The event was tailor-made to reinforce stereotypes. As The New York Times reported, hundreds of “ultra-Orthodox Jews” showed up at an anti-vaccine rally held this week in Rockland County, N.Y. They jammed a ballroom in Monsey, a town known for its large haredi population, to attend a “vaccine symposium” where they were fed a laundry list of conspiracy theories peddled by both secular and religious charlatans aimed at trying to convince them not to vaccinate their children.
The size of the event has fueled speculation that despite the strong efforts of responsible religious authorities and the government to educate the public about the danger that the “anti-vaxxers” pose to public health, the numbers of those who are buying into fraudulent claims that vaccines are harmful are growing. And unfortunately, the Monsey festival of ignorance also fed into the widespread impression that the primary source of the problem is the Orthodox Jewish community. But as worrisome as the popularity of this cult-like belief among Jews may be, the truth is that the haredim are no more likely to be victims of it than other groups.
As a front-page feature in the Times reported earlier this month, as much as Orthodox Jews have become the face of measles outbreak caused by the failure of parents to vaccinate their children, this group is far from the only one where such conspiracy theories have taken hold.
State immunization figures reveal that low vaccination rates can also be found in other communities. A majority of the “dozens” of New York state schools that had immunization rates of less than 90 percent served populations that were not haredi Orthodox. It turns that among those with low rates of vaccinations, several were Muslim schools. Others were Christian bible schools with still more those that use non-traditional methods of education like the Waldorf method—apparently a magnet for parents who believe in alternative medicine. Still others were schools that are devoted to helping children with special needs.
Perhaps it’s understandable that some worry that anti-Semites will exploit the outbreak. But such canards about Jews spreading disease have been a staple of anti-Semitism dating back to the claims that Jews poisoned the wells during the Bubonic Plague pandemic in the 14th century, as well as in the Nazi propaganda of the 20th. Anti-Semitism is always about the anti-Semites and their twisted beliefs, not about what Jews do or don’t do.
Nevertheless, the peril this poses to society as whole is not diminished by the knowledge that other groups are just as foolish as some Jews.
Measles was a disease that was pronounced eradicated by medical authorities in 2000. But there have been more than 112,000 reported cases reported around the globe since the start of 2019. Statistics also show the extent of the problem in Israel. There were only 30 cases of measles reported in Israel in 2017 but 4,000 in 2018. That latter figure has already been exceeded in less than five months. While only a small number of sufferers die, children who catch the measles run the risk of fatal bouts of encephalitis or pneumonia.
If this trend isn’t reversed, it’s entirely possible that the spread of a once-extinct disease that can infect adults as well as children will continue to grow. While those who refuse to vaccinate claim they are exercising the right to make their own decisions for their families, their ill-informed choice is destroying the “herd” immunity that universal vaccination provides for society. The result is that the anti-vaxxers are making decisions that are endangering the lives of other people’s children, too.
As the Monsey anti-vaxxer event showed, Jews are not immune to the myths peddled by those responsible for this crisis. Among those speaking to those in attendance was the appearance via Skype of Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor whose since-discredited article in the British medical magazine Lancet was responsible for starting the anti-vaxxer movement in 1998. In a classic medical hoax, he claimed research showed that the MMR vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella caused autism. A subsequent investigation exposed the paper as a fraud. But despite the untold pain and suffering his lies have caused, he continues to try to convince parents not to immunize their children.
But where one fake conspiracy exists, others pop up around it. One rabbi at the Monsey event claimed that the Orthodox is being intentionally singled out for bad lots of vaccines as part of an anti-Semitic plot. He went on to claim that it was part of a plot hatched by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who he said was trying to infect Jews with diseases via vaccines in order to distract the country from “more serious” disease being spread by Hispanic immigrants.
In this way, we can see that in the guise of defending their community, anti-vaxxer Jews are disgracefully appropriating the language and the symbolism of the Holocaust. Rather than the victims of anti-Semitism, this movement is actually mimicking the way Jew-hatred spreads as a result of paranoia and lies.
Fortunately, rabbis from every denomination have denounced the anti-vaxxers and stated clearly that there is no religious justification for their actions. Children who have not been vaccinated are being banned from schools, synagogues, life-cycle events and other places where groups of people gather. Those who endanger their neighbors out of ignorance or fall under the influence of conspiracy mongers must be condemned and isolated as much as it is humanly possible.
Medical science has provided the answer to many threats posed to public health; still, there is no cure for the ignorance and stupidity that has created this crisis. This is not a problem that is specific to any one group, and yet the foothold it has established in portions of the community is threatening the health of all Jews. Zero tolerance is the only viable attitude towards opponents of vaccination.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.