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‘I’m young, I don’t need it’: Ultra-Orthodox non-vaxxers dig in their heels

Amid Israel’s vaccination success, there are still some 800,000 adults refusing to get shots, many of them Haredi, and they seem motivated by fear, not religious rulings

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Illustrative image: a Haredi man receives a coronavirus vaccine in Jerusalem, on March 11, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Illustrative image: a Haredi man receives a coronavirus vaccine in Jerusalem, on March 11, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yonatan the shop assistant is resolute that he won’t take a coronavirus vaccine. “I’m young, I don’t need it,” he insists, at the start of a long day on the checkout that will bring him face-to-face with a large part of Kiryat Yearim’s local community.

False claims that vaccines harm fertility impacted his choice to shun shots, as did a general reluctance about taking a newly developed inoculation — and his social circle in the town west of Jerusalem feels the same.

“None of my friends have taken it,” said the 20-year-old, standing at the cash register of the grocery store.

“We’ve been alright without it. Why should I put something in my body when I don’t know what it is, especially if I’ve been quite fine up until now?”

Yonatan the shopkeeper at work in Kiryat Yearim (Nathan Jeffay/The Times of Israel)

Israel’s Haredi communities, which suffered particularly badly from COVID-19 infections and deaths, also trail general society in vaccinations.

After four months of a world-leading inoculation campaign in Israel, a country of 9.3 million citizens, the vast majority of the population aged 16-plus and eligible for vaccines has received at least one shot. But there are around 800,000 people who aren’t reporting for vaccines and health authorities are having little success in persuading them.

Among the general population aged 16-plus, meaning those people who are eligible for coronavirus shots, some 87% are protected from infection by a vaccine or by virtue of being a recovered patient. In the ultra-Orthodox community, the figure is 69%, despite many leading rabbis publicizing their decision to get vaccinated and urging people to follow their lead.

Daniel Rotstein in Kiryat Yearim (Nathan Jeffay/The Times of Israel)

Even in Kiryat Yearim, where take-up is relatively high, it’s easy to find people who are hesitant, along with people who are concerned by the potential risks of non-vaccination.

“I’m angry with those who don’t get inoculated,” said Daniel Rotstein, a performer in his 50s. “If I were in government I’d press people to do it, maybe even reducing National Insurance payments if they don’t, though I see there may be a legal problem with this.”

Many residents share his enthusiasm for vaccines, but others are full of suspicion. One woman, in her 60s, gave a full rendition of anti-vax conspiracy theories, including false accusations against Bill Gates and bogus suggestions that shots may put microchips into people.

“If it was really a pandemic we would see many more deaths,” she said, lauding Rabbi Yuval Hacohen Asherov, whose anti-vax messages have been slammed by the Health Ministry, for “explaining” these things. Her children also reject vaccines for themselves and their kids, knowing that the push to inoculate is based on “lies,” she said.

But full-blown conspiracy talk is far rarer than general reluctance or a belief that vaccines are simply unnecessary. Ortal and Rafi Tzvi, both in their 30s, will soon finish the period when they are considered protected as recovered patients, and be invited to get vaccinated — but neither plans to go.

An overview of Kiryat Yearim (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Israel is aiming for herd immunity, with people getting inoculated in order to protect both themselves and wider society, but Rafi Tzvi argued that he shouldn’t be expected to get vaccinated for others. “If it’s for protection and you want to get protected, then go ahead and take it, but why expect others to do so?” he said.

His wife said she is influenced by reports of doctors in the US who won’t take the vaccine. The vaccine is “all new,” she said, “and we don’t know what it causes.”

Over the next month or two Israel will start vaccinating 12- to 15-year-olds, and in Haredi communities where people have more kids and therefore teenagers than in general society, parents’ views will be important in determining the success of that drive.

“I don’t know what it’ll cause in our daughter,” said Ortal Tzvi, resolute that she won’t vaccinate her teenager. The girl agrees entirely and “refuses to hear of getting vaccinated,” she reported.

Notably absent among non-vaccinators is any sense that they are shunning shots on religious grounds, or because their faith deems them unnecessary.

