo is popular because it keeps, so you don’t have to buy new ones every year. I assume they come from bamboo farms. Pine is also popular because it’s pretty (though getting pine needles in your soup is annoying), and I assume the vendors are the same people (or are getting them from the same people) who sell pine trees on the streets a few months later. Another popular covering in other places, though not in NYC, is palm fronds, which are also sourced from commercial growers.

        When I used to build a small sukkah I simply visited a local park and found enough sticks and debris on the ground to cover it. Where I live now there is no convenient place to build one, so I depend on using other people’s sukkot, particularly those of restaurants and synagogues.

        1. In Los Angeles, the trimmed branches from street palm trees are a frequent material source. There is an ultra-observant school of thought that to be appropriate, the branches cannot have been cleanly cut with power tools, since that’s inconsistent with the purpose of reminding users of the rural roots of the observance.

          Thus, the well-known admonition, “Never give a sukkah an even break….”

          Been waiting for decades for someone to tee up that gag for me….,

  2. > First, I am generally skeptical of anonymous press accounts of Republican politicians.

    Dude, you’re a partisan tool. Of course you are.

    1. “Dude, you’re a partisan tool.”

      Yeah, but so is the press.

    2. Read…

      “https://thefederalist.com/2021/04/13/cbss-refusal-to-even-explain-itself-is-the-new-shameless-reality-for-republicans-and-conservatives/”

      1. So The Federalist is your impartial source for the proposition that we shouldn’t trust the biased mainstream media? OK.

        1. Who are you going to trust, the loyal toadies at The New York Times? You go to Pravda for truth about Russia?

        2. Besides which, shooting the messenger is well-known as a way to non-rebut facts.

          1. Reads a lot more like opinion than facts.

        3. It’s important to understand the biases in the news and the different points of view that different organizations present. Only by getting a complete story, from multiple viewpoints, can you really understand things.

          Is the Federalist unbiased? No. Do they present facts and viewpoints the NYT doesn’t? Yes. Do the direct quotes from multiple officials, both Republicans and Democrats, in the above story stand scrutiny? Yes.

          1. You’re quoting an opinion piece for truth.

            1. Opinion pieces with direct quotes from people and links to other pieces of data are a worthwhile aggregated source, which can be easily checked. As you’re well aware.

              But I’m sure you would never quote an opinion piece.

              1. Then maybe quote the actual sources, rather skipping directly to the narrative the Federalist is pushing?

                1. “Opinion pieces with direct quotes from people and links to other pieces of data are a worthwhile aggregated source”

                  And we can only post one link.

                  But I’m sure you would never use opinion sources…

                  1. If you look at my previous sourced posts, I tend to excerpt them via quotes and then post the source at the bottom.

                    Because that piece is jumping to some mighty big conclusions that you think are true, but haven’t really established at all.

  3. Well, well, well….color me surprised that Cuomo is prejudiced against observant Jews. The Court already slapped him down. I think the NYT ‘outing’ Cuomo’s bigoted attitudes will be the least of his worries over the coming months. Perhaps the DOJ will have something to say soon about his conduct in hiding the number of elderly deaths in NY as a direct result of his policies (e.g. putting covid+ patients into nursing homes).

    1. Cuomo’s an embarrassment, on about 10 different levels, including this one.

      I will say that I suspect that this is the sort of language that New York politicians have probably used for years in describing various interest groups, including ethnic and religious interest groups. Orthodox Jews (I object to your word “observant”- a reform or conservative Jew may be just as “observant”, but just disagrees as to what is to be observed) hold some very controversial views, views that are not exempt from criticism just because claim a divine origin (I thought we had this discussion with Muslims years ago)- I am sure that New York politicians have been frustrated with them in particular.

      But part of what Cuomo doesn’t seem to realize is that it is not 1952 anymore. In 2021, politicians need to be out of the business of mocking minority religions.

      1. I understand your point, vis a vis observant. My use of observant wasn’t meant to ‘diss’ Reform or Conservative Jews.

      2. Mocking…blaming…using as scapegoats….accusing of spreading disease…

        All of those. It’s not surprising Orthodox Jews feel discriminated against by Cuomo and his administration.

      3. I agree … Cuomo is a disgrace, and his antipathy towards Orthodox Jews is just a fashionable form of anti-Semitism.

      4. ‘Orthodox’ is as bad or worse than ‘observant’, really. There’s nothing ‘orthodox’ about being extreme.

        Personally, I tend to think of them as ‘the people who think holier-than-thou is a compliment’.

