Let’s rewind to what now seems like ancient history, April 2019. It’s hard to believe that that was not even three years ago, but since the pandemic hit that time seems like an entirely different world. I realize that it seems almost quaint now in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, but back then the biggest concern with respect to infectious disease and vaccines was that measles was making a resurgence in multiple areas in the US. The reasons boiled down to the usual reasons for measles outbreaks: pockets of low vaccine uptake, fueled by vaccine hesitancy, which was fueled by antivaccine misinformation promoted by antivaxxers. Some of this misinformation was targeted at insular religious groups, like some communities of ultra-orthodox Jews, which led to my writing a post about how the situation was more complex than that.
The picture being painted by the media at the time was that, for some reason, Orthodox Jewish communities were more susceptible to antivaccine misinformation and conspiracy mongering; in a post, I contrasted that to the fully enthusiastic and robust cooperation that the Orthodox Jewish community in the Detroit area gave to local public health officials, complete with vaccine drives and a full-throated endorsement of vaccination by the Council of Orthodox Rabbis of Greater Detroit, which urged Jews to vaccinate their children with MMR and that older adults whose immunity might have waned also receive the vaccine.
Unfortunately, efforts of antivaxxers to target insular communities like the Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn are nothing new. I’ve been writing about them a while, including a study of a measles outbreak in 2013 and how much it cost to contain. Worse, the efforts of antivaxxers like Del Bigtree and Larry Palevsky were bolstered by an antivaccine Rabbi named Hillel Handler, who invoked their religious authority to bolster the misinformation being spread by antivaxxers. Also, given the nature of the community, a lot of the misinformation was spread very much in an old school manner, by flyers and booklets, such as the ones spread by Parents Educating and Advocating for Children’s Health (PEACH).
Why did I start this post by recounting this unfortunate history? Simple. Past is prologue, and history repeats, as we’ve seen time and time again, or, as I like to put it, in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic and antivaxxers, everything old is new again. The same thing is happening now, in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic. Added to the list of previous players are new antivaxxers, quacks, and grifters who have risen to prominence over the last year and a half, like “the inventor of mRNA vaccines” Dr. Robert Malone, a man who thinks that he’s being “erased” from Wikipedia after his wife was caught editing his Wikipedia entry. This time, though, he’s been recruited to spread fear of COVID-19 vaccines, in particular the mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines, among the Orthodox Jews of Brooklyn and proudly announced his apparent “success” on Twitter a week and a half ago:
Apparently, last week he’d been flown in by this group:
First off, a number of Jews tell me that this Hasidic Rabbinical Council is at best sketchy, with no real authority other than the individual authority of the rabbis making it up. I don’t know, but they certainly have the air of a group trying to seem a lot more influential in their religion than they really are. (I’ll let any Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn or Borough Park comment, if any are reading, or just any Orthodox Jews.)
Indeed, on Twitter:
Given that I am not Jewish, much less an Orthodox Jew, much less a member of the particular community being targeted, I cannot knowledgeably comment on the group dynamics any more than I could in May 2019. I can, however, look at what happened then, what’s happening now, and how it’s being spun, and then make comparisons to similar incidents in the past, all while addressing some of the specific antivaccine claims.
First, however, an antivaxxer provided a useful translation:
A Google Translation of the document tells me that the rabbis involved are not any that I’ve written about. (Surprisingly, Rabbi Handler appears not to have been involved, which, I suppose, is a blessing.)
So what’s going on? To me, it looks as though antivaxxers are partying like it’s 2019, but with even more potentially deadly consequences. Spreading antivaccine misinformation among the Orthodox Jewish communities now has the potential for orders of magnitude more death and suffering than targeting them for misinformation about measles vaccines in 2019 did.
Antivaccine misinformation in Brooklyn
Over the weekend, a reader of my not-so-secret other blog (and hopefully this one too) pointed me to this website, MACABIM. This is clearly the website of this “rabbinical council,” as you can see the “experts” recruited to “give testimony” regarding COVID-19 vaccines:
Physicians, Scientists, and Community Activists Standing for Truth, Medical Freedom, and G-d Awareness. We promote early, lifesaving treatment for corona, and oppose the injection and the vaccine mandates. We stand for free speech, freedom of information, informed consent, and transparency.
