Sunday, January 19, 2020

Antisemitism and Public Health Agenda

Jews were historically accused of poisoning wells to cause disease and misery

Antisemitism alert.

Once again, it's the New York Times, mainstream media's most egregious purveyor of antisemitic tropes.

In a disturbing piece of biased journalism dated January 16, 2020, the Times effectively blamed the failure of New Jersey's Bill S2173 on orthodox Jews. [This bill aimed to eliminate religious exemption for mandatory vaccine policy.]

Headline read: "How Anti-Vaccine Activists Doomed a Bill in New Jersey," followed by subtitle: "Angry parents, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish group and anti-vaccine celebrities rallied to outmatch one of the state's most powerful elected leaders."

This headline is problematic for two reasons.

1. There were numerous organizations and institutions that opposed this bill quite vociferously. There were religious orders and entire townships in New Jersey that opposed the bill. Why did the Times feel that the only one worthy of mention was an "ultra-Orthodox Jewish" one?
2. The "ultra-Orthodox Jewish group" referred to in the article is Agudath Israel. This organization is not "anti-vaccine" as the headline suggests. Instead, they endorse vaccination in general. The reason they tepidly opposed this bill was to uphold religious freedom of all citizens, even if those citizens hold religious views that differ from their own.

It should also be pointed out the the article featured three photographs, one of an angry parent with a loudspeaker protesting in front of NJ State House, a second of NJ state senators, and a third of orthodox Jewish girls looking out the window at the protest.

This reporting is insidious and misleading. I know firsthand. You see, I was there at the State House in Trenton last Thursday. There were many thousands of people there. There was not one single orthodox rabbi, or any rabbi for that matter, besides for me.

In fact, I was the only person there wearing a yarmulka, and I was NOT there to represent Agudath Israel or any other organization. I saw numerous orthodox Jewish women and girls, perhaps a dozen in total. Out of a crowd of six or seven thousand, their presence was hardly noticeable.

The fact that the Times attributed the "doom" of Bill S2173 to ultra-orthodox Jews is particularly troubling, especially given the newspaper's atrocious reporting of last year's measles outbreak, blaming NY's 300 cases of the highly-contagious disease on ultra-orthodox Jews.

Historically, Jews have been scapegoated for disease throughout history by bigots and haters, often accused of poisoning wells to sicken the local population. Many thousands of Jews were murdered in the wake of this canard in the Middle Ages, and it shockingly persisted until modern times. The Nazis accused Jews of spreading disease, as did Joseph Stalin. Still today in Arab media, Jews are often accused of deliberately spreading illness to cause death and misery. How could the New York Times invoke this disturbing antisemitic trope with impunity?

This appalling editorial was called out by Ira Stoll in Algemeiner Joural at the time. I also called attention to it on my social media page on May 12th, 2019:
Not to be outdone by Ilhan Omar, the Jew-baiting New York Times is at it again.

The Jews are to be blamed for spreading highly contagious disease this time.

Why target all "antivaxxers" when you can pin it on Jews?

Especially those orthodox ones.

Right out of Goebbels' playbook.

Next we'll hear that Jews are poisoning the wells and spreading bubonic plague to non-Jews and Palestinians, of course
As Stoll pointed out, the NY Times never published an editorial singling out the religious identities of other affected communities in the past, like the outbreak among Somali-American community in Minnesota in 2017, or 383 cases in primarily-Amish communities in Ohio in 2014. In fact, the Times barely mentioned these communities at all during those outbreaks, and made no mention of their cultural or religious backgrounds.

It's clear that the NY Times is at it again scapegoating its favorite target, orthodox Jews.

However, upon further reflection, this disturbing trend is not unique to the Times, but may be traced back to New York health officials. The Times editorial quoted these officials who suggested that "some ultra-orthodox parents oppose vaccination." This narrative was promoted all over the media at the time, and many New Yorkers began to avoid contact with anyone who looked ultra-Orthodox. Fear is a powerful tool.

Do you think it's mere coincidence that antisemitic attacks surged in Rockland County and Brooklyn in recent months? Was the Jersey City massacre just happenstance? And do you think the fact it occurred during the NJ legislature's attempt to pass S2173 is coincidental too?

And if it's just garden-variety antisemitism, why were only ultra-orthodox Jews targeted? Surely antisemites know where to find other Jews, as evidenced in Pittsburgh and Poway attacks. No, this recent spate of deadly violence is specifically targeting the ultra-orthodox.

