Jewish Groups Support Chinese Community Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

Chinese lantern at a store in Chinatown, Manhattan, New York City
chris-mueller / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Seventy-four Jewish groups have expressed solidarity with Chinese Americans amid the coronavirus outbreak, signing a letter written by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Sent to hundreds of Asian American leaders and organizations, the letter says members of the Jewish community are “concerned about rising xenophobia aimed at Chinese people in this country and abroad.”

The rise of the coronavirus, which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, has led to a rise in reports of racism against Asian Americans, including incidents of harassment and assaults. And Chinese business owners say they have seen a significant decrease in customers, which the letter addressed by pledging that local and national Jewish leaders will “strongly encourage (their) own communities not to give in to such fears.”

In offering this support, the letter cited the scientific: “According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, the danger for Americans is ‘just miniscule’ and there is no need to avoid Chinese people
or businesses.”

It also cited history, communicating that not only could the Jewish community sympathize with a Chinese American community recently burdened with the kind of scapegoating that accompanies panic, it could also empathize.

“We know from history, ours and yours, that such fearmongering can be devastating,” read the letter, which was signed by numerous federations, JCRCs and rabbinical groups representing Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox denominations.

Locally, the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia was a signatory of the letter, as were the local chapters of the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, both of which have regional offices in Philadelphia.

“We have been seeing instances of bias against Chinese people and other people of Asian descent on campus and in schools,” said Shira Goodman, the regional director of ADL Philadelphia, which serves eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware. “And so we’re doing our best to give good information about the virus. We’re pushing back against these conspiracy theories, signing on to this letter, engaging the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and urging the surgeon general to use his bully pulpit to correct misinformation and confront this fear and hate-mongering.”

To cut through the misinformation, especially that on social media, the ADL has put out a coronavirus education guide, through which it hopes to aid in dissipating panic and driving conspiracy theory to the margins.

“Nationally, all of our offices are trying to get that information into the hands of communities so that we can stand up for our fellow Philadelphians and other people in the region who are feeling especially put-upon in this time when people are letting fear overtake good sense and common decency,” Goodman said.

The World Health Organization has declared the virus known to the medical community as COVID-19 as an international public health emergency.

“As of March 1, 2020,” ADL’s materials read, “more than 89,000 have become ill due to the coronavirus outbreak, and the disease has been detected in at least 65 countries. At least 3,000 fatalities have been linked to the disease, with most of those deaths to date in China. Eighty-eight cases have been confirmed in the U.S., including at least two fatalities.”

In the U.S., those numbers are rising, with cases confirmed from Washington state to New York City.

Community leaders are urging that vigilance is paramount, but so is a cool head.

“We need to do everything in our control and that means washing our hands more frequently and not coming to work if we feel sick,” said Marcia Bronstein, the regional director of the AJC of Philadelphia and South Jersey. “But that also means resisting the idea of scapegoating a particular group of people because we know from our own
history just how dangerous that can be.”

The JCPA letter, which was written in English and Chinese, pointed to commonalities between the Jewish and Chinese American communities, “including a commitment to the highest ideals and welcoming spirit of America.”

This part of the message resonated with Rabbi Batya Glazer, director of the JCRC of Philadelphia, who suggested that allowing fear to sow division would run counter to the values that shape both minority communities.

“We understand that hate is indivisible. Any society that tolerates hatred and bigotry and xenophobia will tolerate it when it’s aimed at any community,” she said. “So when we stand together, we are also standing up for the nature of society as a whole.”

“Of course, because we have been targeted in the past,” she added, “we know how this works. That’s why we understand that it is essential to our identity as a democracy to stand together.”

Additional reporting by JTA’s Josefin Dolsten.

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