Updated: Apr 15
Israel's huge tourism industry has been closed down for a year because of the pandemic. Now it's on the verge-- next month-- of reopening... for vaccinated tourists (apparently, no snake handling evangelical Trumpists from the Old Confederacy need apply). Groups will be admitted starting May 23 and individual tourists probably in July. Tourists will be tested before boarding flights and-- until international standards for vaccine passports are in place-- then get a serological when they arrive.
In some ways, Israel has been a model for good pandemic practices. The country's vaccination program has been stellar and Israel will be one of the first-- Bhutan is ahead-- countries in the world to achieve herd immunity. The economy is already coming back strongly. But Israel has also had a very rough time of it-- 90,944 cases per million residents, one of the worst rates in the world and almost as bad as the US's 96,453. Israel was struck so harshly because of the primitive Ultra Orthodox population, which is insular, ignorant, superstitious and mistrustful of anything that was developed after the Middle Ages. They largely refused to take part in the national prevention program and spread the contagion nationally even though so many of them chose to liven their own self-imposed ghettos. After so many deaths and so much tragedy in the Haredi communities, they are starting to catch on-- and catch up.
But not in Borough Park, one of the Ultra Orthodox sections of Brooklyn, where the Haredi community has led the way in COVID, making New York a statistical anomaly. As the U.S. fights the 4th wave with an advanced vaccination program, New York has been struck with daily new cases way beyond the national average. After weeks in the #1 slot for most new cases, yesterday New York was 4th, after Michigan, mask-free Florida and Pennsylvania. New York had 5,212 new cases yesterday, bringing its total to 2,010,683 (103,358 cases per million residents). And with 257,339 cases, Brooklyn leads the state's counties in cases, much of it in the Haredi neighborhoods.
This morning, Molly Boigon, writing for The Forward, reported the Borough Park is lagging the rest of New York in vaccination rates-- half (11%) the city's overall rate of 22%. No trips to Israel in May for these goobers. "Borough Park, the Orthodox enclave in Brooklyn that was an early hotspot for COVID-19 cases and deaths last year," wrote Boigon, "now has the lowest portion of fully vaccinated people of any New York City neighborhood, according to newly released public-health data... [E]xperts say that it is a persistent belief in herd immunity and skepticism about the safety of the vaccine-- both fueled by rampant misinformation spread via WhatsApp, flyers and robocalls-- has left Borough Park trailing the rest of the city in inoculations."
The skepticism has taken root despite-- or perhaps because of-- the fact that Borough Park was particularly hard hit by the coronavirus last spring and summer, with the constant wail of ambulance sirens becoming a community soundtrack, and hospitals, morgues and religious burial societies overwhelmed by illness and death. From March 2020 through September 2020, Borough Park’s ZIP code, 11219, had the highest death rate in the city and the second-highest hospitalization rate behind Breezy Point, Queens, according to city data.
But the neighborhood was also a place that resisted social-distancing rules, with some synagogues and schools staying open illegally, and street protests last fall that led to violence.
Now, as the vaccination campaigns have picked up across the city and country in recent weeks, robocalls, flyers in synagogues and yeshivas, and messages on social-media platforms like WhatsApp have spread rumors about the safety of the vaccine and the severity of its side effects, despite the efforts by some rabbis and political leaders in the community to calm the public.
Of particular staying power is the baseless claim that the vaccine either accidentally causes infertility, or that it’s an intentional ploy designed by Bill Gates to reduce the world’s population. In fact, mRNA vaccines have been found to protect pregnant and lactating women and their newborns from the virus.
Dr. Vladimir Zelenko, the Hasidic doctor behind the unsupported use of the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine to treat coronavirus, told an Israeli Haredi rabbi earlier this year that the vaccine “may inhibit fertility for young girls.” One employee at an Orthodox fertility clinic in Brooklyn, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the clinic has gotten nonstop calls inquiring about the vaccine’s safety.
Haredi families typically have many children, and many view having them as a religious obligation based on the Biblical commandment to be “fruitful and multiply,” and part of a collective responsibility to expand the Jewish community after the devastating losses of the Holocaust.
On Tuesday, as Israel announced that it would allow more tourism starting in May, but only for those who can prove they have been vaccinated, the news was not well received in one WhatsApp chat for conservative Haredi Jews.
“File a lawsuit!” said one user.
“Very sad and tragic,” said another.
Already conservative in their social outlook, Haredi Jews increasingly aligned more with Republican politics during the Trump years, and many listen to right-wing talk radio and are exposed to far-right groups and pages on Facebook, if they use social media.
The community was also targeted by the anti-vaccine movement in 2018 and 2019 during the measles outbreak. Activists including Del Bigtree, who leads the anti-vaccine group Informed Consent Action Network, appeared at anti-vaccine symposiums in Borough Park and compared quarantining children with measles to Jews targeted by Nazi Germany.
Avi Shafran, the director of public affairs at the Orthodox advocacy group Agudath Israel, said he thinks that there are “larger factors” than misinformation contributing to low vaccination rates in Borough Park.
“There is an assumption (right or not) that something close to herd immunity has been reached in the community,” Shafran, who occasionally writes for the Forward, said in an email interview. Borough Park and other Haredi neighborhoods “are interpreting the currently comparatively low hospitalization rates in their neighborhoods as confirming the idea that most people have antibodies and are protected even without vaccination.”
An author of a research paper published last month about coronavirus in Haredi communities told the Jewish Telegraph Agency that “no value in the paper approaches herd immunity.”
About 19% of Borough Park’s population has had at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, which is the second-lowest rate in the city behind the neighborhood of Edgemere/Far-Rockaway, Queens. Citywide, 34% of people have had at least one dose.
Meanwhile, one robocall circulating in the community warns not only of infertility supposedly caused by the vaccine, but also of heart attacks, “aneurysm, stroke, hemorrhage, paralysis, seizures, psychosis, anxiety, cognitive problems, digestive disorders” and a laundry list of other problems.
One petition circulating in the community asks parents to sign if they are opposed to distributing vaccines to children in schools.
And on WhatsApp Tuesday morning, users were sharing a video of a woman counting funeral and shiva notices in her inbox, as she said she had more to attend now than she did during the entirety of 2020, suggesting those deaths were caused by the vaccine.
“Why is no one freaking out about the overwhelming number of deaths?” she asked.
Brooklyn voted overwhelmingly for Biden-- 703,310 (77.0%) to 202,772 (22.2%). Most of that 22.2% vote for Trump came from the Ultra-Orthodox. Many Haredi precincts in neighborhoods like Borough Park voted 80 and 90% for Trump, not much different from backward religionist communities in Tennessee and Mississippi.