By Larry Gordon
Sender Schwartz, who lives directly across the street from The White Shul in Far Rockaway, was the first to bring the presence of the truck pictured here to my attention on Monday. It was a fairly large vehicle parked on the street in an area where parking is not allowed. The ad, as you can see in the accompanying picture, says, “Polio is spreading in Israel. Get immunized now.”
Sender communicated to me that he and others took umbrage at the presence of the van in front of the shul and asked the driver to leave. The driver responded that he cannot move unless his boss tells him he can move. When asked who his boss is he said it is the New York State Board of Health.
About a half-hour later the same truck showed up in the parking lot in Cedarhurst that includes the popular Gourmet Glatt. It is a busy time of year there, with food shopping for Pesach, so a lot of people from multiple areas read the message and absorbed the information. And that message was that Jews are spreading diseases.
All this unfolded over the last few days as New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft launched a $25 million campaign called “Stand Up To Jewish Hate” that has been highlighted on primetime TV this week. The campaign points out that American Jews are just 2.4% of the U.S. population but are the targets of 55% of all hate crimes recorded in the country.
And then at the same time a large truck with a glaring red sign promoting the idea that Jews in Israel are spreading polio shows up in the Five Towns. That’s not a good message and certainly not at a very propitious time.
According to New York State Health Commissioner Sam Miller, there were a number of considerations that went into launching this campaign that so many saw as insensitive and possibly even dangerous to the Jewish community as the Pesach holiday arrives and so many of us are on the move.
I forwarded my exchange with Commissioner Miller to New York State Assemblyman Ari Brown, who fired off a letter to the commissioner after being briefed on the issues at hand. Here is the letter:
Dear Commissioner Miller,
I wear several hats: one being a NYS Assemblyman, another being the deputy mayor of the Village of Cedarhurst. I was appalled, but not surprised, to learn that the NYS Department of Health sent a truck to our Orthodox Jewish community of the Five Towns on Long Island, displaying the subtle anti-Semitic trope of “the Jew spreading disease.”
Anti-Semitism should not be a fact of Jewish life, something that we or anyone should simply accept as a way of life. We Jews, like any other group, want to live unencumbered to practice our religion, to wear our yarmulkes, to attend synagogue and attend Jewish events, without fear of harassment or violence.
Anti-Semitism is a hatred that can be manifested in conspiracy theories, often portraying Jews as pulling the strings of the world; controlling banking and the media are often-repeated epitaphs. One of the worst and historically generated tropes is that “Jews spread disease.” Over the course of history, Jews have had many encounters with contagious diseases, often blamed for them. The Nazis justified the walling off of the ghettos as a preventive measure against the spread of typhus, while some 300 Jewish communities were destroyed in the mass hysteria associated with the plague.
Fast-forward to the 21st century. Anti-Semitism is sometimes expressed by people in power in the soft and subtle bias of their words, much of which goes unchallenged. We have seen this disguised bigotry with the targeting of Orthodox Jewish communities by city and state leaders during COVID-19 lockdowns in New York and now with a New York State Department of Health truck riding around Jewish neighborhoods with the rhetoric of: “Polio is spreading in Israel, Get immunized now.” They literally parked this truck today, March 27, 2023, in Parking Field One, in front of the Gourmet Glatt supermarket, Cedarhurst. It’s the same “Jews spread disease” libel.
I will fight anti-Semitism and will not be silent whether it’s from a government official, media, academic institution, or whomever. I would appreciate an expeditious response.
Assemblyman Ari Brown
It is apparent that someone in the health department infrastructure thought addressing the Jewish community in this type of venue was a smart thing to do. It hasn’t gone over well, and on the same day that the trucks appeared on our streets as well as in Rockland County, Commissioner Miller pulled them off the street.
Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman issued the following statement: “Disturbing messaging from the NYS Department of Health contained wording that could be perceived as anti-Semitic rhetoric. Based on the vigilance of our state representatives and especially Assemblyman Ari Brown, the messaging has been removed and the governor acknowledged the poor judgement of the NYS Health Department and has apologized for this unfortunate incident. Congratulations to Assemblyman Brown and Governor Hochul for immediately correcting this troubling message.”
I exchanged text and e mail messages with Commissioner Miller on Monday and Tuesday and he responded with the following statement: “Following Israel’s recent announcement of four new cases of polio, including a paralyzed child, the Department of Health issued a press release urging people who travel to Israel and other countries with circulating poliovirus to get fully immunized against polio. With Passover near and travel to Israel expected to increase, the Department also launched a public awareness campaign this month reminding New Yorkers planning travel to Israel to protect themselves and their families by getting immunized. After hearing feedback that mobile van ads intended to reach New Yorkers in their communities could be interpreted as blaming the communities themselves for the spread of polio, the Department immediately pulled those ads. The Department of Health remains committed to serving New York’s State’s diverse communities, and we strongly condemn anti-Semitism. We will continue to work with our partners to stop the spread of a once-eradicated disease that causes preventable, life-threatening paralysis.”
I sent the commissioner several questions that remained unanswered. I asked him whether there were any other New Yorkers traveling to countries where there was an uptick in polio cases and a deficient number of people being properly vaccinated. I believe that he did not respond because he just did not have the information.
The fact, as indicated in his statement, is that there were four polio cases diagnosed in northern Israel and three were asymptomatic. I also reached out to an Israeli government official who informed that according to their records there are 175,000 children in Israel who were not vaccinated for polio. That sounds like a high number of children but we also have to view that in the context that there are 9 million people in Israel and many of those unvaccinated may have other health-related issues that does not allow them to be vaccinated.
It’s additionally difficult to fathom that in a city that is significantly populated with ethnic minorities from around our vast world there are no other countries that have statistics that would warrant targeting a population and the spread of one contagious disease or another by parading the fact that traveling to those countries could spread one contagion or another.
I don’t think that we are too sensitive about Jews and Israel being singled out for this kind of attention. At the same time, let’s point out that this was not about anti-Semitism or Jew hatred of any kind. It was more about the realization that it’s just too easy and perhaps even natural to be comfortable isolating Jews and Israel for one thing or another.
At the end of the day it was offensive and hurtful, and considering that this is New York, it was also a serious misjudgment. The termination of the campaign is a positive development. But still, someone needs to be held accountable.
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