Screen capture from video of Rabbi Yuval HaCohen Asherov speaking about the COVID-19 outbreak. (YouTube)

Even the woman who cited Asherov portrayed him as a source of information, not religious instruction. Yonatan the shopkeeper is rejecting vaccines on his own logic alone and said firmly: “Even if a rabbi tells me to take a vaccine, I’m not going to do it.”

Locals who are learning in yeshivot, or who closely follow rabbis generally, said they are vaccinated. Indeed, Shalom Trau, a retiree who can’t convince his son to follow Health Ministry advice, said that the non-vaxxers are often those who also ignore rabbis.

“My son had the first shot but doesn’t want to take the second,” said Trau, who is fully vaccinated. “He felt unwell after the first shot and just doesn’t want the second.”

He reported that “because of talk of side effects lots of the young prefer not to take shots,” and said that he worried about possible consequences of some people not getting fully vaccinated.

Shalom Trau in Kiryat Yearim (Nathan Jeffay/The Times of Israel)

They reach their decisions — to shun one or both shots — based on claims seen online and various rumors, he said, and for most, rabbis play no part in their decision making. “They are an age group that is more disconnected [from rabbis],” he said.

In nearby Beit Shemesh, where vaccination rates are particularly low, Shalom Abergil, 35, invoked the writings of a rabbi to support his decision not to get the vaccine when his protection as a recovered patient runs out in six weeks.

But notably, he didn’t portray the rabbi as having instructed him to forgo shots, but rather as proving an argument in a book that permits him to reject vaccination without violating the requirement in Jewish law to stay healthy. The argument was that if there are 100 doctors and 99 of them say to take a vaccine or surgery and one says not to, it is permitted to go with the minority opinion.

Abergil’s decision comes down to personal mistrust of the shots. “I’m concerned about the vaccines,” he said. “My concern is what impact they’ll have on us in 15 years — we just don’t know.”

Abergil, a yeshiva cook, has long side curls and a big beard, and while he was happy to be photographed, he refused to have his picture taken with a smartphone, as he considers the technology non-kosher. His vaccinated father, standing a few steps away in more secular attire and a knitted yarmulke, said that his son’s opinion is “his problem” and that he will cave at some point. “Sooner or later you’ll need a vaccine to do anything, even buy bread,” he said, suggesting the pressure will sway his son.

A major center of the Haredi community, in Beit Shemesh only 29.5% of the population have received a first shot and 26% have received both shots. These figures are around half the national averages — 58% and 54%, respectively — though the difference is not as huge as it seems given that Haredi areas have many more under-16s who can’t be vaccinated, and also more recovered patients, than in general society.

The local stats worry Chava Akerman, an Orthodox woman who was scathing about those who don’t get vaccinated, calling their perspective “stupid and primitive.” She often asks people to keep their distance from her for fear of the coronavirus.

Chava Akerman in Beit Shemesh (Nathan Jeffay/The Times of Israel)

Shimon Kletzkin, 24, has taken both shots, but — in a mirror image of the Abergil family — his parents refuse. He said: “I’ve argued with them but they won’t agree to take them.”

“I had the vaccine because of practical considerations — so we can all return to routine,” said Kletzkin. His parents “are scared that maybe there’s something unhealthy or something bad in the vaccine.” But as they worry about the possible impact of the shots, he worries about their vulnerability from not taking them. “They are my parents and I worry about them,” he said.

Some Beit Shemesh residents say they have been won around to vaccines for themselves, but aren’t so sure when it comes to their kids, which is significant as Israel is expected to soon become the first country to offer shots to all teenagers.

Moshe Bratman in Beit Shemesh (Nathan Jeffay/The Times of Israel)

Moshe Bratman, 44, has taken both doses, though he was “was hesitant at first because I didn’t want to be a guinea pig.” But he said that others have a hard time reconciling the government lauding the vaccine with its rule that masks must still be worn indoors, and interprets this as revealing a lack of government confidence in the vaccine.

He was reassured when people around him took the vaccine, but said that he will be harder to convince when it comes to his son, who was sharing an outdoor lunch with him, and his other teenagers. “I certainly don’t want them to be among the first,” he said. “And the idea we’re going to inject kids when they don’t actually get very sick with the coronavirus is more difficult for me.”

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