The media incited fear of these Jews. Not just the media. New York health officials incited fear of this population by blaming the outbreak on their supposedly lower vaccination rate. (Never mind the fact that the ultra-Orthodox community does not have a lower vaccination rate than the general population. That didn't dissuade the Times or the NY Dept of Health from singling out those easily-identified ultra-Orthodox).

Fear is a dangerous thing. It invariably leads to loath and hate. It's easy to hate someone who allegedly poses a danger to society.

Publicly attributing a measles outbreak to Jews was overt incitement. Blaming orthodox Jews for the "doom" of a bill that was purported to promote public health is more of the same. Shame on the New York Times. Shame on New York health officials for their indefensible recklessness and incitement of antisemitic violence.

This raises serious questions about the state's agenda to promote its public health policy. Is it fair game to fault someone for catching an infectious disease altogether? Or is it bullying and scapegoating in attempt to pressure a population to submit to state's vaccination policy?

Many in the medical and political establishment argue that it's reckless to not make use of available precautions against contagious disease. Consequently, they argue, a community's lower rate of vaccination is to blame for an outbreak. This negative publicity serves as societal pressure to promote vaccination in their communities. Or so the thinking goes.

Problem is that this thinking is flawed. Not making use of a precaution might indeed be called "reckless," but only if the precaution carries no known risks of its own, and only if the precaution entails no violation of one's religious, philosophical, moral or ethical values. If either of these two conditions don't exist, i.e. the precaution itself exposes a person to risk, and/or the precaution is at odds with one's religious or philosophical beliefs, then it is by no means reckless to decline it. Rather, it's a matter of personal choice.

We cannot fault an individual for his/her religious beliefs. That is religious discrimination. Our society has no place for such reckless bigotry.

Likewise, we cannot blame an individual for his/her personal medical choices, even if it's not motivated by religious reasons. We MUST respect every individual's personal bodily autonomy. We cannot force-medicate or force-vaccinate anyone, even for the sake of a supposedly-greater societal good. Remember the Nuremberg Code.

Even if it were true that certain members of the ultra-Orthodox community have lower vaccination rates, we may not condemn them for this religious or personal preference. Doing so is an attack on their First Amendment rights. We may not call attention to their religious or ethnic identity in attempt to pressure them to submit. We may not instigate widespread fear and suspicion of an entire population.

We may not discriminate against unvaccinated people, no matter what their religion is. Healthy unvaccinated people do NOT cause or spread disease. Sick people do, irrespective of whether they were vaccinated or not. 

Let's stop using inflammatory rhetoric intending to debase or marginalize others, like "anti-vaxxers." They are human like you and me, and are entitled to their own religious, personal and medical decisions. We may not ridicule them simply because they make different choices than we do.

When New York Times attributes disease (or failure of a bill to pass) to "anti-vaccine ultra-orthodox Jews," they are cynically exploiting a segment of the population that is doubly-vulnerable to marginalization. You might call it an "intersectionality in discrimination" of sorts.

I just read reports that a student of Northeastern University was diagnosed with measles last week. No mention was made of his religious affiliation, his position on vaccination in general, or whether he had been vaccinated for measles or not! And that's exactly how it should be.

If the only way that state feels it can promote it's public health agenda is through such intimidation and incitement, then perhaps their entire policy ought to be reconsidered. The ends never justify the means.

In the entire 2019 measles ordeal and the mass hysteria that ensued, not one fatality resulted from any of the 1,203 diagnosed cases of measles in NY and NJ. Antisemitism is far more perilous, resulting in three murdered ultra-Orthodox Jews, and dozens more wounded.

Hatred is no good for public health. It's a deadly disease, and a highly-contagious one at that.

Shame on the state of New York, the New York Times, and the entire media who promoted a reckless agenda of fear-mongering, manipulation and intimidation, awakening age-old prejudices that continue to haunt us to this day. 

Let's declare once and for all: "No fear. No hate." No more medical bullying or discrimination against Jews or anyone else for that matter, vaccinated or unvaccinated.

Let freedom ring.


Moishe Kahan said...

When Jews who washed their hands more often, where less effected by the plague , they where blamed for poisoning the wells.

When Jews are more effected my measles they they get scapegoated again.

Bigots will always find an excuse

S. Shapiro said...

Thanks for putting the current crisis in perspective with such breadth and insight. I would like to add from last weeks Parsha: When Moshe got threatened with being slandered to Pharaoh he stated, "now the matter is known." Our Sages explain that when we talk bad about each other we don't have the merit to escape persecution. If it was like that in Egypt, it can happen in America. The more hatred and slander we aim at each other the more we lose our Divine protection in exile.