Despite multiple attempts to curb the spread of measles in Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, the highly-contagious disease has continued to spread. Describing Williamsburg, Brooklyn as the “epicenter of a measles outbreak,” Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a public health emergency, requiring all unvaccinated residents to be immunized.
There have been vociferous protests from some ultra-Orthodox Jews in affected communities who, despite the sheer weight of scientific and religious support for vaccines, still choose not to vaccinate. Some have likened mandatory immunization, or the barring of unvaccinated persons from public spaces, to the treatment of Jews under the Nazi regime. In Austin, Texas, the CEO of an anti-vaccination group even wore a yellow star to protest a ban against unvaccinated children entering public places.
While some in these communities refuse to vaccinate based on their “religious objections,” vaccinations are supported by most ultra-Orthodox leaders. According to the New York Times, “Most prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis agree that vaccines are kosher, and urge observant Jews to be immunized.” Given that there is no clear doctrinal basis, it is not sufficient for a community which is experiencing an outbreak to reject the scientific evidence for the safety, efficacy, or societal importance of vaccines under the guise of “religious freedom.”
It is also demonstrably absurd to liken the barring of unvaccinated people from public spaces, or the enforcement of vaccination during an outbreak, to Nazi Germany or the Holocaust. The fundamental objective of a vaccine is to prevent disease. The fundamental objective of the Final Solution was to exterminate the Jewish people. For any person to cite the worst period of Jewish history in order to defend their anti-vaccine opinions is beyond despicable. It is equally despicable for anyone to misappropriate the yellow star, an evil symbol synonymous with the dehumanization and mass slaughter of Jews, to support their own ideological goals. The pain of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust should never be hijacked, and certainly not in support of a movement fuelled by misinformation and scientific falsehoods.
Measles is a dangerous and highly contagious disease. Science has proved time and time again that vaccinations are statistically safe and highly effective. The fact that religious exemptions from vaccinations are not supported by most ultra-Orthodox religious leaders, and that anti-Semitism is being weaponized, should act as sufficient evidence that the concept of religious exemptions, in this case, has no basis in logic nor reason.
Williamsburg is not Nazi Germany, and Mayor de Blasio’s announcement was not driven by anti-Semitism. Mandatory vaccinations are not the rejection of individual freedom in favor of “the greater good.” They are simply an acknowledgement of the reality that the decision not to vaccinate has a real, and possibly deadly, impact on others.
When it comes to religious freedom, we must decide when it is no longer acceptable for the religious freedom of one individual to trump the rights of another. Surely a line is crossed when the outcome of religious freedom causes physical harm?
The refusal to vaccinate has a clear physical impact, often upon those who would not consent to being placed at unnecessary risk as a consequence of the voluntary decisions of others. This is where the absolute protection of religious freedom must be questioned. Religious freedom would not permit anyone to wave a sword in a crowded public space. Why does it allow some religious individuals to make decisions that pose a severe risk to their fellow citizens, especially when there is no substantiated religious basis for these decisions?
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. stated that “the right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” Should we continue to allow the broad fist of religious freedom to pummel the nose of reality?