Richard Dawkins’ painfully simplistic take on measles among Orthodox Jews: “Religion poisons everything.”

Last month, I wrote about the measles outbreak going on among the Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Rockland County, NY. It is, of course just one of the many measles outbreaks currently ongoing in the US that have led to more measles cases in 2019 than in a generation, 839 cases thus far, and the year is only a little more than a third over. I didn’t think I’d be revisiting this story for a while, specifically the outbreaks among Orthodox Jews in New York, but then I saw this Tweet by Richard Dawkins:t

Yep, it’s Richard Dawkins seizing on the outbreak to attack religion. However, that wasn’t so much what interested me. (Well, actually it did, but not initially.) Rather, it was the New York Times story to which he had linked. Now, to be honest, I had been aware of this story since Tuesday, when I started seeing flyers like this one being spread around on social media:

I first saw this flyer on Tuesday morning, but had learned that it had been circulating at least since Sunday night, advertised to the Orthodox Jewish community through robocalls and WhatsApp groups. Notice that there’s no date on the flyer. (There are also, hilariously, a number of misspellings.) The date got communicated through other means. In any event, after the event on Tuesday night I waited for reports. I didn’t have any soon enough on Tuesday night to produce a post for Wednesday; so I just continued to wait. I did, however, see this thread:


Unfortunately, there were a lot of Orthodox Jews in attendance. Fortunately, there were also a number of reporters in attendance as well, leading to the aforementioned NYT story:

An ultra-Orthodox rabbi falsely described the measles outbreak among Jews as part of an elaborate plan concocted by Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York to deflect attention from “more serious” diseases brought by Central American migrants.

A pediatrician questioned whether Jews were being intentionally given “bad lots” of vaccines that ended up giving children a new strain of the virus. And Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor whose study linking measles vaccines with autism was widely discredited and condemned, appeared via Skype to offer an almost apocalyptic vision of a world in which vaccines were giving rise to deadlier immunization-resistant diseases.

“We Hasidim have been chosen as the target,” said the rabbi, Hillel Handler. “The campaign against us has been successful.”

I had never heard of Rabbi Hillel Handler, but he sure is antivaccine. He’s woven together a particularly vile set of conspiracy theories as well. Notice how he’s simultaneously taken on the role of victim, with outside forces persecuting his people, while redirecting exactly the same accusation that according to him is being leveled at his people towards Central American migrants. It’s the age-old smear that’s been directed at every group of immigrants who’s ever come to America, namely that they bring and spread disease, and Rabbi Handler did it completely without irony.

He’s also spreading antivaccine misinformation:

No, measles mumps and chicken pox don’t decrease your chances of getting cancer, heart disease, or strokes, certainly not by 60 percent. No, measles does not prevent cancer or heart disease. There is one study finding that measles and mumps in childhood is associated with lower mortality from cardiovascular disease, but the study has a number of problems and has not been confirmed.

Of course, Rabbi Hillel is a rabbi, not a scientist or physician. He can blather away, spouting all the conspiracy theories and pseudoscience that he wants, and his word is no better than anyone else’s. At least, so one would wish. Of course, because he is a rabbi and thus a leader of his religious community, unfortunately his word carries a lot of weight in Rockland County, even though he is clearly an antivaccine crank. Indeed, he has a long history of saying outrageously ridiculous things, such as that parents who placate the gods of vaccination” are engaging in “child sacrifice,” and at this event claimed that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is a German and a “very, very sneaky fellow.”

Rabbi Hillel drew an immediate rebuke from one of his fellow rabbis:

According to the NY Times, the event was denounced by local elected officials, health authorities and even some Haredi rabbis, who warned against the anti-vaccination propaganda spewed by the speakers which is risking the community’s health.

