By Eve Mykytyn
The New York Times reported that: “An Outbreak Spreads Fear, of Measles, of Ultra Orthodox Jews, of Anti Semitism.” The Times’ reporting on a measles outbreak focuses not on the negative health effects of measles or on the risk that others will contract the disease but on the sensitivities of the Hasidic community and the as yet unsubstantiated fear that the outbreak might increase anti Semitism.
Rockland County, a northern exurb of New York City, has one of the largest concentrations of Hasidic Jews in the United States. Since October, there have been 157 confirmed cases of measles in the county. County health officials said that after the first cases of measles were contracted by people who had traveled to Israel the disease spread to the children of ultra-Orthodox families who were not vaccinated. In November, the county instituted “exclusion orders” that barred unvaccinated children from attending schools with low vaccination rates.
Last Tuesday, County officials declared a state of emergency, barring unvaccinated children from public places, including restaurants, shopping centers, houses of worship and schools. County spokesman, John G. Lyon, said there would not be any active enforcement of the emergency rule. “There won’t be police officers… outside of grocery stores. Nobody’s going to ask anyone to see their vaccination records or medical history.” He explained that the order was intended as an incentive for people both to vaccinate their children and to cooperate with the health department’s efforts to contain the outbreak.
Hasidic leaders said they feared an invasion of their community by the authorities under the guise of public health. Aron Wieder, an Hasidic Rockland County state legislator, complained that he had learned about the order from news reports, and that Hasidim had been excluded from the decision-making process. Of course, the decision was made by health authorities and no communities should have been or were consulted. But Wieder warned that people “who are true haters, will take advantage of this type of situation and it just pours fuel on the fire.”
Wieder claimed that he has fielded ‘nonstop phone calls’ from fellow Hasidim fearful of being vilified. “The conception that is out there is completely distorted, and that is, that the Orthodox community for the most part don’t vaccinate their children, and that is not true.” Wieder said that the county executive had a’ moral obligation’ to defend the Hasidic community against accusations of spreading measles. Which I suppose means that Wieder believes that the county executive has a moral obligation to correct the accurate observation that the Hasidim are the ones spreading measles. (larger outbreaks are occurring in Hasidic communities in New York City). There have been measles outbreaks in other states as well, and not all are linked to Hasidic communities.
Steve Gold, the chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Council for the Jewish Federation of Rockland, shared Mr. Wieder’s concerns, saying the move by county officials risked exacerbating the anti-Semitism that already existed in the area before the measles crisis. He pointed to anti-Semitic episodes, citing a 2017 incident of swastikas spray-painted on trees. “I think it just opened up the door for everybody to say whatever they wanted to say,” Mr. Gold said. “And they’re putting, the way it looks right now, 100 percent blame on the Orthodox community.”
This outbreak of hysteria by the Hasidim over possible anti Semitism resulting from their own behavior, is in part a continuation of the existing tensions between the Hasidim and their neighbors in this formerly exurban environment now marred by high density developments. The divisions are primarily the result of the battle over schools and school funding. The Hasidim, who do not use the public schools, have managed to gain control of local school boards. Funding for the public schools has been cut and money has been siphoned to yeshivas. It is possible that where the Hasidim see anti Semitism, what they are really seeing are the consequences of their own treatment of their neighbors.