In New York City it would be unthinkable for a candidate to meet with an organization or club with an explicit “no blacks or Jews” policy. Yet candidates compete freely for a powerful voting bloc that blatantly discriminates against women: the Hasidic Jews of Williamsburg.
Last month at an event celebrating the Satmar sect’s founding rabbi’s rescue from Nazi captivity, City & State reported on an explicit “No girls allowed” policy. While male candidates for office were welcome to move freely throughout the event, women, including the only female candidate for mayor, were instructed to confine themselves to the balcony. Speaker Christine Quinn, perhaps having misplaced her binoculars, chose to send a male representative instead.
Tales of institutionalized sexism also made headlines last year when a bombshell report revealed gender-segregated seating on a Williamsburg bus line. Incidentally, the story ran just a few days before the sixth anniversary of Rosa Parks’ death.
Discrimination sanctioned by religion is no different from any other kind, except that it is protected by the First Amendment. The United States has always struggled to reconcile religious freedom with its democratic ideals, but the city’s decennial redistricting process is threatening to advantage one over the other.
This is a real problem for a city that claims to support women’s equality. Here’s why:
The New York City Districting Commission is supposed to adhere to an objective set of criteria to reflect demographic changes in the census, without regard to political data or voting information. However, the commission is clearly packing Hasidim into the 33rd Council District to advantage them politically.
The commission’s proposal for the 33rd Council District, which encompasses the heart of Hasidic Williamsburg, would annex a portion of the 35th Council District in Bedford-Stuyvesant to add 5,000 Hasidic votes. Currently the combined vote of the Satmar sects (Zalmanites and Aronites) is estimated to be about a third of the total universe of likely Democratic voters. In 2009, for example, the Zalmanites provided the current councilman, Steve Levin, with a crucial margin of victory in a seven-way primary. If the revised plan is approved, the Hasidim would further consolidate power to control as much as 50 percent of the likely primary vote.
To say that the ultra-Orthodox Hasidim are out of sync with the liberal leanings of the rest of the district, which includes Brooklyn Heights, DUMBO, Greenpoint and non-Hasidic Williamsburg, would be a gross understatement. As Judy Stanton, president of the Brooklyn Heights Association, testified at a recent public hearing, the voting patterns of the commission’s proposed 33rd District are such that it would be highly unlikely to elect a minority, gay or female representative. Or as Gary Schlesinger, an Aronite community member, testified: The commission would turn a “brownstone district into a Jewish ghetto.”
Although the commission and others claim that the proposed plan merely consolidates a natural community of interest, it is impossible to take them at their word. That ship sailed in November when the commission’s chairman admitted to considering the political needs of incumbent lawmakers. Of course, the revelation only became public after it was reported that the commission had made an 11th-hour accommodation for disgraced Assemblyman Vito Lopez, drawing his home into the 34th Council District to facilitate a potential run for the seat.
(Irony alert: the Hasidim—specifically the Zalmanites, the dominant sect—had no problem re-electing Lopez after he was censured for sexually harassing several female employees. Meanwhile, don’t even mention mixed-gender dancing.)
Obviously the process has been tainted. Or, as we say in Yiddish: Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining.
The bottom line is that the commission’s proposal would leave an otherwise progressive district hostage to the whims of an extreme religious sect. This is surely not what the founders intended when they wrote redistricting into the Constitution. Nor is it consistent with the city’s reputation as the crown jewel of liberal democracy. What we do know is that if the Council approves the commission’s proposal, female voters in the non-Hasidic portion of the 33rd Council District will be sentenced to a decade of political inequality.
Welcome to New York City.
Alexis Grenell is a Democratic communications strategist based in New York. She handles nonprofit and political clients.
Tags: Alexis Grenell, Aronite, Christine Quinn, First Amendment, Hasidic, Jewish, New York City Districting Commission, Satmar, sexism, steve-levin, ultra-Orthodox, Vito Lopez, Williamsburg, Zalmanite