Dear Phoenix Editorial Board,
We were disappointed to find antisemitic stereotypes in a recently published op-ed, “Vaccinate Every Swattie. No Exceptions.” While the overall argument of the piece, that students must be vaccinated in the fall, is certainly worth discussion, we were upset at the article’s stereotypical and disproportionate focus on anti-vaccine sentiment in a very small subset of the Jewish community. We understand that the antisemitic tropes used in the piece did not seem to be from a place of ill intent, but it is nonetheless concerning to know that they made it to publication. One of the challenging things about combating anti-Jewish stereotypes is that they are so ingrained into our culture that they are easy to overlook when one is unfamiliar with their history and use. Like many forms of systemic hatred, antisemitism is most successful when it sows division.
In the second paragraph, the writer says that “Religious and personal freedom is … not a free pass to be a plague rat” and then goes into great detail discussing a measles outbreak in a Jewish community. Blaming disease outbreaks on Jewish communities, and indeed, comparing these communities to rats, is a stereotype that goes back as far as the Bubonic plague. Using the examples of human sacrifice and abusing children as limitations of religious freedom just before this language and the focus on ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities also falls in line with centuries old antisemitic blood libel propaganda.
Furthermore, the focus on anti-vax sentiment in one very specific Jewish community is not a reasonable characterization of anti-vaxxers in the United States at large. The article linked to as a citation of the claim that “New York’s Orthodox Jewish communities… tend to be opposed to vaccinations” misuses the descriptor “Orthodox” when in fact it is referring to a specific sect of Haredi (sometimes known as ultra-Orthodox) Jews. It is true and lamentable that this specific community has struggled with anti-vaccine rhetoric, sometimes with devastating outcomes, but this community’s struggle with misinformation around vaccines is not unique in the United States and does not come from religious beliefs.
Much of the anti-vaccine misinformation that circulates in these communities comes, in fact, from misinformation from more mainstream sects of the anti-vax movement (specifically, wealthy, white, Christian women) via Facebook and Whatsapp. And in 2014, there was another widespread measles outbreak in Disneyland. California has widespread philosophical exemptions for vaccinations, which most likely contributed to this outbreak. This example would have been far more representative of the issue rather than focusing on the measles outbreak mentioned in the article. In any case, Swarthmore has no Haredi Jewish students, and dedicating so much space in this article to the Haredi community’s stance on vaccines is entirely unrelated to the main point of the op-ed.
Indeed, religious opposition to vaccines is far from a Jewish issue. Jewish tradition places a high value on preserving life, and Orthodox communities are urged to violate religious law if it would save a life. (Pop culture has a history of misrepresenting these beliefs). In contrast, throughout the pandemic, there has been a persistent opposition to vaccinations and compliance with other public health measures from Evangelical communities. Jewish communities, however, have largely been extremely compliant with and adaptive to pandemic regulations—in fact, of religiously affiliated Americans, Jews are most likely to have received or expressed a desire to receive a Covid vaccine. Singling out Jews on this issue is thus not only a false accusation, but also turns us into a scapegoat for a problem for which overall, our communities are invested in fixing.