Vaccine exemptions are a necessary part of religious toleration
New York's crackdown is a dangerous targeting of the state's Orthodox Jewish communities
Likely to be lost amid all the liberal preening about the mandatory vaccination bill signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week is the fact that, during the period covered by the so-called "epidemic," not a single person has died from a confirmed case of measles in the state of New York. The sun and moon have not dropped from the sky and the red-splotched corpses of thousands of victims do not litter the streets of Brooklyn.
Nor are they likely to do so. Everyone involved knows this. The new law is legislation of the very worst kind — passed in a fit of self-aggrandizing indignation and meant to affect a single group of people who are all but named. I am referring to the minority of Orthodox Jews in New York who have refused to vaccinate their children and whose objections were, until last week, granted specific legal protection. This is not a question of so-called "association" or "public accommodations." No one is demanding the right to send unvaccinated children to public schools, nor are the post-faith bobos of today's Williamsburg likely to send their own children, if they have any, to receive an Orthodox education. The new law is about power and control for their own sake.
Let me be clear at the outset. I am a father of three small children, all of whom have received measles and other vaccinations. I do not oppose the consensus such as it is about the necessity of all these shots, though I do find it absurd that in many of our hospitals they begin before a mother has so much as nursed her child for the first time. I could quibble by pointing out that when I was a child in the not-so-distant 1990s we got less than half the number of vaccinations said to be the sole bulwark against various public health emergencies today — what was so wrong with getting the chicken pox, I wonder? — or that my daughters who were both born in Virginia were required to receive many more shots than their brother has in Michigan. Could it be that we have defined "necessary" in this context down the way we have virtually everything else? But this is irrelevant to my real argument.
I do not share or even quite understand the objections made by those Orthodox who refuse to have their children vaccinated against measles and other diseases. The content of these objections is of very little interest to me because I am not Jewish. But I do believe in religious toleration — the rather antique notion that one can freely confess the falsehood of a sect or a doctrine while believing that its blameless adherents ought to be allowed to do as they wish.
It is odd to me, too, that so few have discussed the way in which the coverage of measles cases in New York makes effortless use of tropes about Jews as somehow unclean or contaminated and thus requiring a mandatory purification by the authorities. This is not the first time that black hats and long beards have become outward signifiers of an unspeakable interior pollution.
These do not exhaust my concerns. There was a time when one could expect a certain degree of epistemic humility from good liberals who had read their Thomas Kuhn. No longer. Science has joined "the economy" as one of those first-order goods whose pursuit we are told cannot be questioned. The ease with which all moral and prudential questions are being subsumed into the rhetoric of "science," "health," and "safety" should worry all persons of humane views and skeptical temperament.
As I write this, many of New York's yeshivas have been closed until further notice. This will not end with vaccines. Health is a remarkably fluid concept in the modern liberal imagination. A day will come when refusing to affirm the latest fashionable nonsense about gender theory will be considered a threat to "health" by the relevant medical authorities. Catholic schools will be shut down because they do not instruct children in the art of contraception. In British Columbia it is already considered child abuse for a parent to refuse to allow naïve adolescents to undergo elective hormonal therapy — or even to refer to one's own children by their given names and the pronouns associated with persons of their sex. Only a fool would believe that this could never happen in this country, or that many of our progressives are not already in favor of it.
My prayers, and those of every person of faith and good will, belong with New York's Orthodox Jews, who have become the victims of a fideistic campaign of persecution.