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Is it OK to blame ultra-orthodox Jews?

A vaccination shot for measles and mumps is prepared. Photo by Airman 1st Class Matthew Lotz/U.S. Air Force/Creative Commons

Question: what prominent Jewish media outlet, with a proud history, could use a new headline writer?

Answer: The Forward.

Here is why.

A recent article in the Forward describes an outbreak of measles in the Hasidic community.

Why is this happening? Because many of them refuse to vaccinate their children. This, despite rather stringent appeals from Orthodox leaders and educators. Some yeshivot will not accept children who have not been vaccinated.

This is yet another manifestation of anti-vaccination propaganda that has been floating around that community, and other communities, for quite some time. (For decades, my family took a kind of pseudo-pride in imagining that Jonas Salk was somehow related to us).

I vociferously disagree with the anti-vaccination people. I am fervently in favor of vaccination of children.

So, what is it about this article that troubles me?

Only the headline.

“The Ultra-Orthodox Keep Causing Measles Outbreaks. Why Aren’t They Vaccinating?”

See anything wrong here?

First, those measles outbreaks seem to be confined to their own community — not that this make it any better.

But, the ill-informed and/or the Jew hater is likely to read that headline, and come away with the impression that the Jews are responsible for starting a plague.

Sound familiar? It should. In 1348 to 1351, Jew haters accused the Jews of causing the Black Death in Europe, by poisoning the wells. That accusation was a classic example of anti-semitism, and it lead to the massacres of entire Jewish communities.

Second, and even worse: the use of one, small word in that headline.

“The.”

The Ultra-Orthodox.

Not: some ultra-Orthodox.

“The.”

I respect the Forward, and have done so for several decades. My father once found a copy of the Forward in our bathroom, and he exited, waving it at me: “Why are you reading a Communist newspaper?” My father knew the history of the Forward very well — that it had started as a socialist, Yiddish newspaper. The Forward has published many of my articles.

But, something is very wrong here.

It’s that little word “the.” It is the implication that the ultra-Orthodox, as a body, are spreading measles.

This is simply wrong.

First, it is not true.

Second, it is profoundly bigoted — and frankly, I cannot understand how the Forward could publish such a, well, libel.

I will not publish here what some of the parallels would be. Just think about other groups on the margins of society. Come up with a social problem. Blame that group for the social problem.

See what it feels like.

There is a word for this.

The word is bigotry. And it should be the last thing that we would expect from a Jewish newspaper. Or, any newspaper.

Finally, let me say this as a non-Orthodox Jew.

I am tired of the sharp divisions in the Jewish community. In many cases, those divisions have emerged because of our tendency to be like many other Americans — to generalize and to demonize those with whom we disagree.

It’s all about “the.”

The Reform Jews. The leftists. The Orthodox. The ultra-Orthodox. The Israelis. The settlers.

In each case, those “the” statements mask whopping over generalizations — and yes, even bigotry.

The Forward should have known better.

An apology is quite in order.

 

 

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.