‘A desecration of memory’
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‘A desecration of memory’

Bergen and Rockland leaders talk about vaccination, anti-vaxxers’ Holocaust imagery

Opponents of vaccination have begun wearing yellow Jewish stars, evoking comparisons to Nazi crimes.
Opponents of vaccination have begun wearing yellow Jewish stars, evoking comparisons to Nazi crimes.

The measles outbreak, both here and across the country, continues; it’s been particularly virulent in Rockland County.

It’s particularly evident in some parts of the charedi world, even though overwhelmingly most Jews, including the charedim, vaccinate their children, most schools demand vaccination, and most anti-vaxxers across the country are not Jewish.

The anti-vaxxing campaign has taken an odd twist, though, as some ardent opponents of mandatory vaccination have taken to calling such vaccination Nazi-like, and have begun to call the representatives of state and local governments that call for vaccination Nazis. Some Jews have started to make those arguments as well, at least given the evidence of phone calls we’ve received here at the Jewish Standard.

Dr. Kenneth Prager of Englewood is a pulmonologist, a professor of clinical medicine, the director of clinical ethics, and the chair of the medical ethics committee at Columbia University Medical Center. He’s also a modern Orthodox Jew, a member of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood.

As a doctor, a medical ethicist, and a Jew, Dr. Prager has strong feelings about vaccination. “Vaccines have been one of the greatest scientific achievements in the history of humankind,” he said. “We have eradicated smallpox, thanks to vaccination. We have almost eradicated the scourge of polio, although there still are small pockets of it.

“I do not understand how anybody cannot understand the benefits to humankind of vaccinations. It requires willful ignorance.”

Now that the idea that measles vaccines cause autism has been debunked — in fact, autism often manifests, coincidentally and unfortunately, at the same time as vaccinations often are given — the arguments against vaccination have moved on.

Newspapers have reported that the charedi community sometimes is told that “the vaccine has pig DNA in it,” Dr. Prager said; in fact, vaccines are grown in a mixture of substances but are purified to the point that most charedi rabbis find them kosher for use. Plus, they point out, vaccines are not eaten.

The argument that vaccines are not kosher “is absurd,” Dr. Prager said. “Not only does it fly in the face of evidence, but it is unethical, in the sense that a person’s refusal to vaccinate their children puts other children at risk and that is immoral. The risk to their children is trivial to nonexistent when they vaccinate, but not when they do not.

“Some children cannot get vaccinated because they are immunocompromised. They can get sick. It is a major health concern, not just to you and your family but to the health of other people’s children as well.

“We are not asking you to sacrifice your children to protect other people’s children, but to protect your children and other people’s children,” he continued. Refusal to do so “is based on ignorance, and the people who propagate it have an almost cult-like mentality.”

What about the comparison to the Nazis? “That is obscene,” Dr. Prager said. “Obscene, with a capital O.

“It is obscene because it equates one of the greatest goods of humanity with one of the greatest evils.

“Can I be more clear?” he concluded. “It is a chillul haShem.” A desecration of God’s name.

Rabbi Aaron J. Fink is the dean of Ateres Bais Yaakov Rockland in New Hempstead; it’s a kindergarten-through-12th-grade centrist Orthodox all-girls day school. It has a strict vaccination policy and “a 100 percent” vaccination rate, Rabbi Fink said.

Dr. Helene Sinnreich, left, Dr. Kenneth Prager, and Rabbi Aaron J. Fink

“We believe vaccination is important, because the Torah demands from us ‘Venishmartem meod lenafshtechem,’” he continued.

That quote from Deuteronomy 4:15 is vague enough to be translated in quite a few ways, including “That you shall be very watchful of yourselves.” No matter how it is translated, however, the word “meod” — very — stands out. It’s an unusual emphasis.

“It means that you have to watch your health,” Rabbi Fink said. “We don’t take any chances with our health. Nor should we.”

At Ateret Bais Yaakov Rockland that means, among other things, that “we don’t take chances with our health, because we have to protect not only the students, but also the unborn children of our staff. The staff are mostly women, many of them in their childbearing years.”

What if parents feel that their children should not be vaccinated? “Those parents can either shop for another school or vaccinate their children,” Rabbi Fink said unyieldingly. “There is no shortage of options in our community.”

Are there any halachic reasons not to vaccinate? “No,” he said. “I am not aware of any halachic reasons.”

He cites Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, the chief rabbi of the Orthodox rabbinical courts in Jerusalem, who wrote a letter to Rabbi Aryeh Malkiel Kotler, the rosh yeshiva at Lakewood. The letter, written last fall and posted on the Yeshiva World’s website (and easily googleable), is clear about parents’ need to vaccinate their children. The principle behind the letter is pikuach nefesh, the need to save a life.

In suggesting that Rabbi Sternbuch’s letter would explain his position, Rabbi Fink positioned the rabbi in the Jewish world by saying “You can’t get much more right wing than Rabbi Sternbach.”

