NY Times depicts Israeli Orthodox as disease vectors spreading virus via skullcaps

This concept of Jews as insects or parasites is classic anti-Semitic imagery.

By Ira Stoll, The Algemeiner

The New York Times is going over the edge with its full-court press coverage of fervently Orthodox Jews in Israel and the coronavirus.

The February 18 Times carried a front-page photograph of a Jewish funeral in Jerusalem, accompanying a headline that said, “As Ultra-Orthodox Defy Israel’s Rules, Virus Exacts a Grim Toll.” The article jumped inside to four full broadsheet pages.

One carried the headline “At Once Victim and Vector of the Coronavirus.” A vector, according to my Webster’s Second Unabridged, is “in biology, any organism that is the carrier of a disease-producing virus, as one of the many insect hosts of microorganisms parasitic to man.” This concept of Jews as insects or parasites is classic anti-Semitic imagery.

The Times headlined its “how I got the story” sidebar “A Rare Look at a Community in Crisis.” The article claims “access to the Haredim, as the ultra-Orthodox are also known, is extraordinarily rare.”

How rare? Well, it turns out not so rare at all. The Times returned on February 25 with a second super-long look at the ultra-Orthodox in Israel and the coronavirus pandemic, this time by a different reporter and photographer team, who also miraculously managed to obtain that “extraordinarily rare” access.

This article quotes Haim Zicherman, “the academic director for the ultra-Orthodox campus at Ono Academic College and author of a forthcoming book about ultra-Orthodox culture,” who said “thrice-daily synagogue prayers in particular were ‘one of the biggest incubators for corona … From the kiss you give the Torah scroll, the kiss you give the mezuza, the hugs and handshakes, the leaning over the prayer lectern while rocking your body, the sharing of the prayer shawls and kippot between congregants.’”

This is strange, because Zicherman is not an epidemiologist nor an infectious-disease doctor; in fact, scientists have been deemphasizing the risk of surface-based transmission and focusing instead on what is in the air. And in the ultra-Orthodox prayer settings I have experienced, people arrive wearing their own skullcaps and use their own prayer shawls.

This second story also included a tendentious account of ultra-Orthodox hostility to Zionism. It reported:

“The relationship between the Haredim and secular Israelis has been confrontational from the country’s beginnings. Zionism, which advocated building a Jewish national home in the Land of Israel, originated with secular Jews, mainly from Eastern Europe. The Haredim, by contrast, believed that only the Messiah could establish a Jewish state, that God alone would decide when to return the Jews to their ancestral homeland. Humans trying to expedite the process were committing a grave sin.

“The Haredim worked doggedly, both inside and outside Palestine, to stymie the Zionists’ political efforts. The Zionists in Palestine responded with violence. In 1924, an assassin took the life of Jacob de Haan, a Dutch-Jewish author and activist who had become a Haredi as an adult, a day before he was to travel to London in hopes of persuading the British government to reconsider its promise to “view with favor” the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.

“After the Holocaust, it was the Zionist movement that became the leading Jewish political force; the anti-Zionist movements were largely destroyed, apart from the Haredim, whose community survived, despite the huge numbers murdered by the Nazis.”

It’s not accurate that Zionism “originated with secular Jews.” Gil Troy, in his fine 2018 book The Zionist Ideas, notes that Simon Loeb — Theodor Herzl’s grandfather — was a disciple of Yehuda Alkalai, a rabbi who lived from 1798 to 1878 and who wrote in 1843, “collective return means that all Israel should return to the land which is the inheritance of our fathers.”

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Another rabbi, Samuel Mohilever (1824-1898), delivered a message to the First Zionist Congress. As Yehuda Mirsky recounts in his fine 2014 biography of Rav Kook, Kook spoke at a memorial service for Herzl in 1904 in Jaffa and said, “lo, the Zionist vision has been revealed in our time, as the footsteps of Messiah ben Joseph.”

Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s mother kept a kosher kitchen and lit candles every Friday night, according to Hillel Halkin’s biography.

And from where but the Torah did these “secular” Jews derive the idea of having a Jewish homeland in the land of Israel — rather than, say, Vienna, Paris, Minsk or the Catskills?

Anyway, inaccuracies and poor word choices aside, in principle there is no problem with the Times providing ample, nuanced coverage of the spread of the coronavirus among fervently Orthodox Jews in Israel or anywhere else. The problem is the newspaper’s obsession with the fervently Orthodox, and saturation news coverage of them, entirely out of proportion to other communities that play a role in spreading the virus.

brief recent Times article, for example, reports that “in Hawaii, public health investigators linked 21 infections to a 37-year-old male fitness instructor in Honolulu who taught at several facilities … he taught an hour-long stationary cycling class with 10 participants, in which no one wore a mask” and that “at a gym in Chicago, Dr. Teran and his colleagues identified 55 coronavirus infections among 81 people who attended high-intensity, in-person fitness classes between Aug. 24 and Sept 1.”

Disproportionate and excessive coverage

Where are the four broadsheet pages plus long Sunday magazine article with huge color photographs and “Snow Fall-style” multimedia treatment of the gym-goers? The Times doesn’t tell us the fitness instructor’s religious denomination or liken the gym-goers to parasite-spreading insects.

The coverage of fervently Orthodox Jews is disproportionate and excessive. It’s not based on any systematic analysis of their relative contribution to the global spread of Covid-19. But it does feed into hoary age-old stereotypes about Jews as spreaders of disease. It’s so much easier for secular Times readers to scapegoat fervently Orthodox Jews defying rules—imagine them brazenly sharing kippot, even— than to consider the possibility that the culprits might be those spending their weekend mornings in the cycling studio rather than the synagogue.

The Times’ defenders may claim there is an innocent explanation. The Times is, after all, a big silo-ed bureaucracy. Remote work in the pandemic makes communication harder, so the magazine desk may have green-lighted a big feature without realizing that the foreign desk was pursuing the same story. The Jerusalem bureau just changed chiefs, so maybe the new person there is just getting a handle on everything that is happening and didn’t want to make an enemy out of a colleague by spiking a magazine piece that was already underway.

But aside from self-congratulatory “how I got that story” type promotional articles, there’s hardly any transparency into why some themes get covered twice at great length while others get ignored. The public editor job has been eliminated. We’ll all be waiting a very long time for the Times to correct its “a rare look” headline by acknowledging the look isn’t so rare.

And in the meantime, visibly Orthodox Jews are thrown off airplanes or assaulted on the streets by people who have absorbed the Times’ hateful message that the fervently Orthodox Jews are vectors whose very head coverings are crawling with deadly virus.