Of plagues and scapegoats

A contemporary drawing of the 2000 Jews of Strasbourg being burned to death over a pit on Feb. 14, 1349 in the Strasbourg Massacre during the Black Death persecutions. Attribution: Anonymous Medieval drawing(Life time: circa 1375), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By now, we are all aware of the frightening numbers of Corona cases and deaths during Israel’s “third wave” this winter. Aggressive vaccination programs and extended draconian lockdown policies have yet to substantially lower numbers as was predicted. This has led to a heightened level of stress and distrust in our homeland, no less exacerbated by global and local political rumblings. 

Unfortunately, a very disturbing trend has been growing over recent weeks with disturbing parallels in history. Specifically, there has been a trend in the broader Jewish world to assign blame for the current pandemic to Israel’s Chareidi population. Recent articles, blog posts, tweets and Facebook musings by many prominent figures in the supposedly more enlightened non-Chareidi community have referred to the Chareidim as outright murderers, or have accused them of disregarding the value of human life as compared to other priorities. Many academics have attempted to explain the different Chareidi approach to the current pandemic as anti-rationalist or selfishly individualist, all in a highly critical, if not demeaning way. A recent Teshuvah implied that the rules of Shivah would not even apply to many in the Chareidi community who have ignored social distancing rules. We are also all likely familiar with the widely publicized pictures of Chareidim in Jerusalem attending outdoor funerals en masse receiving international press and widespread criticism.

Data from Israel Central Bureau of Statistics February 11th excel daily death file – Graphic prepared by author

This article is not intended as a defense of these Chareidi activities, but rather seeks to question the broader community’s choice to condemn these activities with such extreme language. The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics regularly provides updates of all-cause mortality on a weekly basis. The nearby chart shows a comparison of all deaths during the current winter season to deaths during the same time period over the past five years, separated by region. Two takeaways should be immediately apparent from this chart. Firstly, Israeli total deaths from December 1st through January 24th, typically the deadliest time period of the year in Israel, were near the average of the previous five seasons. (Regardless of why that is, this is something that should be celebrated by all during the current pandemic.) This first takeaway demonstrates that the current scary Corona death numbers should be considered in the greater context of historic Israeli mortality. The second takeaway is that the percentage of deaths by region hardly fluctuates, and the allocation of deaths across Israeli society is essentially unchanged from previous years to the current one. (Don’t trust me. Look at the data yourself)

There are two possible explanations as to why total deaths don’t seem to have increased much despite the high Corona death toll this winter (this is to the exclusion of the second wave, which did show a slight increase in total mortality). The first option is that all of our social distancing activities have had only a minor effect on reducing total mortality (I have written on this topic previously here), and the novel Coronavirus went through the Israeli population similarly to annual cold and flu viruses. The second option is that all of our implemented non-pharmaceutical interventions collectively limited the spread and severity of the disease, keeping in check what would have been a much deadlier winter season. Regardless of which option is correct, we cannot set aside the second takeaway from the chart: the allocation of deaths doesn’t seem to have been affected by different adherence to social distancing rules in different regions. Consequently, either the rules had little effect, or adherence to the rules was similar enough between Chareidi and non-Chareidi sectors of society, and henceforth we see no material difference in total mortality.  

Regardless of which option one chooses as the reason for current mortality rates, the justification for loudly and repeatedly criticizing the Chareidi community to the point of demonization falls apart. Either none of us are murderers, or all of us are equally guilty of murder. 

There are some ‘experts’, reporters, and political leaders in Israeli society who unfortunately continue to try and assign excessive blame on the Chareidim for the current Corona pandemic. We should carefully consider and examine every one of these claims that attempts to disparage an entire segment of society with the same intellectual rigor we examine many other scientific and academic claims. We should be especially wary of claims based on counterfactual models of what could have happened based on an expert’s assumptions or statistical manipulation. (I have written previously about this disturbing trend here)

Weizman Institute computational biologist Eran Segal recently claimed, for example, that if non-Chareidim were to act similarly to Chareidim this past year, an additional 7,600 Israelis above 60 would have perished due to Corona this past year. There are numerous problems with this over-simplified statistical analysis, including a failure to consider Bayesian conditional probabilities, sampling bias due to differential testing rates, and lack of context to total annualized excess mortality. For example, this analysis fails to differentiate between deaths caused by Covid-19 and those that occurred for unrelated reasons though following a positive test.

The most obvious problem, though, stems from Segal’s selection of the somewhat arbitrary 60-year-old cutoff for his calculation. Using the same dataset, others have pointed out that Chareidim makes up approximately 11% of the Israeli total population and 12% of total documented Israeli Corona deaths to date (well within the range of statistical insignificance). One can therefore easily flip Eran Segel’s simplistic equation on its head and conclude that the Non-Chareidi world would have simultaneously experienced 7,600 fewer Corona deaths for the under 60 population, had they acted similarly to the Chareidim, leading to no net difference in total mortality rates. 