Rabbi Moshe Tendler, son-in-law of the Rabbi Moshe Feisntein ztz’l and the posek for the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, an expert on medical ethics and one of the leaders of YU, who lives in and is the head of a synagogue in Monsey, in 2014 condemned the anti-vaccination rabbis, saying: “This is an area in which medicine has made such tremendous progress for the benefit of humanity. […] I believe that [these rabbis] are not speaking under their authority as rabbis, they are speaking simply as uninformed laymen.”

Indeed they are.

More damaging than someone like Rabbi Hillel is someone like Dr. Larry Palevsky, an antivaccine pediatrician whom I’ve discussed before in the context of his appearing in an antivaccine documentary disguised as a documentary other than VAXXED, whose producer and director were at this vaccine symposium, namely Del Bigtree and Andrew Wakefield, respectively. I’m referring, of course, to The Greater Good, which predated VAXXED by five years. Reviewing that, using his “whole child” wellness philosophy, Dr. Palevsky recommends and incorporates the teachings and therapies of nutritional science, acupuncture and Chinese Medicine, chiropractic, osteopathy, cranial-sacral therapy, environmental medicine, homeopathy, and essential oils, along with natural healing modalities such as aromatherapy, yoga, Reiki, meditation, reflexology, and mindfulness. This led me to ask at the time: Is it any surprise that Dr. Palevsky comes across as being “anti-vaccine”? Nope. It definitely is not. In the movie, he was also shown shown speaking to the American College for Advancement in Medicine (ACAM) and using the most brain dead of anti-vaccine gambits, namely claiming that because mortality from various infectious diseases was falling before vaccines for those diseases were introduced it must mean that vaccines are useless; i.e., the “vaccines didn’t save us” gambit, one of the most intellectually dishonest antivaccine tropes there is.

Let’s just say that eight years have not increased Dr. Palevsky’s intellectual honesty. If anything, he’s even more intellectually dishonest:

The pediatrician who spoke on Monday night, Dr. Lawrence Palevsky, is regularly cited in pamphlets circulated in New York City that urge women not to get their children vaccinated. His views have no basis in science, experts said.

At the rally, he talked at length about mutating viruses and falsely claimed that failed vaccines were producing a new strain of measles. Women scribbled into notepads as he spoke. Others filmed his comments, sending them to their contacts on WhatsApp. Essentially, he said, there were no studies available to show how the vaccine affects the human body.

“Is it possible that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine that is somehow being given in this lot to communities in Williamsburg and Lakewood and Monsey, maybe in Borough Park, is it possible that these lots are bad?” he asked, referring to areas in New York and New Jersey with large ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities.

“It’s fascinating because we’re told how contagious the disease is, but somehow it’s centered in the Jewish community.”

No studies available to show how the vaccine affects the human body? Can’t this guy read PubMed? Mutated viruses creating a new strain of measles? He said these things with a straight face without citing any evidence? (Of course, there is none.) A pediatrician said this? I’m with one of my pediatrician readers on this one. Someone like Dr. Palevsky should have his license stripped away.

And, of course, Andrew Wakefield wallowed in his usual self-pity and victim-messiah complex:

“I wanted to reassure you that I have never been involved in scientific fraud,” he said via Skype from a darkened room, his face appearing eerily white as it was projected onto two large overhead screens. “What happened to me is what happens to doctors who threatened the bottom line of the pharmaceutical companies.”

Yep. That’s our Andy. His partner in film crime, Del Bigtree, was also in rare form:

“This could destroy our species…They wanna talk about the measles,” Bigtree shouted to the exuberant crowd. “I wanna talk about autism, I want to talk about the greatest epidemic of our lifetime and all the other chronic illnesses that are skyrocketing in this country.”

Autism is going to “destroy the species”? Give me a break, Del. Even if there were a link between vaccines and autism (which, science has shown time and time again, there isn’t), there isn’t a facepalm big enough for this one.