He did want to make another point, though. “Whether it is in the Orthodox community, the chasidic community, or the secular community, anti-vaxxers are a fringe group,” Rabbi Fink said. “The entire group should not be judged by the actions of these few people.

“Normative halacha and normative behavior is pro-vaccination, and the overwhelming majority of the entire Jewish community, from right to left, is adhering to that.” Do not judge any part of the Jewish community by the actions of these fringe members, he stressed.

Dr. Helene Sinnreich is an associate professor of religious studies and the director of the Fern and Manfred Steinfeld program in Judaic studies at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville; she’s also the co-editor of the Journal of Jewish Identities. (She also grew up in North Brunswick, because apparently everything and everyone traces back somehow or other to New Jersey.)

Last week, Dr. Sinnreich wrote an op ed in the Washington Post, reacting to the comparison of laws about vaccinations to Nazi crimes. On a later phone interview, she said that references to the Nazis had begun to creep into anti-vaxxers’ arguments as long as four years ago, “but a few weeks ago they started wearing the yellow Jewish stars that said ‘No Vax.’”

She blames some of the anti-vaxxers’ success on the general societal mistrust of government, and of expertise, that has risen greatly in the last few years.

“I have a friend who is a historian, who said that in the 1950s, when they first came out with the experimental polio vaccination, the government put out a call saying ‘We have an experimental vaccine for polio, and we need children to be our test subjects,’ and 97 percent of parents showed up with their kids, with the hope of getting this experimental vaccine.”

That was then, which was very different from now.

Measles cases have been clustered in parts of Rockland County including New Square, an all-chasidic village. (Uriel Heilman)

“We have had an incredible forgetting,” Dr. Sinnreich said. “We forget how terrible the measles were, and how desperate parents were. We forget that it wasn’t that long ago when lots of people died from measles.

“We used to believe in science. Back in the 1950s and 60s we believed in science, we believed that we had the most powerful government in the world, and that we had all the solutions, that we would win the space race and that science was advancing.” (We were right about most of those things, but not quite enough, and we hadn’t factored in complacency.)

Now, though, Dr. Sinnreich said, “We don’t believe in science.”

There used to be far more communicable diseases floating around the world.

“We forget that there were all these public health measures on the books, back when tuberculosis was a rampant problem,” she continued. “We had rules on the books saying you can’t spit on the street. That wasn’t politeness. It was sanitation. It was trying not to spread disease.

“We also have rules about people who work in the food industry having to wash their hands. These are things that we accept, and if we stopped doing them, there would be rampant spread of disease. We accept the fact that there are laws that protect us.”

But sometimes the protections have been so successful that we forget the dangers from which they safeguard us.

The situation hasn’t been helped, although it also hasn’t been caused, “by a president who distrusts experts and who supports anti-vaxxers,” Dr. Sinnreich added.

In Jewish terms, “we have an obligation to protect our children, and not to harm other people,” she said. “You don’t have a right to put your life at risk and you do not have a right to put your children’s lives at risk. So when you take these steps, when you refuse to vaccinate, you are putting your children’s lives at risk.

“That is not okay.”

Then she turned to the history of the Holocaust that some anti-vaxxers are evoking.

“One of the biggest killers of Jews during the Holocaust was disease,” she said. “Anne Frank didn’t die in a gas chamber. She died of typhus. If you read the tragic story of Elie Wiesel’s father dying, it’s a story of him succumbing to disease, not of his being separated from his son and being put in a gas chamber.

“There was an extremely high mortality rate in the ghetto, and a lot of it was from communicable disease. They were living in very tight quarters, in horrible conditions, with no soap and no easy access to water.”

She paraphrased a quote from a doctor’s wife, reporting from the ghetto. “She said, ‘Before I was in the ghetto, I used to think that all you had to do to be clean was to want to be clean. But then I discovered that you have to find the water, you have to get the water, you have to find a way to heat it, you have to find soap — which is impossible.’”

In fact, Dr. Sinnreich said, “many vaccines were new and experimental and not yet in widespread use” when Jews started being herded into ghettos. “They had invented a vaccine for diphtheria, but it wasn’t in wide use yet. They were still experimental with typhus. There was literally a laboratory in the ghetto in Lvov, and a famous bacteriologist from that time, a Jew” — his name was Ludwig Fleck, as she wrote in the Washington Post — “was creating vaccines out of urine. He inoculated first himself and then his family, and then 30 volunteers, and then 500 volunteers in the Lvov ghetto.”

Did those vaccines work? No one he inoculated died of typhus, she said. “But they were deported and sent to camps, so that didn’t provide a test of the efficacy of the vaccines.”

Dr. Sinnreich is not amused by the irony inherent in anti-vaxxers co-opting Holocaust imagery. As she wrote in the Washington Post, “For Jews of the ghetto, vaccines were precious protection and symbolized a belief in their own future.

“It is a desecration of their memory to equate refusing medical treatment with the Holocaust or vaccine injuries with the vast tragedy of the Holocaust.”

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