Handler Should be Defrocked – Measles and The Vaccine Conspiracy, The Gospels According to Luke and the Nazi Ties to Medicine –

I attended an Orthodox anti-vaccine rally. Here’s what I saw.

NEW YORK (JTA) — The weirdest part of an Orthodox anti-vaccine conference here was probably when the emcee, a rabbi wearing a black hat and white beard, quoted the Gospel of Luke.

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” he cried, reciting the Gospels nearly verbatim.

Rabbi Hillel Handler wasn’t referring to the 200 people gathered in the basement of a haredi Orthodox wedding hall in Brooklyn to hear about the alleged dangers of vaccines. Rather, he was talking about the doctors, rabbis and politicians who he says are all hoodwinked by a massive conspiracy orchestrated by drug companies and the Centers for Disease Control to make money off of vaccines.

While the scientific consensus supports vaccination and regards it as a historic boon to public health, the crowd, like the emcee, do not put much stock in that science. Handler and the other speakers charged the CDC and its purported stooges with hiding the dangers of vaccines and destroying evidence that they are harmful. They cited no credible evidence.

“This is all being orchestrated by the drug companies, which are very close to the CDC,” Handler told the crowd in a gender-segregated room at a catering hall in the Midwood neighborhood. “The doctors all march in lockstep with the CDC. The doctors don’t think they’re marching in lockstep. They don’t understand that the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, is a totally corrupt swamp. … They are criminals.”

The rally comes amid an ongoing measles outbreak sparked by low vaccination rates, particularly in the Orthodox community. According to the CDC, there have been 981 confirmed cases of measles in the United States this year. In New York City, according to the city’s Department of Health, there have been 566 confirmed measles cases since September, the highest totals since 1992. The city says most of the cases have involved members of the Orthodox Jewish community.

The city required immunization in heavily Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhoods earlier this year. Large Orthodox organizations have encouraged their communities to vaccinate.

“[C]ountless rabbinical figures and leaders, including leading rabbis in the Agudath Israel movement and doctors serving these communities, have repeatedly encouraged vaccination in the strongest possible terms,” reads an April statement by Agudath Israel of America, a leading haredi group. “Indeed, the overwhelming majority of children enrolled in Jewish schools are vaccinated.”

But there are some vocal holdouts.

At the rally held late Tuesday night, organized by an anti-vaccine group calling itself the United Jewish Community Council, speakers cast doubt on established medical opinion and the CDC. The crowd, which appeared to be mostly but not entirely haredi, was receptive to the message and applauded.

One attendee told another that large pharmaceutical companies like Bayer and Merck, which now produce vaccines, had collaborated with Nazi Germany. (Bayer was a division of a larger company that did collaborate with the Nazis, though now it is under different ownership. Merck, originally connected to a German company of the same name, split off into an independent American firm in 1917, before the Nazis came to power.)

“If you had bought a mutual fund in the ’30s, back in Nazi Germany, you would have done phenomenally,” the attendee remarked.

After Handler, speakers included Dr. Daniel Neides, a former vice chairman of the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute who resigned last year after writing a column questioning vaccines. (He later apologized, saying he “fully supports vaccination” and was trying to open a conversation about their safety, not question their use.)

But the bulk of the program was led by Del Bigtree, a Hollywood producer without medical qualifications who styles himself as an expert on vaccines. He directed the documentary “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up To Catastrophe.” Last month Bigtree spoke to a similar rally in Monsey, New York, also the home of a large haredi community.

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Anna Barkovski, who came out Tuesday night in an attempt to change the minds of anti-vaxxers. (Gwynne Hogan / Gothamist / WNYC)

Ultra-Orthodox attendees of an anti-vaccination event in Borough Park on Tuesday night were confronted by members of their own community who hoped to dissuade them from attending—or convince them to reconsider their choice not to vaccinate.

Midwood resident Ben Rivlin got to the event, at the Ateres Chaya Hall, early so he could tape up his handmade sign reading “VACCINATION IS IMPORTANT! STOP THE PROPAGANDA AND LIES!!!”

“I want to send the message that Orthodox people do care about vaccines and health,” he said. Security guards soon made him remove the fliers.

“I’m not gonna get anybody to not go in,” Rivlin said. “But there should at least be noise that people are against this.”

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Anti-vaccination activists with a group calling itself “United Jewish Community Council” were hosting the vaccine symposium at a catering hall. The event featured regulars on the anti-vaccination circuit including Del Bigtree, who hosts an anti-vaccination Youtube channel. Bigtree headlined a similar gathering in Monsey last month and later attended a rally in Albany against the removal of religious exemptions to vaccines.

“I think it’s absurd to say I’ve had any impact on this community whatsoever and their decision whether or not to vaccinate,” Bigtree said, speaking to reporters before entering the venue Tuesday night. He went on describe a rise in autoimmune diseases and neurological disorders that he said, coincides with an increase in required vaccines.

“When you look at that coterminous event, what we’re seeing is the greatest decline in public health in human history and therefore I think we have got to question the medical establishment,” Bigtree said.

Vaccination advocate Anna Barkovski came armed with a stack of with pamphlets written by a group of Orthodox nurses debunking some of the highly cited anti-vaccination propaganda that’s targeted their community.

“I think everybody’s responsible for their health choices but I want people’s choices to be based on science and on facts, not on some propaganda or fear mongering of [the] Pharma industry,” she said.

As the current measles outbreak has spread for more than seven months now, vaccination has become a lightning rod within the tight-knit ultra-Orthodox community; all but a handful of people who were sickened did not identify as Orthodox Jewish.

The vast majority of ultra-Orthodox NYC residents immunize their children, much the same as the general population. But a small but organized subset of the community, who have ties to the national anti-vaccination movement, have been organizing and spreading their anti-vaccination message through hotlines, conference calls, pamphlets and on the encrypted messaging service WhatsApp.

New York City Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot took to Twitter to call out the event, writing, “To hold an anti-vaccination rally in the middle of an outbreak is beyond irresponsible, it is downright dangerous.”

Word about Tuesday’s event had spread through WhatsApp groups, word of mouth, flyers stuck to telephone poles and through recorded messages blasted from car speakers around Borough Park.

Other polemic speakers slated to address the crowd included Rabbi Hillel Handler, who in a speech at the recent anti-vaccine symposium in Monsey blamed “illegals,” for spreading disease, and said the focus on measles was a distraction crafted by Mayor Bill de Blasio, whom he called a “sneaky, sneaky fellow,” citing his German heritage.

Rabbi Handler’s messages that the city was targeting Jews instead of other groups seemed to have permeated at least some of the audience members. Heshy Friedman showed up to the event with his own signs that read “Why does the mayor not close down the gay movement that is spreading deadly AIDS but shut down yeshivas for measles that is not deadly?”

“We believe the mayor is harassing the Jewish community because he’s trying to shut our private Jewish schools for just measles…and yet he’s not gonna stop the gays from having their clubs and their parades,” Friedman said, drawing a false, homophobic connection between vaccinations, the AIDS virus, and the gay community.

 

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