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Ultra-Orthodox anti-vaxxers threaten leading Israeli rabbi

When the Grand Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky called on his followers to vaccinate children, vaccine opponents within the ultra-Orthodox community turned against him.

The decision to stop providing security services for former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife and children was at the top of the headlines all week. But another Israeli public figure could very well require security detail after receiving threats: the elderly leader of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky. 

Kanievsky’s home has received threats recently from vaccine opponents, who were angered by the rabbi’s clear instruction, directing parents to vaccinate their children without delay. The rabbi issued his instruction after meeting with the health ministry, and following the ministry’s announcement on opening vaccination for children aged 5 to 11.

The threats against Kanievsky caused a huge uproar, and not just within the ultra-Orthodox community. Even Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said, “Rabbi Kanievsky is under threat and insults after declaring his full support for children’s vaccines, because he thought about the public peace and the peace of his community. It’s unthinkable.” Reportedly, police were asked to intervene, although no details have been revealed about security guards assigned to the rabbi.

The rabbi’s announcement was a harsh blow to vaccine opponents. Only a week ago, a video was published online that shows the rabbi of the town of Netivot, Rabbi Shmuel Montag, trying to stop a lecture of an antivaccine activist. The rabbi explains clearly that “if the Minister of Torah [Kanievsky’s nickname in the ultra-Orthodox sector] said people must be vaccinated – a lecture that attacks his directive must not be held.” 

Indeed, Kanievsky is considered the foremost religious authority among the ultra-Orthodox, in Israel and worldwide. Paradoxically, the clout of the 93-year-old rabbi inhered in his perception until recently as completely removed from politics. In contrast to previous leaders of the Lithuanian sect, Kanievsky never held a post as head of a yeshiva and has not dealt with public affairs. He has studied for all these years as a regular yeshiva student at the Hazon Ish Kollel next to his home. 

For decades the rabbi studied Torah and dealt rarely with any public affairs. But after Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman passed away, the ultra-Orthodox public saw him as the natural next leader. This aura of complete detachment from the world reinforces the impression that his decisions come purely from the Torah. 

However, this is not case for his grandson, Yankee Kanievsky. The 35-year-old Yankee is practically the opposite of his grandfather: he’s sophisticated, and involved in public affairs. He’s considered to have the most influence of anyone on his grandfather, and interfaces with anything that happens within ultra-Orthodox politics. In the last election for mayor of Jerusalem, Kanievsky and his grandson endorsed Moshe Leon. Other ultra-Orthodox public leaders endorsed other candidates, but Leon got elected. This, in turn, anchored the image of the rabbi as the foremost leader of the entire ultra-Orthodox public.   

At the very beginning of the pandemic, some ultra-Orthodox education institutions kept open despite limitations, generating public anger. But then, under the guidance of several senior rabbis, the majority of the ultra-Orthodox public adhered to public health mandates with diligence. As the pandemic advanced, most synagogues were shuttered for many long months and prayers took place in the streets. The ultra-Orthodox leaders were vaccinated, and the vast majority of their followers rushed to do the same.

Still, recently, discipline became lax. Publications about children allegedly recovering easily from COVID caused ultra-Orthodox parents to be complacent, and calls by rabbis and authorities to vaccinate children have not been heeded. Vaccine opponents, who until recently were condemned by the ultra-Orthodox mainstream, suddenly found an opportunity to return to center stage.

Kanievsky’s declaration that children should be vaccinated dealt a harsh blow to these opponents, who blame not only the leader, but also the grandson. At first, the threats were only hinted at Yankee, but they have grown bolder, and explicit threats have reached the rabbi’s home, which has shaken the ultra-Orthodox public, as well as the authorities, who have decided to provide security for the rabbi for the first time in history. 

Still, if the Health Ministry expected the rabbi’s declaration to cause a rush on vaccination sites among the ultra-Orthodox, it has been disappointed. Even though the ultra-Orthodox believe people should get vaccinated, parents aren’t in a hurry to act on the directive. Children are getting vaccinated, although at lower rates than expected. 

That being said, vaccination of Israeli children in general is slow. In that respect, ultra-Orthodox parents are not so different from the rest of the Israeli population.

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