        1. Lol. It’s hard to say there’s nothing orthodox about them when the other option is a group that calls themselves reform. Orthodox literally means “conforming to what is generally or traditionally accepted as right or true; established and approved.” That is exactly the right word to use here.

        2. “Orthodox” is a term invented in the 19th century by the German Reformers, for those Jews who insisted on continuing to observe Judaism the way it always had been. The reason for the term was to portray them as primitive and unenlightened, as Eastern Orthodox Christians were at that time perceived in Germany. The Reformers, by contrast, consciously remade their practice after the model of Lutherans, whom they perceived as the ultimate exemplars of modern, enlightened religion.

  4. I agree with most of this, except:

    “Regrettably, Governor Cuomo played on old, deeply rooted, and painful anti-Semitic tropes: that Jews spread diseases. Throughout the ages, Jewish communities were scapegoated as super-spreaders of “Jewish” diseases, such as the bubonic plague, tuberculosis, and typhus. This stereotype had led to a rash of anti-semitic attacks during a 2019 measles outbreak in New York. Cuomo could also be understood as suggesting that Jews are controlled by their rabbis, and that Jews are outsiders that should be blamed for societal problems.”

    I mean, come on man. Seriously? This is the exactly same argument by association that we ought to be critical of when so called “anti-racists” employ it, and we ought to be equally critical when you employ it. No. Cuomo, obviously, was not referring to the bubonic plague. He may or may not be acting on bias with his current actions, but this is a stretch.

    1. Including Soros and others?

    2. Blackman is not really arguing in good faith re: antisemitism. It’s just another partisan cudgel to wield.

      https://reason.com/volokh/2020/10/08/understanding-governor-cuomos-hostility-towards-jews/

      Just shameful devaluation of the Holocaust.

  5. “Cuomo has no problem with progressive secular Jews. Orthodox Jews are “these people”.”

    During the 1920s, the Klan had no problem with Protestants (which most of them actually were) — it was the Catholics whom they despised.

    And without going too deeply into the weeds of Christian theology, I’d argue that it is the same issue here.

  6. When Prof. Blackman was promoted from the junior varsity to the Volokh Conspiracy, despite never advancing beyond the bush leagues (South Texas), I saw the future of movement conservative legal academia — and I smiled, assured the liberal-libertarian mainstream would continue to shape American progress for so long as any of us can reasonably foresee.

    Prof. Blackman delights in pouncing upon perceived intolerance among his political opponents, because he knows he carries the bigotry of those with whom he eagerly makes common cause every step of his hopeless journey, and hopes to deflect — at least for a moment — some attention from right-wing bigots.

    Stick with the superstition, the bigotry, and the backwardness — it suits you.

    1. “Prof. Blackman delights in pouncing upon perceived intolerance among his political opponents,”

      Nice “Republicans pounce”, Arthur. What do you think about “these people and their fucking tree houses?” It looks like you don’t like Jews any more than Muslims. Or Texans.

      1. He used to advocate putting all the Jews in the world in West Texas.

        1. Be fair. He was willing to accept West Virginia as well.

          1. I still advocate offering citizenship to all Israelis and perhaps statehood to Israel, for several reasons.

            As Israel continues to engage in ugly right-wing belligerence that alienates the American mainstream (and the victors of our culture war), the prospects that Israel will lose the American skirts behind which it operates — military, economic, political — increase. An offer of citizenship or statehood to Israelis may look better as Israel approaches the chance to see how it would operate without American assistance.

            1. If we can have Israel, I’ll grant you Puerto Rico

              1. What makes so many people think Puerto Rican’s want statehood?

                1. What makes Democrats think Puerto Rico will elect Democrats to thevsenare?

              2. If Israel were considered for statehood, I would expect to observe that D.C., Puerto Rico, and the Pacific Islands had already been admitted.

                How long would right-wingers remain powerful in Israel after statehood. The predicable progress might mean the end for Israel’s conservatives.

    2. I like that the far left is finally ripping off the mask and showing the insanity underneath.

      1. The side that claims to believe fairy tales are true — adult-onset superstition, childish gullibility, patronage of televangelists and faith healers — offering pointers on sanity?

    3. So you’re saying Prof Blackman is only writing here because of the power of the Jewish conspiracy? Wow, that’s drivel even for you.

  7. “I am generally skeptical of anonymous press accounts of Republican politicians. But I take far more seriously negative coverage of Democrats”

    One of the benefits of Josh not proofreading or editing his articles is we get to hear the quiet part out loud.