Another claim that has been shared regularly as a critique of the Chareidi population concerns the overwhelming of Israeli hospitals and the Israeli medical system during this time period, even if death rates have not necessarily increased. There is little doubt that many of Israel’s doctors and nurses have acted heroically during these challenging times, and likely saved many with their tireless efforts. Nonetheless, this claim that hospitals are overwhelmed due to a fault of the Chareidi population to adhere to guidelines needs context. During the high mortality winter season, Israeli hospitals are overwhelmed and above treatment capacity on an annual basis. A report submitted during the 2019 winter season pointed out that without an increase of doctors, inpatient wards, and equipment, hospitals would continue to be similarly overwhelmed in future winter seasons. There is no way that this issue could have even been addressed since the 2019 report was published, as the Israeli government has cycled through multiple parliaments and approved no annual budgets since that time. Assigning blame to the Chareidi population during the Corona pandemic for a well-documented problem from previous years is plainly dishonest, and seems a way to deflect responsibility from those who should have addressed the problem earlier.

An anti-Semitic French woodcut from the time of the Black Death in the 14th century, depicting a Jew poisoning a well. Attribution: Karenett at Hebrew Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Blaming plagues on “others’ in society has a long and disturbing history, and has sadly led to some horrible repercussions, especially for Jews. When the Bubonic plague first penetrated Europe, ‘experts’ were convinced that the source of the disease was tainted water from communal wells. As the Jewish population was often sequestered in separate ghettos with their own wells, leaders accused the Jews of deliberately poisoning public non-ghetto wells. There seems to have been no evidence that Jews were less affected by the plague, nor proof of any deliberate actions by Jews to encourage its spread. In fact, it now seems likely that the plague spread through rodents and reached Europe with Mongolian armies returning from Burma. Nonetheless, there was simply an unexplained uncontrollable deadly phenomenon and an available distinct “other” sub-population that could be used as a scapegoat to blame. As a result of this mis-assigned blame though, approximately 200 Jewish communities were wiped out across Europe and tens of thousands of Jews killed due to retaliatory pogroms.

This tendency to blame “others” in society for diseases and natural disasters is not limited to Jews, and blame could even fall upon immigrants, or on those within society who seemed different, like during the Salem witch trials. Blame often leads to demonization, dehumanization and then, often retaliation. Accordingly, doctors during the H1N1 epidemic actively fought media reporting that referred to the disease as the Mexican flu, reasoning that avoiding demonization helps reduce levels of panic and aggression and keeps the focus on the virus. Similarly, early labeling by reporters of Covid-19 as the Chinese virus led to a universal and irrational fear of Asian tourists around the globe. 

The truth is that there is still so much we do not know about this horrible disease. We cannot explain why it has wreaked havoc on three continents and had minimal effect on the other three. We cannot predict with any accuracy why waves of cases and mortality seem to react very differently to government actions across different countries, or why infection fatality rates vary widely even from city to city. We may find out years later that we missed some key pieces of evidence that completely undermines all of our ‘expert’ assumptions, just as experts in the Bubonic plague mistakenly focused on well water, or experts during Cholera plagues mistakenly focused on miasma or elevation. When so much remains to be yet understood, it is incumbent on all, layman and expert alike, to maintain some humility before assigning blame to others. 

Whether we like it or not, Covid-19 will be with us for a long time to come. Once a novel contagious virus is introduced into a population, quick eradication is nearly impossible. The Bubonic plague that eviscerated Europe 600 years ago, for example, still circulates today in the US. The first smallpox vaccine was invented in 1800, and yet it is estimated that 300 million people still died of it in the 20th century alone. It then took over 20 years of aggressive efforts by epidemiologists to officially eradicate smallpox once a global plan was formed in 1959. Donald Henderson, the epidemiologist who led that effort, later explained why smallpox was a unique virus with which this effort could be accomplished: due to the unique nature of its long developed and optimized vaccine, and the ability to visually detect contagious cases quickly. None of these factors apply to the Coronavirus. Concerning other viral epidemics, Henderson later famously wrote:  “Experience has shown that communities faced with epidemics or other adverse events respond best and with the least anxiety when the normal social functioning of the community is least disrupted.” 

It has been most distressing to watch Jewish leaders take the opposite approach and engage in the same behavior that previously targeted and harmed our own Jewish community. As we enter into the new month of Adar this year, we must keep two themes of the Purim season in mind. Purim is often compared to Yom Kippur due to its similar naming and the use of a lottery to decide the fate of a ‘scapegoat’. On Yom Kippur, the original scapegoat was thrown off a cliff as an atonement for Israel’s sins in the hope that it would allow the entire nation of Israel to focus on worshipping G-d to relieve us of our troubles. On Purim, the designated scapegoat was the entire Jewish nation that Haman blamed for his own personal troubles. Judaism does not permit scapegoating and chastising our own fellow Jews for a natural disaster that is likely out of our hands to control in many respects. Similarly, one of the critiques by Haman in the Megillah is that the Jews were a nation scattered and separated among the nations, rather than unified. It was largely due to Mordechai and Esther’s efforts that the Jews were able to stop pointing fingers at each other and were able to gather and unite to protect themselves on the day of battle.  

In this vein, Jewish political and religious leaders should refrain from continuing down this path of assigning blame for natural death to other Jews. Chareidim may act differently than us, but the available statistics show they are no more to blame for natural disasters like diseases than the Rothschilds are for wildfires in California. Hopefully, as we complete the Purim season and begin celebrating our redemption from Egypt and uniting at Sinai, we can also come together as a nation to pray for a speedy recovery from these scary times. 

About the Author
Etan Golubtchik is an energy industry professional with a background in engineering and financial modeling. He made the decision to join the oil and gas industry after researching the issues involved, and is proud of the work he does to help bring affordable energy to modern society.
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