By the grace of G-d
Emergency Rabbinical Court Meeting on the Corona Injections
Tuesday October 26
8 hours of expert testimony by:
Dr. Geert Vanden Bossche
Dr. Peter McCullough
Dr. Robert Malone
Attorney Thomas Renz
Dr. Jane Ruby
Dr. Michael Yeadon
Dr. Christiane Northrup
Dr. Janci Lindsay
Dr. Richard Urso
Dr. Jessica Rose
Plus healthcare providers caring for victims and victims telling their own stories
The Rabbis are putting out a statement in the wake of this testimony.
Also included is a link to a PDF of the same statement in Hebrew Tweeted out by Malone and others. So, yes, these are the right people, and this is the right website. I will admit that I didn’t watch the hours of video of the testimony provided in the Dropbox link above. As you will see, there really wasn’t a need to subject myself to all of it, because the website summarizes the findings and reports a “judgment,” and I could tell that much of the testimony was antivaccine misinformation that I’ve covered before.
Looking at that list of “experts,” I couldn’t help but be struck at just how many cranks there are, including several about whom I have written. For instance, Dr. Christiane Northrup used to engage in thermography grift but, like so many quacks before her, has effortlessly pivoted to COVID-19 grift, to join the list of the “Disinformation Dozen“. Geert Vanden Bossche is known for promoting the unproven and untrue concept that a mass vaccination campaign against COVID-19 during a pandemic is a horrible idea that will lead to untold deaths through the selection of ever more virulent “escape mutant” variants, a discredited idea that very much resembles what the godfather of the modern antivaccine movement Andrew Wakefield once claimed about vaccination against measles a few months before SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, first reared its ugly head in Wuhan, China. Dr. Peter McCullough has also been featured here for his prediction of a “vaccine holocaust” in which COVID-19 vaccines lead to “depopulation“. It’s a claim driven by dumpster diving in the VAERS database to produce deceptively high estimates of death rates after COVID-19 vaccination that ignore the baseline rate of mortality that happens without vaccines. Let’s not forget Dr. Michael Yeadon, either. He’s the one falsely warning of mass infertility due to COVID-19 vaccination, as well as claiming that booster shots for COVID-19 vaccines will be our “death knell” through “depopulation“. Finally, of course, there’s Dr. Robert Malone, “inventor of mRNA vaccines”, whose wife Dr. Jill Glasspool Malone was busted editing his Wikipedia page in order to promote him as—you guessed it!—the “inventor of mRNA vaccines”. Oddly enough, for someone claiming to have invented the technology, Malone is unrelentingly negative about the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. I suspect both grift and envy, but who knows?
As for the others, I’ve heard of some of them but never really written about them before. They are all—surprise! surprise!—COVID-19 minimizers and antivaxxers. Dr. Richard Urso (briefly mentioned on SBM here), for instance, is an ophthalmologist and member of “America’s Frontline Doctors”, who promoted the repurposed and unproven drug hydroxychloroquine as a “miracle cure” for COVID-19 back in the summer of 2020. These days, America’s Frontline Doctors have managed to have one of their own put in charge of public health in Florida as they continue to spread COVID-19 misinformation after having pivoted to promoting the COVID-19 “miracle cure” of 2021, ivermectin. (They’ve also sued over deaths from COVID-19 vaccines and been caught grifting by selling telehealth visits in which they sold ivermectin prescriptions.) Oddly enough, no one on SBMhas written about Jane Ruby before. A few months ago, she promoted a false claim that the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is “99.9% graphene oxide”, a claim so ridiculous that perhaps no one here thought it worth bothering with, but Politifact did. (So much disinformation, so little time.) As for Dr. Jancy Lindsay, although no one here has written about her specifically, we have written about the false claim that she promotes, namely that the spike protein used by COVID-19 vaccines as the antigen sufficiently resembles syncytin-1, a placental protein, as to result in an immune reaction against it that can cause miscarriages and infertility. As I have written, this claim is utter nonsense from a molecular biology standpoint. Dr. Jessica Rose, it appears, was a postdoctoral researcher in biology at the Israel Institute of Technology from 2016-20 but more recently has joined the COVID-19 minimization grift train, publishing bad studies that dumpster dive in VAERS for the COVID misinformation site trialsitenews.com and working with former scientist and antivaxxer James Lyons-Weiler for the Institute of Pure and Applied Knowledge (IPAK) to misuse VAERS to demonize COVID-19 vaccines. Finally, Thomas Renz is a formerly little-known attorney (who only became a licensed attorney months before the pandemic hit on his fifth attempt to pass the Ohio bar exam) who’s found a way to boost his standing by promoting COVID-19 misinformation and filing dubious lawsuits over COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
Again, not being Jewish or part of the community, I have a hard time commenting much on this “Rabbinical court in New York City” or its legitimacy (although it reeks of “magnified minority” and an appeal to a false authority), but I can call its document out for what it is: Antivaccine nonsense. After all, just look at this image on the website:
Each and every one of these “Top Ten Reasons Not To Get Vaccinated Against COVID-19” is either a lie, disinformation, or a distortion of science. First, though, let’s take a look at the statement from these rabbis.