Here’s the real reason behind the season of antivaccine misinformation, though:

Attendees watched the symposium patiently and with fixed attention past midnight, with mothers in the audience hushing young babies and children scrambling anxiously through the aisles. Pamphlets were passed out for a brand of health supplements called “Nature’s Cure,” and a complimentary bottle of the brand’s “constipation care” was provided in goodie bags, for a suggested donation of $12.

Same as it ever was. It’s all about the quack grift, which was my reaction to Richard Dawkins’ painfully ignorant Tweet. Indeed, The Orthodox Jewish communities in Rockland County and Brooklyn have been targeted a long time by antivaxers. A shadowy group called PEACH has been spreading antivax misinformation for at least 5 years, targeting this insular group. Indeed, PEACH has been targeting Orthodox Jews with antivaccine misinformation and conspiracy theories using mass texts, conference calls with antivax “experts,” and a slick glossy pamphlet. The conference Tuesday night was just another example of this.

Now let’s look at how the Orthodox Jewish community in the Detroit area reacted when a traveler inadvertently brought measles to southeast Michigan. The Michigan Orthodox Jewish community rallied behind health authorities. They immediately got the word out in the communities to get vaccinated. Members of the Orthodox Jewish Community turned out in droves to be vaccinated. In just three days, the health division administered 970 MMR vaccinations, and in one week the health department gave over 2,000 doses of MMR, not counting the hundreds of doses administered in private doctors’ offices and in pharmacies. I also note that Hatzalah, the ultra-Orthodox community’s emergency medical response group, rapidly mobilized to track patient zero down. Meanwhile, The Council of Orthodox Rabbis of Greater Detroit issued a statement strongly urging vaccination and that Jews showing signs of illness stay home and contact their doctors. It isn’t just in Detroit, either. In Rockland County, Orthodox Jewish nurses are fighting the antivaccine misinformation.

There was another wrinkle. Unlike the case in Brooklyn, in Detroit the measles spread mostly among older adults. Many members in the community in their 50s thought they’d been vaccinated but hadn’t been. This resulted in an unexpectedly large pool of adults who were, through no fault of their own, susceptible to measles, either due to not knowing they hadn’t been vaccinated or to waning immunity. There was no large pool of unvaccinated children because the Orthodox Jewish community vaccinates.

Of course, I’m a heathen too, or, as I jokingly like to describe myself, about as lapsed a Catholic as you can be. I’m not defending religion, particularly fundamentalist religion. I’ve been refuting religion-inspired antiscience since at least 2004, including creationism and other forms of evolution denial. Dawkins’ hot take is wrong, though. It doesn’t just fail to tell the whole story. It leaves out so much that it does a disservice to so many Orthodox Jews whose prompt and enthusiastic cooperation with authorities in Michigan limited the spread of the measles outbreak. These Jews were motivated by their religion. So are the Orthodox Jewish nurses in Rockland County and Brooklyn on the ground fighting for the health of their communities. In other words, the situation is far more complicated than Dawkins’ easy anti-religion sloganeering would lead you to believe. Unless we understand this, we can’t make progress against the spread of antivax misinformation. Worse, it risks feeding the anti-Semitism that the measles outbreak among the Orthodox Jews has provoked and that several of them interviewed in various news stories complained about.

In reality, the situation in NY is more akin to that of the Somali immigrant community. Antivaxers took advantage of them by peddling antivax misinformation, and the result was two large measles outbreaks. Repeatedly. Basically, I think what bugged me about Richard Dawkins’ hot take on this is that it isn’t really so much religion that is the main contributor to this outbreak. It’s an insular community that doesn’t trust outsiders targeted by quacks. Religion was helpful, but not necessary, to facilitating the spread of antivaccine misinformation. After all, the affluent suburbanites eschewing vaccines don’t do it because of religion, although they frequently try to co-opt religion to justify their antivaccine beliefs. You don’t need religion to be an antivaxer. It might help. It might not. People are messy, and things aren’t as simple as Dawkins’ simplistic broadside.