Ultra-Orthodox leader Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky doubled down on his support for vaccinating children against COVID-19 on Tuesday, despite a campaign of harassment and intimidation by anti-vaccine activists.
In a statement published in the Hebrew daily Yated Ne'eman, the 93-year-old rabbi – who is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures within the so-called Lithuanian branch of non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodoxy – said that in response to inquiries from educators, he considered it necessary to carry out vaccination campaigns in Haredi schools.
“Certainly, order the vaccines for Talmud Torahs and schools, it is necessary to vaccinate therein,” he said, reiterating his statement from November calling on members of the ultra-Orthodox community to begin vaccinating children aged five and above.
Last week, Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth reported that members of the rabbi’s household had received threats on the streets, with vaccine opponents telling his grandson, Yanky, that he had “the blood of children” on his hands and that they would rape his children.
Text messages and letters sent to those close to the rabbi have compared him to the biblical villains Amalek and Pharaoh, called for his name to “be erased” and explicitly stated, “We will kill you.”
Meir Gross, an associate of the rabbi who also serves as his bodyguard, said he had to bolster security around Kanievsky due to the threats he was receiving and dubbed the incident "very grave."
Gross told Ynet news site on Tuesday that when Rabbi Kanievsky was faced with whether to vaccinate children, officials from the Health Ministry came to him and showed him the data, and he consequently decided to support vaccination.
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"Some people are trying to terrorize our Maran and his family in order to change his decision, but he stands by his support for vaccination," Gross said.
Asked if the rabbi’s latest statement served as a response to those threatening him, a spokesman told Haaretz that there was “no connection” and declined to say if Kanievsky was satisfied with the rate of vaccination among the ultra-Orthodox.
According to a recent Israel Democracy Institute poll, support for vaccinating children against COVID among Israelis aged 25-44 lags significantly behind the rest of the population, despite members of this age group being among the most likely to have small children.
Members of that age cohort include “a large number of parents of children at the relevant ages,” IDI noted, adding that secular Jews are more supportive than their more religiously observant counterparts.
Health Ministry numbers released in August showed the ultra-Orthodox community, which skews younger than other communities, lagging behind the others.
In its report, the ministry stated that the “main characteristics” shared by the unvaccinated are being economically disadvantaged and young. “Most ultra-Orthodox are sure that they have already been exposed to the coronavirus and therefore do not need to be vaccinated” due to high infection rates earlier in the pandemic, it added.
While Rabbi Kanievsky was widely considered a rebel against government public health guidelines during the first wave of the pandemic – ordering religious schools to remain open despite closure orders – he has since strongly backed COVID measures such as vaccination and has cooperated with the Bennett government despite strong disagreements over issues of religion and state that have soured relations with the ultra-Orthodox community.