Vaccines and a Glimpse of the Divide

Nahma Nadich

A message from Deputy Director Nahma Nadich:

This week, testifying on behalf of JCRC at a hearing for a bill called the “Community Immunity Act,” I got a glimpse of the deeply troubling rhetoric and toxic divide plaguing our country and threatening our health as a nation.

In 2019, when JCRC was first approached to support this act, the term “herd immunity” was new to us. Frankly, we scratched our heads. We already had an ambitious list of priorities; Civil Rights, Immigration, Combating Antisemitism and Hatred, Defending Democracy and Economic Justice. The issue of vaccines didn’t seem to fit into any of these buckets and we had no reason to think that it was of particular concern for our community members.

As the central advocacy arm of the organized Jewish community, we are regularly asked to sign on to a range of worthy and important issues. But to be effective and true to our mission, we must keep a laser focus on the areas of most concern to our community, and where our voice will matter most.

But then, we started hearing from Jewish community members – worried pre-school teachers and directors, anxious parents – about being in a bind that left them uneasy about their students’ and childrens’ well-being. Though local Jewish schools required vaccines, MA law allowed for religious exemptions that were easy for anyone objecting to vaccines to obtain, and that were processed not by public health officials but by the schools themselves. Equally concerning were the restrictions barring educators from informing parents when their children had classmates whose parents chose not to have them vaccinated.  Because support for vaccines was robust throughout our community and across denominations, JCRC was asked for our help in enacting public policy to protect Jewish institutions.

We learned that the proposed Community Immunity Act sponsored by Senator Becca Rausch and Representative Paul Donato addressed problems we had no idea that Massachusetts was facing, i.e. that over 2,000 schools and preschools failed to report any immunization data, that a significant number of kindergarten programs that did report data were below herd immunity rates for measles and pertussis, and as is so often the case, that the health of impoverished populations and communities of color were disproportionately hit by these diseases. Our Council enthusiastically endorsed a set of principles to standardize immunization requirements, overhaul the system of collecting and reporting data, educate the public and encourage efforts to boost vaccination rates.

When the pandemic hit, we painfully and (too) slowly, came to appreciate how inextricably tied our fates are to those of our neighbors, and we realized that decisions we make about our daily lives – ones we used to think of as affecting only us – literally have life and death consequences to those around us. We could not anticipate that a year later, we’d suffer unimaginable losses and watch out society grind to a halt – only to be delivered from that darkness by the miracle of lifesaving vaccines.

So, I was eager to testify on behalf of JCRC at the hearing scheduled for the Community Immunity bill. For over 15 sometimes raucous hours, the MA Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health heard testimony from hundreds of individuals. As I listened throughout the day, I was appalled to hear person after person refute basic science and spread dangerous disinformation about the safety and efficacy of vaccines. I heard them misrepresent and distort the contents of the bill, claiming that it interferes with free speech (it does not) and alleging that it would make our private medical information available to the public (it would not). And I heard appeals to our collective responsibility to public health and safety described as fascist attempts to deprive American citizens of their liberty.

My time to testify finally came at 6PM, and I opened by describing the Jewish principle of Pikuach Nefesh the idea that the preservation of life always takes priority. As I proceeded to characterize vaccines as among the most significant achievements in public health, I was suddenly muted. The Chair waited for me to unmute myself and asked me to continue. But a moment later, I found myself mysteriously ejected from the hearing altogether. When I quickly rejoined, I heard the Chair inform the hundreds of people assembled, that no one on their staff had removed me, prompting someone to shout about their being denied a fair hearing. Though I was aware of the vociferous opposition to the bill, I was shocked by what appeared to be intentional undermining of a democratic process to hear multiple perspectives.

Even more disturbing were the grotesque references to the Holocaust, an odious trope employed by some vaccine opponents who bizarrely compare lifesaving vaccines to the death and destruction of the darkest chapter in modern Jewish history (which I referenced in my testimony). These images continue to be invoked in emails I’ve received since the hearing; including one I received yesterday, cautioning about the results of Dr. Mengele’s sadistic experimentation.

As it turns out, that request for support on an issue seemingly disconnected to our mission, was in fact, central to it. The experience of the pandemic has underscored the urgent need to reaffirm the supreme value of human life, to protect the safety of our community and to embrace our collective responsibility for the well-being of all.

We need your help. Click here to contact members of the Public Health Committee in support of the Community Immunity Act. It is critical that we do everything we can to balance the volume of disinformation and anti-vax propaganda from opponents by submitting comments supportive of the legislation to submit to members of the Committee. These vaccine refusal emails continue to flood the inboxes of Committee members. Their numbers and engagement have skewed some press coverage in such a way as to lend legitimacy to the anti-vax movement and its repeated propaganda. Please help us to send a wave of voices of science and reason to the Committee.

And to learn more about the effort to pass this critical bill, join us for an intimate conversation with the bill’s  co-sponsor , Senator Becca Rausch, on Monday, August 2nd at 12pm. .

Shabbat Shalom,

Nahma

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Nahma