Now Polio Is in New York’s Sewers. That’s Not Good for the Jews.
For the third time in three years, a few ultra-Orthodox Jews who refuse to accept public-health norms have played a role in introducing a disease to New York City. Their rabbis should act before bigots do.
In 2019, measles spread from Ukraine to Israel to London to Brooklyn in networks of ultra-Orthodox families who refused to vaccinate their children. No one died, but more than 100 victims, most of them children, were hospitalized with pneumonia or with encephalitis, which can cause brain damage.
In early 2020, Purim celebrations spread a lethal wave of Covid-19 through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods so rapidly that leading rabbis died and burial societies ran out of shrouds. (To be fair, most of that spread took place just before the city closed down, but defiance of mask mandates and of limits on gatherings became common in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods for the next year.)
And now in 2022, a strain of polio circulating in Jerusalem has followed the same route that measles did: from ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel to London to Brooklyn and Rockland and Orange Counties.
Most ultra-Orthodox Jews do vaccinate their children. But there is a substantial subset of the community that has fallen prey to the lies of the anti-vaccine industry.
This is bad news, both for public health and for anti-Semitism. People who refuse to join in universal efforts to protect society — in this case by vaccination — eventually become targets of that society’s anger.
There is no serious objection to vaccines in any major religion. And certainly not in Judaism. Because of its core value of pikuach nefesh — the principle that nearly anything must be done to save a life — Judaism is probably the most pro-vaccine religion on the face of the earth. Most of the vaccines we use today were invented by Jews. In the 1800’s, Edward Jenner, the inventor of the smallpox vaccine, was declared a “hasid” (a pious person) and even named one of the “righteous among nations” by the scholar Rabbi Israel Lipschitz for the lives he saved. Along with other Ashkenazi rabbis, Lipschitz held that Jews were not just encouraged but obligated to vaccinate their children against deadly diseases, even with the dangerous vaccines of that era. To fail to do so, wrote Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, was “like spilling blood.”
The threat of disease makes people irrational. All readers of medical histories know that, in the years after 1348, massacres, arson and forced deportations wiped out 200 Jewish communities in western Europe. Jews were falsely accused of spreading the Black Death from city to city by poisoning wells in Christian neighborhoods.
But not all accusations are completely false. The year 1892 saw severe anti-Semitic backlash in the United States after Eastern European Jews were accused of introducing both cholera and typhus to New York City. Typhus probably did arrive aboard the S.S. Massilia, which was carrying Russian Jews from Odessa to the U.S.; the origins of cholera were more obscure but it was circulating in the European port cities from which emigrants’ ships sailed. Dozens of Jewish immigrants — not just the infected, but others who had lived at the same Lower East Side addresses — were either locked into their rooming houses until they died or recovered or were transported to North Brother Island in the East River (an isolation facility famous in part because “Typhoid Mary” Mallon died there after 30 years in quarantine).
In the age of Donald Trump, it doesn’t take much for vicious rumors to lead to violence. Attacks on Asian-Americans have shot up in the wake of Covid. Gay men have been punched while being accused of spreading monkeypox. (Such attacks will probably get worse if monkeypox spreads widely in heterosexual networks; at the moment, gay men are embracing monkeypox vaccine and demanding more, which might blunt both the epidemic and the hate crimes.)
Virtually all epidemics start in one small network of people — often a marginalized one. Public anger can push health officials into stepping in to stop it — sometimes through powerful and painful measures. In 1916, Italian immigrants were accused of introducing polio to New York City. That outbreak — which ultimately killed almost 6,000 people and caused panic across the northeastern U.S. — was first spotted in the largely Italian Brooklyn neighborhood then known as “Pigtown” (now East Flatbush.) City nurses seized so many babies and took them to hospitals — where many died without ever being seen again by their parents — that the Black Hand (forerunner of the Mafia) threatened to kill one of the more aggressive nurses.
As recently as the 1990’s, when multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis spread among homeless men, the city health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Frieden, had recalcitrant men who failed or refused to take their antibiotics arrested and held in locked hospital wards until they were no longer infectious.
Polio epidemics are no joke. Its spread is mostly silent — and there is no cure once someone is infected. About one victim in 75 is hospitalized, and about one in 200 is paralyzed. Safe and effective vaccines were invented 70 years ago (yes, by Jewish doctors) and they have saved millions of lives.
Most Americans were vaccinated as children, but the reintroduction of a virus into any population is dicey. No vaccine is 100 percent effective and immunity can fade over time, so how safe a whole population is can change. (I had polio boosters twice as an adult because I covered eradication campaigns in Nigeria and Pakistan, where it was endemic.)
Ultra-Orthodox rabbis would do their congregations a great favor — both to protect their children and to discourage anti-Semitism — by helping them accept the vaccines as quickly as possible.