A New York friend recently headed out to see an exhibit at the newly reconfigured Museum of Jewish Heritage. Moving towards the line to buy tickets, she saw a haredi family, also headed toward the exhibit. Instead of entering the museum, she turned around and went home.
What kept her from the exhibition she very much wanted to see? Fear of measles. The increasing number of outbreaks of the disease among Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities in the New York boroughs and nearby suburbs has received ample press coverage, partly in the hope of persuading vaccine-averse parents – Jewish and others – to vaccinate their children.
Ultra-Orthodox communities there and elsewhere have been sites of measles epidemics. A number of rogue rabbis in those communities have declared the measles vaccine to be forbidden, containing matter derived from pigs, and other animals forbidden by halakhah. I call them rogue because most respected rabbinic authorities ruled long-ago that the life-saving capacity of vaccination, the principle of preserving life, outweighs the trace elements of forbidden foods which, in any event, are injected, not eaten.
And mainstream Orthodox Judaism has never rejected the insights and benefits of medical science. But the influence of these outlier rabbis has been far-reaching, and with visible consequences for their communities. And once a case of measles appears, large families living in overcrowded living spaces facilitates contagion. Alarmed by the spread of measles, halakhic authorities such as the Orthodox Union, the Rabbinical Council of America, and the Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem have gone on record declaring the measles vaccine not only permissible, but obligatory.
But my intent here is not to focus on the value of vaccinating against diseases that can harm one’s family and others – although I believe it is imperative to do so. I want to look at how the measles pandemic resonates with a different contagion: anti-Semitism.
While most press coverage of outbreaks of the illness in Orthodox communities has been careful in its reporting, it’s not hard to see the potential for activating anti-Semitic tropes.
As soon as my friend got home from her aborted museum visit, she called me to tell me what had happened.
“I feel really uncomfortable,” she said. “I looked at a bunch of Jews, and was afraid they were spreading germs.” My friend is the last person I’d term an anti-Semite. Born into a Zionist family – both her parents fought in the 1948 War of Independence – she has a strong sense of Jewish identity. Her father palled around with David Ben Gurion, and she herself volunteered for service in the Israeli army in her late teens. Other members of her family acted with great heroism during the Shoah.
Yet with a graduate degree in medieval Jewish studies, she could not help but be troubled by the way her reaction resonated with anti-Semitic tropes. In the 14th century, Jews were blamed for the Black Plague that swept across Europe. Nazi propaganda characterized Jews as vermin that spread life-threatening germs. Was it a rational precaution, she wondered, that drove her away from the museum? Or was she acting out an inherited prejudice, the legacy of a proudly hiloni, or secular, family – a kind of internalized anti-Semitism?
Her thoughtful, self-reflective concern is precisely what bigots lack. People who are enmeshed in anti-Semitic and racist attitudes don’t step outside of themselves to examine their responses. Instead, they remain engulfed by their bigotry, in ways that even factual evidence cannot dispel.
Alarmingly, bigotry has been on an upswing these days – uncloaked and loudly proclaimed. Jews and Jewish communities should not be blamed for anti-Semitism – indeed, targets of hate are not responsible for the prejudices of others. At the same time, responsible Jewish leadership takes account of the damage done by actions advocated in the name of Judaism. Perhaps this needs to be part of the conversation about the current pandemic.