As a former member of the Hasidic community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, I’ve been floored by the ugly rise of Heshy Tischler, the now-infamous demagogue at the center of violent coronavirus protests rocking Borough Park.
But I haven’t exactly been surprised by it. What has interested me most is not just the danger he clearly represents, but the social dynamics that led the Haredi Jewish community to this dark place.
Tischler, who was arrested by the NYPD on Sunday, has been accused, among other things, of inciting a mob against Orthodox journalist Jacob Kornbluh. Tischler is the hype man behind massive protests over new restrictions on places of worship, businesses, and schools aimed at curbing surging rates of coronavirus infection in heavily Hasidic parts of New York.
Like most things in politics, this explosion of anger did not come out of nowhere. Rather, as one community member who spoke on condition of anonymity told The Daily Beast, this rage “has been building for years.”
In fact, Tischler’s rhetoric is not so different from the rhetoric that has come from many Haredi leaders for years.
As the community member explained, for over a decade, some Hasidic community groups have repeatedly used a simple argument to distract from their failures: They are coming for you.
“They always framed every failure as the government coming after them. And what’s happening now is that these people grew up with this messaging, and so they’re now acting on it,” the community member told The Daily Beast. “Whether it was leadership by the measles crisis, by education reform, [controversial circumcision ritual] metzitzah b’peh… they framed it as ‘we’re hated.’”
All of these examples are moments when the government attempted to restrict the Haredi community, and when their leaders spread the message that the problem wasn’t communal. For instance, the problem was not anti-vaxx sentiments leading to the measles crisis. The problem wasn’t poverty caused by the lack of secular education in the community. The problem wasn’t the dangers of the practice of sucking the blood from a baby’s circumcision.
Instead, leaders said, the government—whether it was Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, or someone else—had it in for the Jews.
The rise of Heshy Tischler, then—a nobody wannabe City Council candidate—should be seen as the logical extension of a rhetoric that simply hasn’t fully been acted upon until now. As Asher Lovy, an anti-abuse activist who grew up in Orthodox Borough Park, put it, “I don’t think it starts with Tischler. It just ends with him.”
In other words, the way grievances of the Haredi and Hasidic communities in Brooklyn have been long nursed by self-interested leaders could be considered analogous or even deeply tied to the existential fear many Trump supporters feel about losing their version of America.
Both groups have largely been manipulated and used by leaders who have failed them repeatedly and who then translated those failures into an Us vs. Them argument—one where the evil others are pushing to destroy their way of life.
A few years ago, Republicans learned that they couldn’t control the logical result of this rhetoric: Donald Trump. Here was a man who said the things they said in hushed tones and winks but with shouts and screams, and a demand that something be done.
This is what is currently happening with the COVID-19 crisis rocking the Hasidic community.
Lovy pointed out to me, as did other voices within the community, that Haredi protests, including violent protests, are not out of the norm… in Israel. The reason, in those cases: the push to get Haredim drafted into the army at 18 along with the rest of Israeli Jewry. This was and is seen as an existential threat to their way of life, as it’s a direct throughway into the secular world.
Many people have trouble grasping how incredibly impactful COVID-19 restrictions are for people who see communal Jewish observance as what gives them life. Combine that with the strongly held belief among these communities—despite how hard hit they have been—that COVID-19 dangers are overblown, and you have a combination that leads to a belief that Jewish communities are being targeted in a way that hasn’t been seen since the Nazis.
However implausible it may seem that the second coming of Hitler is somehow embodied in the combination of politicians like de Blasio and Cuomo, Haredi leaders have built up an enemy that must be fought—and fought hard.
In the community member’s words, “They hate their leadership. They’re screaming, ‘Why isn’t anyone doing anything?!’... Heshy is doing something.”
And that, in a few words, is perhaps the perfect summation of the rise of Heshy Tischler, the Donald Trump of Haredi Jewry. He is doing something. That something is holding raucous rallies that have led to the beating of at least two Borough Park Haredi Jews, a mob that loomed outside the home of one of them—Kornbluh—and threatens further violence.
In a speech after his release, Tischler simultaneously said he denounced violence while also using violent rhetoric, claiming he would “knock that Cuomo out,” a form of doublespeak he has been using since day one and which might sound familiar to those paying attention to a certain American president.
While this protest wave hasn’t resulted in any tangible change, it at least “feels” like change, as Lovy put it. “The askanim [established communal activists] have not been very effective at rolling back the [coronavirus] mandates. Heshy hasn’t either. But the difference is that Heshy makes them feel like they’re part of something, that they’re taking part in the fight to save their religion.”
As we’ve seen in America and beyond, the power of a self-interested man to help people who feel victimized by channeling their helplessness and fear into rage and violence is one of the most powerful forces shaping our world today. Tischler may not know much, but he knows that.