A week after Rockland County’s executive announced a ban on unvaccinated minors in public places, reports claim that while the proclamation comes with no means of enforcement, its most tangible result has been a spike in anti-Semitism.
The announcement, made on Tuesday of last week, was intended as an emergency measure to stem the ongoing measles outbreak that has continued for months in the county, largely in the Orthodox community of Monsey and surrounding towns.
Ed Day, the county’s executive, said at the highly publicized announcement that law enforcement would not be checking children’s vaccination forms at parks or on buses, but that the move would be the “next step” in Rockland’s endeavor to end the outbreak. Yet a New York Times article entitled, “An Outbreak Spreads Fear: Of Measles, of Ultra-Orthodox Jews, of Anti-Semitism,” referenced several incidents of non-Jewish Rockland residents fleeing stores after spotting Orthodox Jews shopping there.
The Times quoted a store clerk who recalled the story, saying that one customer had grabbed her child and said, “Let’s go, let’s go! Jews don’t have shots!’”
County Legislator and askan Aron Weider told Hamodia that the emergency declaration had “absolutely” led to an increase in anti-Semitic rhetoric and feelings in the county, well beyond the handful of incidents mentioned in the article, and that a significant amount of the blame lay with Mr. Day’s approach in making the declaration.
“He [Day] knows what would have been the responsible way to go about this, and in my opinion he deliberately did it this way to further exploit the tensions that he knows exist,” he said.
As the outbreak has largely affected Orthodox centers of population, it has triggered many false reports that members of the community who choose not to vaccinate are doing so on religious grounds. Mr. Weider said that in failing to clarify the facts, Mr. Day fed into this dangerous misconception and fueled animus.
“All he [Day] needed to say is that despite the perception being promoted, the vast majority of the Orthodox community do vaccinate their children and, while certain individuals who happen to be frum who have signed onto the anti-vax movement do bear some level of responsibility, the community as a whole is not to blame and has done everything it can to contain the outbreak,” he said.
Mr. Day took issue with the premise of The Times story and said that nothing in his statements should have been construed as stoking anti-Semitism.
“We have not seen an uptick in this. In point of fact, most of the negative dialogue has been between the anti-vaxxers from outside of the community and the people of Rockland who support our taking this step to protect the public health,” he told Hamodia. “The bottom line, as every announcement has made clear, is that this is not a religious issue, it is a public health issue. Our Department of Health has worked closely with religious, community and elected leaders to encourage vaccination and has received nothing but their full support throughout this entire outbreak.”
The measles outbreak began this past October and has produced the largest number of cases in the Monsey community. The present tally of affected individuals in the community is at 158, most of whom have long recovered from the highly contagious virus. A source said that, as of the emergency announcement, only six cases were active. According to the county health department, more than 82 percent of those who have been infected had not received MMR vaccinations.
Since the outbreak began, leaders in the Monsey community have taken steps to contain it. Most schools have enforced policies that forbid unvaccinated children from attending classes until the scourge ends, and several leading Rabbanim joined calls from local officials and doctors that families ensure their children are properly vaccinated.
A county-wide immunization campaign delivered 17,450 shots in recent months.
The measure that Mr. Day introduced forbids all unvaccinated minors from places where 10 or more people congregate — such as schools, houses of worship, restaurants, stores, public transportation and recreational facilities — and will be in effect for 30 days from last week.
Steven Gold, the chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Council for the Jewish Federation of Rockland, said that since last Tuesday, his agency had heard of an increase in bias comments against Orthodox Jews.
“The declaration made people feel freer to make anti-Semitic comments,” he said. “Just because there’s an outbreak in these communities, that shouldn’t give anybody a right to be openly anti-Semitic. I think if it had been presented as a state of emergency rather than a ban it might have been wiser.”
Mr. Day said that he took “umbrage” at the criticism that Mr. Weider has leveled at him over the emergency declaration and criticized what he presented as the legislator’s inaction regarding the outbreak. He strongly defended the approach he had taken.
“The cheap way to score political points would have been to allow this outbreak to run its course and stay silent as it related to the Orthodox community; I did not,” he said. “As county executive, I will continue to denounce any anti-Semitism in the strongest terms possible. Here in Rockland, we are one community, united to protect the public health of all of our residents.”
Mr. Gold said that, ultimately, he did not feel Mr. Day was to blame for the anti-Semitic reactions, but that more caution could have been taken.
“If the outbreak continues, he would be blamed for that also,” he said. “Temperament is such in Rockland that ultra-Orthodox Jews are blamed for a lot of our problems; if this is what he felt needed to be done, there was no way for him to do it without inviting more anti-Semitism, but he could have done more to take the focus off of the Orthodox community and put it as a problem of the anti-vaxxers, rather than with the Orthodox per se.”
This is hardly the first time Mr. Day has been accused of exploiting tensions surrounding the quickly expanding Orthodox community in Rockland. He has supported a long list of measures widely seen as aimed to discourage further growth and was elected in 2013 with enthusiastic backing from the Preserve Rockland group — an organization that is likewise seen by many as dedicated to agitating against the area’s Orthodox community and in some instances against Judaism itself.
In 2016, Sreeramulu Nagubandi, the county’s long-serving Commissioner for Human Rights, filed a lawsuit that alleged that the county executive had openly expressed a desire to limit the Orthodox community’s growth and to make daily life difficult for them.
Mr. Weider said there was little in Mr. Day’s record to dissuade him from thinking that his actions regarding the ban were not motivated by animus.
“Ed Day has a long history of being antagonistic towards the Orthodox community. His own human rights commissioner accused him of being overtly anti-Semitic.”