Last week I wrote an Opinions piece about vaccine hesitancy and the need for Swarthmore to require vaccinations for all its students. This was a short piece, written more or less off-the-cuff after seeing a news article about vaccine exemptions. Unfortunately, this piece unintentionally stereotyped and disproportionately concentrated on a specific outbreak among ultra-Orthodox Jews, and after publication it was brought to my attention that this focus was upsetting to other members of Swarthmore’s Jewish community.
While it’s not an excuse, it was never my intention to write any sort of anti-Semitic rhetoric. I was raised Jewish and consider Jewishness as an important part of my cultural identity. That probably made me less careful than I would be otherwise, however, when writing about the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community. My inclusion and discussion of an outbreak among Haredim in New York was intended to highlight the consequences of vaccine opposition in general, of which this outbreak provided the most recent and salient example. But this outbreak certainly isn’t representative of outbreaks at large, nor is it a good sample of Jewish attitudes towards vaccines. As I mentioned in the article, “ultra-Orthodox Jews are a tiny minority of Jewish Americans, and anti-vax Orthodox Jews are an even tinier fraction of said minority,” and indeed the Jewish-American community at large is significantly less vaccine-hesitant than the general population. Most vaccine hesitancy and misinformation, and especially the kind that might affect Swarthmore’s student body, is in fact concentrated among white, wealthy, and predominantly Christian women spreading conspiracy theories via social media. (Other outbreaks, such as the 2014 measles outbreak in California, are more representative of this phenomenon.) In the specific context of the pandemic, most religious vaccine and public-health misinformation has originated from evangelical Christian communities. This additional context should have been spelled out more clearly in my writing and was compounded by some sloppy word choice conflating the attitudes of Orthodox and Haredi/“ultra-Orthodox” Jews, which are separate groups. Finally, some comparisons I made in the article (specifically using examples of human sacrifice and child abuse right before describing unvaccinated people as “plague rats” and discussing an outbreak in the Jewish community) accidentally evoked the longstanding blood libel trope commonly used in anti-Semitic propaganda.
These were preventable errors that could have been resolved with more care on my part to present a representative image of the situation, and I’m sorry to anyone who may have been alienated by this rhetoric. While it’s The Phoenix’s policy not to allow edits to extant articles unless they are a matter of factual accuracy, I will be modifying my writing process to ensure something of this nature doesn’t occur again. Thank you to Swarthmore Kelilah for bringing this up.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely the author’s and do not reflect the views of The Phoenix Editorial Board.