I will use a translation forwarded to me by a reader, who informed me that the person doing the translating didn’t want to be identified in this blog:
A time of trouble for Jacob
We gathered here to discuss the new mRNA “vaccine” (including Adenoviral vector DNA), and we heard opinions from great experts in this field, as well as doctors who created mRNA treatment themselves whom have testified on their actions (ordinary doctors are not proficient in these matters, and are only biding the government HIN, CDC etc instructions, as known) and have showed us the great risks and damages related to this (vaccine), and also the government and pharmaceutical companies deny many of it and hide information and make is difficult to know the harsh results caused to those who’ve already taken this mRNA vaccine, and also try in many ways to prevent the publications of these damages in the Media, Internet etc.
We also heard testimonies from our brothers in Israel who were sick, and furthermore, also what was harming future generations (I assume they mean here than not only men, but also pregnant women were harmed). And the worst thing is that there are simple ways to treat this illness yet they forbid using these treatments, and did whatever they could to create fear instead of practicing medicine, while they know the treatments can help.
And now this mRNA was approved for children, even though the disease is not dangerous to them, and they want to obligate children in order for them to go to schools and yeshivas.
Therefore we come to speak our opinion by the holy bible:
- By the Holy Torah, it is strictly forbidden to give or to encourage giving this mRNA vaccine to children, young men and women, even if it means they can’t travel overseas. We must protest against it. Whoever has the power to prevent it, must do so.
- Many damages were caused to pregnant women (some say it’s due to the SM102 and some say it’s the “antibodies” who fight the “protein” or causing micro blood clots). Therefore they can’t get this mRNA, and same goes for any healthy person.
- For elderly people, more information is needed (because data is hidden) but clearly there’s a breakthrough, meaning there’s no difference between those who got the mRNA and those who haven’t. On the other hand, elderly people are also at risk, and we heard about old men who died shortly after receiving the mRNAs. So we also advise not to take the vaccine, especially since there are other useful treatments. We found out, by a lawyer who handles such matters, that the data they publish is also false, for example a man who died of covid a few days after receiving the vaccine is considered “unvaccinated” and there are more examples. We need to do our best to find the true data.
- We heard testimonies from our brothers in Israel and experts, that he who gets this mRNA vaccine and is close to pregnant women can cause harm ,and this is called “shedding” (they use it in animals, when they can’t vaccinate all animals, they vaccinate some and the shedding spreads it to other animals). So far we don’t know how long the shedding lasts, so he who got the mRNA must stay away from pregnant women for 2 weeks from getting the shot.
- It is strictly forbidden to encourage or force or pressure anyone to get the mRNA.
This is just based on what we know now, but the experts want about what lies ahead. God have mercy on us.
As you can see from the statement, these antivax rabbis (and, make no mistake, that is what they are) believe several myths about mRNA vaccines commonly spread among the antivaccine movement, the first of which is that the COVID-19 vaccine is more dangerous to the young (and children) than the disease. (Portraying vaccines as more risky than the diseases they prevent has been a favorite antivaccine trope for a very long time; so it is not surprising that it’s been applied to COVID-19 vaccines.) This is, as Jonathan Howard has written (e.g., here, here, here, and here), false.
