In 21st century New York City, there are very few people who truly influence voters.
The Democratic Party bosses are relative weaklings. Labor unions only matter when working en masse. Individual power brokers – Al Sharpton, Chuck Schumer – are more inclined to steal headlines than mobilize real live humans to vote.
But in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the rules are very different. Cloistered Hasidic Jewish sects will vote together in overwhelming numbers for whoever their more informed rabbis favor in local and national elections. This has created a political dynamic that any close watcher of the city’s political scene knows well: otherwise liberal politicians paying homage to theocracy.
The latest example is Mayor Bill de Blasio’s refusal to stand up to the absurd segregation at a public swimming pool on Bedford Avenue in the heart of Hasidic Williamsburg. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9:15 to 11 a.m., and Sunday afternoons from 2:45 to 4:45, only women are permitted in the pool, a possibly unconstitutional regulation that also may violate New York City law.
Orthodox Jewish beliefs demand modesty in dress. Men can’t see women unclothed. In many Hasidic Jewish sects, men and women are strictly segregated, with some forced to walk on different sides of the street.
A recent anonymous complaint, though, led the city Commission on Human Rights to notify the Parks Department that this policy – on the books since at least the 1990s, according to The New York Times – violated city law. For a moment, a new pool schedule was issued with women’s hours removed. But the Hasidic community was enraged; politicians were put on alert, including Borough Park Assemblyman Dov Hikind, Brooklyn’s often-apoplectic state representative.
The new schedule was scrapped and the Parks Department and the Human Rights Commission are supposed to come up with some kind of acceptable and legal solution, whatever that may be. For now, and maybe the entire summer, segregation will go on.
At an unrelated Thursday press conference, de Blasio’s doublethink approach was on full display. A reporter, Matthew Chayes of Newsday, asked the mayor if a person who identifies as a woman could use the Bedford Avenue swimming pool during the women-only hours.
“We know that issue’s being looked at by the Human Rights Commission and the Parks Department. So we’re reviewing that,” de Blasio answered, without saying, “yes.”
Here was a left-leaning Democrat who, like many in his party, celebrated the Obama administration’s recent order that public schools allow transgender students to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with. In essence, the mayor’s non-answer to the swimming pool question signifies that he thinks segregation is usually wrong, but tolerable in certain instances.
On one hand, de Blasio’s reticence on this issue isn’t surprising. He represented a sliver of Borough Park, an overwhelmingly Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, in the City Council. He aggressively courted Hasidic Jews during his 2013 campaign. A year later, he watched and said nothing as an ultra-conservative rabbi proclaimed that other forms of Judaism have “no future.” In 2015, the mayor sanctioned an obscure circumcision ritual that has led to the transmission of herpes to infants.
Proponents of keeping women and men separated at a public swimming pool say the city must be sensitive to other religions. Hikind thinks the current pool schedule is a “victory for human rights.”
“It is a major victory for the people, and the community can rest much easier this Shabbos knowing that men and women can continue to swim separately,” he said in a recent statement.
Why not take this logic a step further? Segregate all buses and subways cars so ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and women don’t have to mingle? If this were a theocracy, like Saudi Arabia or Iran, then the argument could hold some water.
De Blasio’s hemming and hawing would have made much more sense if we were living between the years 1896 and 1954, when “separate but equal” was the law of the land. But we’ve moved past that dark chapter of our nation’s history. It’s patently un-American to segregate any public space, no matter what a particular group demands. The same goes for efforts elsewhere, like segregated swimming hours for Muslim women at publicly funded YMCAs in Minnesota, Seattle and San Diego.
Let’s also remember that there are other Democrats who haven’t spoken out about the segregated Williamsburg swimming pool. What about the supposedly liberal City Council, the city comptroller, the public advocate? Do they support separating the sexes?
We’ll soon find out how progressive they really are.
Ross Barkan is a journalist from Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in such publications as the New York Observer, Village Voice, The Daily Beast, Salon and Harvard Review.