NYT Op-Ed Takes A Strong, Principled Stance Against Orthodox Jews In Public Pools. | Gradient
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NYT Op-Ed takes a strong, principled stance against Orthodox Jews in public pools.

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On Wednesday, America’s Newspaper of Record published an op-ed from “the editorial board” accusing a public swimming pool in Brooklyn of accommodating the religious beliefs of its neighborhood Orthodox Jews. This is, in the view of the NYT, a bad thing. The pool, which is in a heavily Orthodox area of Brooklyn, has long observed a few female-only hours (9:15 to 11 a.m on Mondays, Wednesday and Friday; and 2:45 to 3:45 p.m. on Sundays) so that Orthodox Jewish women, whose beliefs prohibit swimming with men, can enjoy the pool as well. The New York Times considers this to be “a capitulation to a theocratic view of government services.” This is absurd. At best: ignorant. At worst: antisemitic.

The Times recounts the history of this pool in brief, citing that the women’s only hours have been observed since the ’90s at the request of Orthodox women “apparently without any serious community objections.” That the Times’ editorial board seems shocked by an Orthodox Jewish community not objecting to pool hours they themselves requested is somehow not the dumbest thing about this article. It goes on to reference local assemblyman and advocate for the pool’s sex-segregated hours Dov Hikind when it says:

“Indeed, what Mr. Hikind, in a statement, called a ‘victory for human rights’ is in fact a capitulation to a theocratic view of government services. Mr. Hikind wrote: ‘The community can rest much easier this Shabbos knowing that men and women can continue to swim separately.’ It’s pretty clear what ‘community’ Mr. Hikind means, and it is not the diverse neighborhood he was elected to represent, nor one that includes everybody who lives there.”

Setting aside the unnecessary scare quotes around “community” for a moment, it’s amazing to see the New York Times attempt to frame this as an issue of justice by encouraging one small pool in Brooklyn to discontinue a decades-old practice that allowed for the inclusion of a religious minority. By arguing that “everybody” should get to use the pool at all times, they effectively argue that Orthodox women should not get to use the pool.

The op-ed inflates a public pool making accommodations for Orthodox Jewish beliefs into a Constitutional crisis, further hyped by flowery language about how “the summer sun shines equally on the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox.” In their vision, these eight hours of religious accommodation are tantamount to refusing a glass of water to a marooned pilot dying of thirst. The piece states that “the city’s human rights law is quite clear that public accommodations like a swimming pool cannot exclude people based on sex.” They then acknowledge that the law allows for exemptions “based on bona fide considerations of public policy,” but dispense with this seemingly key chestnut by saying that this particular case clearly does not qualify as being a bona fide consideration “with its strong odor of religious intrusion into a secular space” — a horribly chosen turn of phrase, given the religious group being referenced.

Why sincerely held religious beliefs would not fall under “bona fide considerations of public policy” in a pluralistic society is not an issue the op-ed wrestles with at all. Which is curious because, as Tablet notes, public pools across the country have long observed gender-segregated swimming hours for Muslims — pissing off some far-right Islamophobes in the process. Celebrated anti-Muslim nightmare Pamela Geller wrote an article about just such a pool in St. Paul titled “Sharia in Minnesota” which shrieked: “There are are thousands of Islamic centers across the country — sharia swim belongs there, not in our public pools.”

Compare that sentence with this one from the New York Times: “Let those who cannot abide public, secular rules at a public, secular pool find their own private place to swim when and with whom they see fit.”

(Tablet also reached out to a First Amendment expert named Noah Feldman, who said: “The laws are a constitutional accommodation of religion. And the NYC Human Rights law also allows for public policy accommodations; this qualifies.”)

One could argue that the New York Times editorial board just didn’t know that religious accommodations at public pools are a fairly common occurrence — except for the fact that they published an article earlier this year on a public pool in Toronto which praised how “mechanized screens shroud the center’s expansive glass walls to create a session that allows only women and girls to relax in the hot tub, swim laps or careen down the water slide, a rare bit of ‘me’ time treasured by many of the neighborhood’s Muslim residents.” The article called this “a model of inclusion.”

A model not worth copying in The New York Times’ own city, apparently.

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