They also believe the myth that COVID-19 vaccines cause miscarriages and infertility, a myth based on a misunderstanding of molecular biology and the syncytin protein that would embarrass any but the most antivaccine grifting scientist, as I’ve been writing about, dating back to last December. They also believe in the antivaccine myth of “shedding.” It’s a myth that had to be tweaked from an old antivaccine myth that virus “shedding” from live-attenuated virus vaccines is a danger to the unvaccinated, because COVID-19 mRNA vaccines are not live-attenuated virus vaccines. So antivaxxers changed the “shedding” myth from fear mongering about “shed” virus from the vaccine to shed spike protein from the COVID-19 vaccine. It’s even more nonsensical than the previous myth, given that the amount of spike protein generated by the COVID vaccine is incredibly tiny and does not shed. Then there’s the myth that there are “miracle cures” for COVID-19 like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, which obviate the need to vaccinate even the elderly, who are most likely to suffer severe disease and death from the coronavirus. There aren’t cures. Ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine don’t work. Finally, apparently the antivaccine lawyer consulted is spreading the false claim that COVID-19 deaths are overcounted and misattributed to the unvaccinated even when they occur in the vaccinated. The example above is risible even if accurate because it takes the vaccine more than a few days to generate immunity and the most likely explanation for such a death would be that the person had an undiagnosed case of COVID-19 at the time of vaccination.
Of course, these myths are just the ones in the statement issued by these rabbis. The “Top Ten” list is far more antivaccine and peddles the nastiest antivaccine myths. (Perhaps the rabbis wanted to seem “reasonable” in their statement.) Get a load of some of these claims! First, there’s the claim that the vaccine has killed tens of thousands of people, which, as I’ve written, is based on the very old antivaccine tactic of dumpster diving in the VAERS database for a purpose for which it was never intended. There’s the COVID-19 minimization that it “only” kills 0.3%, which, even if accurate, still ends up being a hell of a lot of people, coupled with the false claim that there are cures that can prevent even those few from dying. (The MACABIM website includes a link to Vladmir Zelenko’s quack protocol using zinc, hydroxychloroquine, azithromycin, ivermectin, and a number of other unproven and disproven treatments.) There’s Geert Vanden Bossche’s false claim that the vaccine drives the emergence of ever more transmissible and lethal variants, which is not true. Actually, allowing the coronavirus to circulate unchecked in huge numbers of people is the best way to allow the emergence of such variants; vaccines will not produce nastier variants. Nor are vaccines completely ineffective at preventing the transmission of SARS-CoV-2. They’re nowhere near 100% effective, of course (no vaccine is 100% at preventing the spread of the virus it’s targeted against either), but they do decrease the frequency of transmission and certainly don’t facilitate transmission. As the CDC states:
The risk for SARS-CoV-2 infection in fully vaccinated people cannot be completely eliminated as long as there is continued community transmission of the virus. Early data suggest infections in fully vaccinated persons are more commonly observed with the Delta variant than with other SARS-CoV-2 variants. However, data show fully vaccinated persons are less likely than unvaccinated persons to acquire SARS-CoV-2, and infections with the Delta variant in fully vaccinated persons are associated with less severe clinical outcomes. Infections with the Delta variant in vaccinated persons potentially have reduced transmissibility than infections in unvaccinated persons, although additional studies are needed.
The “Top Ten” also includes the false claims that the vaccines don’t work (false) and the usual conspiracy theories that vaccine injuries are being “covered up”; doctors are being “censored”; and VAERS reports are only a fraction of the “true” incidence of deaths and injuries due to the vaccine. It’s basically a “top ten” list of COVID-19 antivax tropes.
Weaponization of religion by antivaxxers
I’ve been writing about how antivaxxers have been weaponizing religious beliefs to try to portray vaccines as disgusting or as against various religions. Given my Catholic upbringing, the most common variety of this claim that I write about is the longstanding effort by antivaxxers to demonize vaccines by tying them to abortion based on the use in vaccine development and manufacture of some cell lines derived from aborted fetuses decades ago. These false claims range from saying that there is “fetal tissue in vaccines” (there isn’t and never has been) to the claim that there is “fetal DNA” in them (there might be an infinitesimally tiny amount left over from manufacture) to just the homeopathy-like claim that any association in the past with cells from an aborted fetus renders vaccines evil. They’ve been doing it for a very long time and are continuing to use this hoary old trope now, even though no such cell lines are used in the manufacture of the mRNA vaccines. At other times, I’ve noted how antivaxxers have over the years portrayed vaccines as against the Jewish and Muslim faiths because some of them contain gelatin, a protein that can be derived from pigs. In actuality, Islamic legal scholars and Jewish authorities long ago rejected that claim.
