New Jersey Town Sought to Ban Orthodox Jews, Suit Argues

An Orthodox Jew is checked by security during an event in New Jersey, on August 1, 2012. New Jersey’s attorney general is suing a township for trying to drive out Orthodox Jews with anti-Semitic ordinances. Reuters

A New Jersey town discriminated against Orthodox Jews when it barred them from a specific religious practice as part of an "archaic, fear-driven and discriminatory mind-set," a lawsuit charges.

The state of New Jersey is suing the township of Mahwah, which passed an ordinance this summer forbidding Jews from using markers to show the boundaries of a zone, known as an eruv, in which they can perform tasks otherwise prohibited on the Jewish Sabbath. The town also barred non–New Jersey residents from using Mahwah's public parks—which the attorney general charges was meant to drive out Orthodox Jews moving to the area from New York.

"In addition to being on the wrong side of history, the conduct of Mahwah's township council is legally wrong," New Jersey Attorney General Christopher Porrino said in a statement after filing the suit on Tuesday.

"To think that there are local governments here in New Jersey, in 2017, making laws on the basis of some archaic, fear-driven and discriminatory mind-set is deeply disappointing and shocking to many."

Porrino's suit, however, will be disappointing to some Mahwah residents, who claim that the ordinances are needed to stop Orthodox Jews from moving into the area in droves.

"This is a soft invasion," one resident wrote in an online petition. "Next, we will see homes called places of worship or schools for this religious organization as a way for the members of this religious organization to avoid paying property taxes. I do not want to pick up the tab!"

"They are clearly trying to annex land like they've been doing in Occupied Palestine," another resident wrote.

Suburban communities in New York City often react viscerally to change, and the influx of Orthodox Jews has provoked thinly veiled anti-Semitism in the past. Opponents often reject erubs because they know that without them, Orthodox Jews can't live in the town: Without the religious boundary, Jews can't perform dozens of daily life tasks on the Sabbath.

The Mahwah ordinances are clearly anti-Semitic, the case argues. The New Jersey attorney general's office submitted a complaint documenting a plethora of discriminatory statements made by local Mahwah residents in town hall meetings and on social media. The attorney general also submitted examples proving that the ordinance banning non-New Jersey residents from parks is directed specifically at Orthodox Jews and no other resident.

For example, one non-Jewish resident contacted the town council president expressing concern that her mother, a New York resident, would be prohibited from taking her grandchildren to the park.

The council president responded that the ordinance did not apply to the case of this grandmother, the Attorney General's Office alleged.

The suit also seeks $3.4 million from Mahwah because the ordinance for parks violates a New Jersey environmental law.