    1. Well he does qualify it as coming out of a democrat rag.

  8. To paraphrase an old joke, Cuomo like Jews if they’re ‘Jew-ish,’ but not truly Jewy.

    Of course, he shares that attitude with many secular Jews. The ‘Jew-ish’ type. God Forbid Jews should believe in God, and not just be good at school.

    1. There seems to be a fairly strong, unrecognised trend of discrimination against those with strong faith, whatever brand of faith they hold. Look at the treatment of ACB, for example. Tolerance only seems to extend to those who are faithful in moderation.

  9. “But I take far more seriously negative coverage of Democrats in an institution like the Times. The editors would not slip up on a quote like this.”

    One slight flaw in the reasoning.

    Cuomo has become an obstacle and an embarrassment for other Democrats. Thus it would (theoretically) make sense to give a disfavored Democrat the Republican treatment.

    1. That is a valid point.

      1. The New York Times is Darth Vader, Cuomo is Admiral Kendal Ozzel.

        (had to look that one up on a Star Wars fandom page)

  10. Always nice to see the Democrats eating their own.

    1. Only took 4 years of the republican party doing it to literally everyone inside for the democrats to have some fun with it 🙂

  11. Moreover, the federal courts routinely cited anonymous press accounts about President Trump. Remember the “shithole countries” comment?

    Your own link identifies, by name, the members of Congress who heard the statement, you disingenuous partisan hack.

    1. Also, I guess that means Cuomo should face the same repercussions that Trump did for his “shithole countries” comment, which means none at all.

  12. I can’t help thinking that officials such as Trump (then) and Cuomo, who may have their orders overturned on grounds of animus, should keep quiet about their motives for the same reason as the abortion patients in Ohio.

  13. The one time I was visiting a nice Jewish family who was celebrate Sukkah it was in a tent in a backyard. Might have been cooler if it was in a tree house though. Just an old canvas tent, in the cold, in a backyard, with mediocre food.

    1. That nice family celebrated Sukkot, and ate in the sukkah.

      There is a lot of discussion in the Midrash about Sukkot. Rabbi’s who lived in the warmer climates (mediterranean) tended to say, “Of course! You must live outside in the sukkah during Sukkot”. Rabbi’s who lived in northern europe tended to say, “What, are you nuts? It is too cold!”. It has been an on-going debate and discussion for at least 1,000 years.

      For myself, I eat outside when it is seasonable, and gaze up at the stars, and give thanks for the many blessings in this all too short life of ours. I don’t go crazy with the sukkah.

      1. Thank you for your reply last evening.
        “For myself, I eat outside when it is seasonable, and gaze up at the stars, and give thanks for the many blessings in this all too short life of ours.”
        Such behavior is both wise and shows gratitude to G_d

    2. Cuomo’s “tree house” line did not refer to the houses’ location but to their roofing materials. If you’d looked up in that canvas structure you’d undoubtedly have noticed that the roof was made of tree branches of some kind, or some similar plant material such as bamboo sticks.

  14. The Reformed Jewish community does tend (yes, this is a generalization based on past voting patterns) to vote more liberally. I cannot recall but I think it was David Horowitz who wrote a book on the topic.

    Has anyone read that and does it hold valid theories?

    1. For the record, it’s “Reform,” not “Reformed.” (There is a Dutch Reformed Church, but it ain’t Jewish.)

  15. As of my posting this, the ADL remains conspicuously silent on this latest instance of anti-semitism by a prominent elected Democrat.

    1. Begging the question pretty hard, there.

  16. “I will have much more to say about ADL and anti-semitism in due course.”

    This was predictable. The ADL criticized Tucker Carlson, and in modern America the bigots must stick together.

  17. Interesting how any criticism of someone like George Soros immediately brings about calls of anti-semitism.

    1. Yeah, because the shadowy banker trying to replace the population with more amenable minorities has quite an antiemetic history.

      Yelling about tree houses…not really an antiemetic trope as much.

  18. I feel pity for the orthodox jews being gaslit by Blackman and his cohorts of people who march chanting things like “we won’t be replaced by Jews”

  19. Reads more like frustration over orthodox resistance to public health precautions, but that might be because I’m unfamiliar with “tree houses” being a Jewish stereotype. Mileage varies, though. Since I’m not trying to get any mileage out of this, I might be seeing it differently.

    1. It’s not a stereotype; he was referring to actual houses made of trees.

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