Israel's Haredi Leaders Urge Followers to Vaccinate Against COVID, but Misinformation Hinders Efforts

With conspiracy theories abound, Health Ministry public relations blitz is underway with support of Israel's ultra-Orthodox leadership. But most followers are in no rush to get vaccinated, preferring to 'wait and see'

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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Mayor Rabbi Avraham Rubinstein of Bnei Brak receives the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine at the central Leumit health maintenance organization clinic, Tel Aviv, December 20, 2020.
Mayor Rabbi Avraham Rubinstein of Bnei Brak receives the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine at the central Leumit health maintenance organization clinic, Tel Aviv, December 20, 2020. Credit: Moti Milrod
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

In a rare consensus, leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis have implored followers to receive the coronavirus vaccine as Israel’s vaccination campaign kicked off last week, but hesitation abounds within the community.

“Everyone who is able to be vaccinated, should do so,” announced Rabbi Avraham Elimelech Firer, speaking on behalf of three major Haredi leaders – Rabbis Chaim Kanievsky, Gershon Edelstein and Shalom Cohen. Firer is the head of the Ezra LeMarpeh nonprofit organization that provides medical assistance to those in need.

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Edelstein and the rebbe of the Ger Hasidic community even received the vaccine, while the rebbe of the Belz Hasidic community – who in the past had ordered his community to continue with their normal daily routines despite the pandemic – also called on his followers to receive the vaccine. The leaders of the extremist non-Hasidic so-called Jerusalem Faction also called on their community to get vaccinated, after a delay of a few days.

All of this marks a significant turnaround. In the 10 months that have transpired since the coronavirus arrived in Israel, harsh criticism has been directed at groups within the Haredi community for flouting restrictions, opening schools and not wavering from their pre-pandemic lifestyles, often at the instructions of their rabbis.

Despite the very public and uniform pleas made by Haredi leaders, the community hasn’t reached the same consensus and is far from united: Some want to receive it immediately, others want to wait and some say, and still others say they won’t vaccinate at all. Although the Health Ministry expects that most Haredim will ultimately receive the vaccine, many are far from eager to vaccinate.

“My parents do not plan on being vaccinated, certainly not at this stage,” said a woman from Jerusalem, who asked not to be named. Her parents, who are over 60, want to wait and see how the vaccine affects others.

Similar responses came from other members of the ultra-Orthodox community, who told Haaretz they “preferred to wait” or that “they weren’t into the vaccine.”

A 61-year-old man from Bnei Brak explained why he was not in a rush to get vaccinated: “At the moment, in any case, there aren’t enough vaccines.” He said he called up his health maintenance organization (HMO) and learned it would take time to receive the vaccine, “so for now it isn’t urgent for me.” Another community member from Jerusalem paints a similar picture: “My mother is getting vaccinated today, but my father decided to wait a little. He is a bit of a scaredy-cat by nature, so he will see how it goes for her. My mother- and father-in-law are not interested in it at all.”

These fears are not incidental: Pashkevil posters and Haredi WhatsApp groups are filled with threatening information about the vaccines. “A lot of doctors and health workers are refusing to take the vaccine, what do these doctors know that you don’t know?” reads one of the large posters in Haredi communities. The posters also contain misinformation about how the vaccine changes the human genome, and falsely claim that it has been found to be ineffective in trials on animals and will cause great harm in the future.

Conspiracy theories abound. According to some sources, Dr. Uriel Levinger, the head of the coronavirus department at Laniado Hospital in Netanya, is one of the leaders of the anti-vaccination line in the Haredi community. Levinger confirmed that he opposes vaccinations at this stage: “We need to know about the vaccine and learn about it. Too little data that has been presented.” Levinger added that “The companies that produced the vaccines received emergency approval because they wouldn’t have received regular approval. Don’t let them tell you stories, they are hiding data.”

In addition to the outspoken opponents, the rabbis of the extremist Edah Haredit community in Jerusalem are the last ones who have yet to speak out on the vaccine. Even though the leader of this community, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, has told those who have asked him to go get vaccinated, reservations are also discernible. A central member of this community in Mea She’arim in Jerusalem told Haaretz that more time is needed on the matter: “People here don’t know very much because they aren’t connected, so it’s possible that we will have a problem.” But he added that many in the community are asking to get vaccinated as soon as possible and ultimately, he expects that everyone will be vaccinated “except for the crazies.”

Moshe Manes, a Haredi social activist who has recently been studying up on vaccine opposition, told Haaretz that in his opinion, the vaccine’s opponents may be divided into a number of groups: Those with interests who gain financially from it; closed groups that are similar to cults; conspiracy theory supporters; people who want to “live like in the old days”; people who have been harmed by other vaccines; and anarchists who don’t believe the authorities. “Most people don’t oppose the vaccines, but are afraid of something new and unknown,” said Manes, and added that the coronavirus has brought a great deal of lies and threats to the Haredi community: “Interested parties are exploiting the confusion to distribute their messages.”

In spite of the reservations among the Haredi community generally, the leadership is continuing with its firm support of the vaccinations. The Health Ministry’s staff for its Haredi community public relations campaign – after it worked very hard to achieve the rabbinical consensus in favor of the vaccines – has been issuing announcements every hour from rabbis and yeshiva heads who have already been vaccinated. They have also spoken to the editors and journalists working within Haredi media and asked them not to provide a stage for the opponents of vaccination. A week ago, Prof. Itamar Grotto, the deputy director general of the Health Ministry and members of its public relations staff met with the religious leaders of the Belz Hasidic community who had been strong opponents of vaccination. The result of the meeting was an unambiguous letter signed by the rebbe about the mitzva (commandment) of being vaccinated – even for those not in a high-risk group.

A side effect of the enlistment of Haredi “influencers” is the public relations blitz by the HMOs, who are chasing after rabbis, yeshiva heads and other Haredi celebrities to obtain photographs of them being vaccinated with their HMO logos in the background. In the public relations battle over the hearts and minds of the Haredi community, everything is kosher: But sometimes the efforts translate into unforeseen results. “When you see such things, you begin to think that it’s all just a matter of money,” said B. from Bnei Brak about the public relations campaign. “It’s completely excessive and maybe it has the reverse effect.”

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