What theses rabbis are doing is nothing different from Catholic Bishops who tried to demonize the COVID-19 vaccines over abortion. One might say that the targeting of the Orthodox Jewish community by antivaxxers like Del Bigtree in 2019 has, in the age of the pandemic, borne even nastier fruit than just causing measles outbreaks, which was bad enough at the time. This year, the same sort of misinformation is being spread, for example:
In January and February of this year, the city found leaflets aimed at the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn that wrongly suggested the Covid-19 mRNA vaccines could change a person’s DNA and were only 0.5 percent effective.
Worse, as noted by Anna Merlan:
And even before COVID, we’ve seen this same pattern before much more recently: The suspicion and refusal of basic public health measures leading an increasingly strict government response, thus heightening the original underlying suspicion. In 2018 and 2019, two severe measles outbreaks among New York’s Orthodox Jewish communities, one in Brooklyn and one in Rockland County in upstate New York, led to a series of increasingly heightened government actions. But public health officials were battling against a disinformation campaign by Orthodox anti-vaccine activists, and when measles continued to spread, unvaccinated children were briefly banned from being in public in Rockland County March 2019. The ban was overturned by the New York State Supreme Court, but by then, bigger anti-vaccine activists had alighted on the state’s Orthodox community. (Anti-vaccine celebrity Del Bigtree, for instance, pinned a yellow Star of David on himself in a speech, and then sent out a press release to make sure no one had missed it.) While the measles outbreak subsided, anti-vaccine suspicions—fueled, in part, by the memory of the government restrictions—have continued, and remain a factor in how Orthodox communities have responded to COVID vaccines.
Worse, the targeting still continues:
An author of a research paper published last month about coronavirus in Haredi communities told the Jewish Telegraph Agency that “no value in the paper approaches herd immunity.”
About 19% of Borough Park’s population has had at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, which is the second-lowest rate in the city behind the neighborhood of Edgemere/Far-Rockaway, Queens. Citywide, 34% of people have had at least one dose.
Meanwhile, one robocall circulating in the community warns not only of infertility supposedly caused by the vaccine, but also of heart attacks, “aneurysm, stroke, hemorrhage, paralysis, seizures, psychosis, anxiety, cognitive problems, digestive disorders” and a laundry list of other problems.
One petition circulating in the community asks parents to sign if they are opposed to distributing vaccines to children in schools.
And on WhatsApp Tuesday morning, users were sharing a video of a woman counting funeral and shiva notices in her inbox, as she said she had more to attend now than she did during the entirety of 2020, suggesting those deaths were caused by the vaccine.
As I mentioned, though, in actuality, just as Catholic authorities have urged Catholics to be vaccinated, Jewish authorities strongly urge Jews to be vaccinated as well, as I pointed out long ago and Dr. Peter Lipson pointed out more recently:
Then there’s JOWMA, an organization that provides health education to the Jewish community and supports current and future Orthodox female physicians. The group maintains a page of COVID-19 resources tailored to Orthodox Jews whose “Top Ten Reasons to Get Vaccinated Against COVID-19” was parodied by the rabbis who issued that statement. Don’t believe me? Here’s JOWMA’s page:
I will conclude, as I have all too often concluded since the pandemic started, by simply pointing out that in the age of COVID-19 everything old is new again. The same old antivaccine lies are being updated, tarted up, and recycled for COVID-19. The same old tactic of weaponizing religious belief to falsely representing vaccines as against the tenets of various religions has been resurrected. The same strategy of crafting antivaccine messages to resonate in relatively insular communities like the Haredi has been repurposed for COVID-19, with the aid of antivaccine religious leaders.
I’m reminded of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series of novels, specifically, its introduction:
The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.
Antivaccine lies are a lot like that, with one big exception. It doesn’t take ages for them to fade and return again. I’ve been reminded of this nearly every day since the pandemic hit, and the targeting of Orthodox Jews in Borough Park, Brooklyn, and other areas with antivaccine propaganda is just the most recent example. Another difference, unfortunately, is that the last time these sorts of antivaccine lies were circulating widely and various tight-knit communities were targeted, a depressing number of my colleagues were not paying attention. Some even dismissed efforts to combat antivaccine misinformation as not worthwhile. I wonder if they still think that. I also wonder how quickly, once the pandemic finally abates, the lessons learned will “fade to myth” again before the wheel comes around yet again.