Anti-vaccine activists have launched a campaign of harassment and intimidation against an Israeli Rabbi, one of the ultra-Orthodox world’s most revered spiritual leaders, with some going so far as to threaten to murder him and rape his great-grandchildren over his public support for vaccinating children against the coronavirus.
Ninety-three-year-old Chaim Kanievsky – widely regarded as one of the most influential figures within the so-called Lithuanian branch of non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox – recently endorsed the government’s rollout of vaccines for children aged five -11, stating that getting inoculated was mandatory under Torah law.
According to a report in Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth, members of the rabbi’s household have received threats on the streets, with vaccine opponents telling his grandson, Yanky, that he had “the blood of children on your hands” and that they would “rape your 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 body guard, said that 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.
"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," he said.
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Israel Cohen, a prominent ultra-Orthodox political commentator who is close to rabbi Kanievsky, told Haaretz that he believes the threats are coming from both ultra-Orthodox and secular anti-vaxxers, noting that while some of the calls used Biblical imagery and terminology commonly used by Haredim, others came from numbers which identified their users as owners of non-“kosher” phones eschewed by many in the community.
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 which have soured relations with the ultra-Orthodox community.
“Someone who was against the state is now collaborating with the government” so maybe the “extremists” who are against the government and the vaccine are behind the harassment campaign, Cohen mused.
Last week, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, the Israel-based leader of the Belz Hasidic sect, urged teachers at a Brooklyn school affiliated with the group to get vaccinated despite widespread protests against New York’s “devastating” new vaccine mandate targeting non-public educational institutions.
Ultra-Orthodox religious and political leaders in New York decried last Thursday’s mandate – which would require what the city said are around 56,000 employees of over 900 private schools, including yeshivas, to be immunized against coronavirus – as an example of government overreach by outgoing Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio.
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 this August showed the ultra-Orthodox community, which skews younger than other sectors, lagging behind other sectors.
In its report, the ministry stated that the “main characteristics” shared by the unvaccinated are being economically disadvantaged and young, with “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.