אשדוד
An ultra-Orthodox man receives the coronavirus vaccine in Ashdod earlier this month
Photo: Reuters
An ultra-Orthodox man receives the coronavirus vaccine in Ashdod, January 2021

Fake news and frankincense: The battle for Haredi health in a pandemic

As the virus spread, so did misinformation fueled by a mistrust of the government and its establishments, often despite rabbinical authorities urging caution even as some ultra-Orthodox leaders flouted health regulations

Yitzhak Tessler |
Published: 01.15.21 , 09:15
Israel's coronavirus vaccine roll out, hailed by many around the world, is nonetheless being received with some suspicion by members of the country's ultra-Orthodox community.
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  • From claims of a conspiracy between the government and drug companies to fears of infertility as a result of the jab, fake news is readily available on the streets of Bnei Brak, Modi'in Illit and other Haredi cities.
    8 צפייה בגלריה
    אשדוד
    אשדוד
    An ultra-Orthodox man receives the coronavirus vaccine in Ashdod, January 2021
    (Photo: Reuters)
    The mainstream media outlets are often unheard due to a ban on TV and internet by religious leaders, leaving the Haredi public uninformed even during the pandemic.
    Health Ministry data shows that the proportion of ultra-Orthodox over-60s who have received their first dose of the vaccine is 20% lower than among the general population.
    This is happening even as the rate of contagion is nearly three times higher than in non-religious Jewish cities. Haredi Israelis made up 34% of all positive tests for coronavirus conducted on Monday, despite only being some 10% of the overall population.
    Health officials know that they have an uphill battle to convince the ultra-Orthodox that vaccines are safe, important and lifesaving, and municipal leaders have rushed to enlist the help of representatives of all religious factions to help in the effort to increase public awareness and compliance.
    In the early days of the pandemic, many religious Jewish leaders were unaware of the seriousness of the disease. They instructed their followers to ignore government mitigation efforts and even told those arriving from abroad that they must attend synagogue despite being instructed by the Health Ministry to isolate.
    This resulted in the unexpected and massive spread of COVID-19 in the community and it was only after the intervention of then-Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, head of the United Torah Judaism party, that religious decree was reversed.
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    בנימין נתניהו בתדרוך לתקשורת
    בנימין נתניהו בתדרוך לתקשורת
    Then-health minister Yaakov Litzman attends a coronavirus briefing with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in July
    (Photo Amit Shabi)
    At about the same time, rumors spread of homemade cures for coronavirus that included eating garlic and a host of natural remedies, in particular Frankincense seeds.
    Chaim Greidinger, a media advisor working with the Health Ministry at the time, said people believed what they heard.
    "They considered the seeds to be a certain cure that can save lives," he said.
    The ministry responded by setting up a special team to prepare pamphlets, advertisements and even cars to travel around the Haredi neighborhoods with loudspeakers to explain that there was no cure for the virus and that health mitigation was the only line of defense.
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    בני ברק
    בני ברק
    An ultra-Orthodox man in Bnei Brak wears a protective mask during the coronavirus pandemic
    (Photo: Nadav Abas)
    Still not everyone was exposed to the facts or perhaps was simply not convinced by these efforts.
    Haim Kanievsky, a 92-year-old rabbi who is considered an authority in the ultra-Orthodox world insisted his flock must continue their religious learning despite lockdowns imposed on the country that included all educational institutions being shut.
    Kanievsky first said he had not hear a thing about coronavirus and later announced that the study of Torah was more important and would protect people from the disease.
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    תמונת הרב חיים קניבסקי ולצידו יענקי קניבסקי
    תמונת הרב חיים קניבסקי ולצידו יענקי קניבסקי
    Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and his grandson, who acts as his conduit to the world outside Torah studies
    (Photo: Ilya Melnikov)
    By then, his native Bnei Brak was overrun by contagion, locked down and surrounded by police to stop the infected people from leaving and passing the virus to others outside.
    That was viewed as an anti-Semitic assault by many in his community and the rift between Haredi citizens and the state widened.
    By the time the second wave of the pandemic hit, local charities spread the word that a substantial donation to Kanievsky's fund for the poor would ensure good health and protect them from coronavirus.
    Kanievsky himself was probably unaware of the business venture launched in his name.
    Meanwhile, some leaders of the Hasidic movement, a separate but large and powerful religious faction, flouted their refusal to adhere to any health mitigation regulations.
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    Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach head of the Belz Hassidic dynesty at his grandson's wedding in Jerusalem
    Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach head of the Belz Hassidic dynesty at his grandson's wedding in Jerusalem
    Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, center, attends his grandson's wedding in Jerusalem
    (Photo: EPA)
    Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, the head of the Belz dynasty that has tens of thousands of followers in Israel and abroad, held a massive wedding ceremony for his grandson in Jerusalem.
    Guests arrived from the far corners of the world, congregating together with no masks, dancing with no social distancing and spreading coronavirus to all present and beyond.
    Other dynastic leaders followed suit with their own family celebrations, holidays or mere weekly gatherings - leading the country into its third wave of the pandemic.
    There will be herd immunity, cried the fake news disseminators. No scientific proof could convince them otherwise.
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    חתונה המונית במודיעין עילית
    חתונה המונית במודיעין עילית
    An ultra-Orthodox wedding celebrated by hundreds, without with no masks or social distancing, at Beitar Illit in November 2020
    (Photo: Itamar Kirshenbaum)
    Erez Garty, who heads the media department at the Davidson Institute of Science Education, said false information was being spread around that misquoted scientific studies and promoted conspiracy theories about vaccines.
    Among the stories he monitored were the idea that coronavirus was caused by the 5G cellular network and that the vaccine caused debilitating side effects.
    "Not only were reputable religious leaders of the community reported to be warning against inoculations, which was never the case, a publication handed out by the thousands claimed the vaccines were part of a government plot to cause infertility in order to wipe out the Haredi community," he said.
    Bill Gates is also behind the scheme, the publication claimed, and was financing the effort to carry it out.
    This fairytale was followed by warnings that the vaccine could even alter the recipients' DNA.
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    חיסונים נגד קורונה סבב שני בירושלים
    חיסונים נגד קורונה סבב שני בירושלים
    An ultra-Orthodox woman receives her coronavirus vaccine in Jerusalem, January 2021
    (Photo: AP)
    Dr. Gilad Malach of the Israel Democracy Institute said the fear of vaccines is fueled from the bottom up and most rabbinical leaders actually support the vaccination efforts.
    Malach believes that the belief in the conspiracy theories was part of a general distrust of the government and its institutions.
    "The rumors were being spread of seriously ill patients being neglected or mistreated by medical professionals in hospitals," he said.
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    שוטרים בכניסה לבני ברק בעקבות הסגר הלילי
    שוטרים בכניסה לבני ברק בעקבות הסגר הלילי
    Police officers enforcing a lockdown in Bnei Brak in September 2020
    (Photo: AFP)
    The fight against fake news and misinformation is being waged from the Health Ministry's information center for the ultra-Orthodox community.
    Meni Haddad, who runs the center, said he is aware that verified information often fails to reach that sector of the public.
    "Even when the information reaches some of the people, they are unable to determine if it is more credible than other information being spread," he says.
    "It is easy to spread panic. So, we try to make information available that can counter the fake stories. We've been able to prove that a lot of the lies are being spread by interested parties such as missionary groups working against the Haredi community.
    "Luckily there are plenty of intelligent people who understand that vaccines are the quickest way out of the crisis."
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