Why Jewish Vaccine Advocates Shouldn’t be Condescending Towards Those Who Are Hesitant

We are living in complicated and difficult times. Our society is divided and in tension. As we prepare for Yom Hashoah, crucial lessons from the Holocaust are especially relevant for this pandemic and, in particular, vaccination efforts.

The success of the vaccine rollout is crucial for our ability to overcome this pandemic and the various societal inequities it has created or exacerbated. Distribution of vaccines has been unequal, unclear and frustrating. Even some with access to vaccines have opted not to take them. The attitude we take toward those who are hesitant may determine the success of distribution efforts and thus how smoothly we move beyond this pandemic.

Many people respond to those who express vaccine hesitancy with harsh judgment and condemnation. But I advocate a different approach: We should treat individuals who hold these views with respect and listen to their concerns. For many, especially in communities of color, there are legitimate fears and mistrust of the medical establishment as a result of past injustices, such as the unethical Tuskegee syphilis study, in which African American men were unknowingly injected with syphilis by government health officials and left untreated for decades despite the availability of effective treatments.

For many, especially in communities of color, there are legitimate fears and mistrust of the medical establishment as a result of past injustices.

Jews are no strangers to injustices in the medical field. We have also been mistreated by doctors and researchers at many points in our recent history, most notoriously in Nazi Germany, where Josef Mengele conducted inhumane — and deadly — experiments on concentration camp prisoners.

Here in the United States, Jews have been subjected to various non-lethal, but still injurious, forms of discrimination and prejudice — so much so that Jewish communities once found it necessary to establish their own hospitals, including Kaspare Cohn Hospital near downtown Los Angeles, the forerunner to today’s Cedars-Sinai.

In the American medical field of the early twentieth century, physicians routinely labeled Jewish patients as “subhuman,” “dirty,” “nervous” or “difficult,” and even created specific phrases and diagnoses for these unwelcome patients, such as “Hebraic Debility” and “Jew-Neurasthenia.” At this time, there was widespread missionizing of sick Jews in American hospitals, often including deathbed conversions and baptisms, while staff at some hospitals forced Jewish patients to listen to readings of Christian scriptures.

This sordid history helps explain why the Jewish community needs to express solidarity, understanding and respect toward those who are hesitant to get vaccinated, particularly toward communities of color, with whom we have historically shared so much in common.

Once we recognize the legitimate concerns stemming from the horrors of the past, the question becomes: Have we learned any lessons, and have we put in place appropriate safeguards to prevent a recurrence?

Thankfully, I’m confident that the answer is “yes.” While there is still more to be done and some skepticism is healthy, it’s clear that all of the currently-approved COVID-19 vaccines were developed with very high standards of oversight and safety, and they have proven to be both safe and effective.

I am thus a strong advocate of vaccination and encourage everyone to get vaccinated as soon as they are able to do so. But as Jews, we should move forward with understanding and empathy. We should embrace the ideals of the Torah that stress remembering what it was like to be mistreated and oppressed, and thus show empathy and inclusion (“welcome the stranger”). Hopefully, if the vaccination campaign gains momentum, we will be able to welcome and embrace each other in communal gatherings again very soon.


Rabbi Dr. Jason Weiner is the Senior Rabbi and Director of Spiritual Care at Cedars-Sinai and Rabbi of Knesset Israel Synagogue of Beverlywood.

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