New York State halts polio immunization ad campaign over antisemitism concerns

Nearly identical ads in Haredi newspapers continued

Ad in Haredi Shul newsletter Dvar Yom

Apr 4, 2023 1:31 PM


In response to concerns about antisemitism, the New York State Department of Health pulled one part of a two-part ad campaign last Monday. The ads were meant to encourage polio immunizations ahead of the Passover travel season after four children in Northern Israel tested positive for the life-threatening disease.

As part of the campaign, the state sent a billboard truck to Cedarhurst with the rear sign that said “Polio is spreading in Israel. Get immunized now.” The truck was parked in front of a kosher supermarket. Last Monday, Assemblymember Ari Brown, a Republican who represents the Five Towns in the state legislature, sent a letter to the health department expressing concern about the ad, according to Politico.

“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 antisemitic trope of ‘the Jew spreading disease,’” Brown wrote. 

Assembly member Stacey Pheffer Amato, a Democrat who represents South Queens in the state legislature, called the sign antisemitic on Twitter. “I will never tolerate an attack on the Jewish community, even if it was ‘unintentional,’” she wrote.

In response to criticism from Brown, Pheffer Amato, and others, the state halted the mobile ad campaign. “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,” a spokesperson for the health department said in a statement.

The other part of the campaign, which involved placing advertisements in Jewish newspapers, synagogue newsletters and digital searches, began on March 13 and continued until March 31, according to the statement.

Jewish newspapers in which the state placed half and full-page ads include Dvar Yoim and its women’s counterpart Eishes Chayil, Luach Hatzibur, and the Weekly Link, Haredi outlets that serve Jewish communities in Williamsburg, Boro Park, and elsewhere in the tristate area. 

Like the mobile ads, these ads also begin with the sentence “Polio is spreading in Israel” in large letters. Haredi newspapers are notably discerning about which ads they publish; for instance, they do not publish ads that contain pictures of women. No one contacted would comment on whether they thought the ads were offensive.

Ad in Luach Hatzibur

Blimi Marcus, a Haredi nurse who often speaks out to encourage vaccination, retweeted the advertisement that ran in newspapers.

Susannah Heschel, a Jewish studies scholar at Dartmouth College, called New York state’s wording in both parts of its ad campaign “unwise,” given historical traumas the Jewish community has experienced that she says have made many people sensitive.

“The trauma gives rise to mistrust so that we may view something that is mildly antisemitic as exceptionally antisemitic, because of the trauma we’ve experienced,” she said. “Jews have been accused of spreading disease, so the association of Jews with disease is a very sensitive one, even if that association comes with the best of intentions.”

Heschel said a better way to share health advice might be to frame it more positively. “Instead of starting with polio spreading and you could spread it too, which does carry a very problematic implication, I would say something to the effect of, ‘isn’t it great that Jonas Salk created a vaccine against a terrible disease that will keep us from becoming paralyzed? Let’s applaud him, thank him, and immunize our children’ – something positive,” she said. 

Jonas Salk, a doctor who developed one of the first successful polio vaccines, was born in New York City in 1914 to Orthodox Jewish parents.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, polio is highly contagious, and a small proportion of those who contract it experience paralysis, the loss of the ability to move some or all parts of the body. The disease has no cure, and can lead to permanent disability and death.

According to the CDC, almost all children who get all the recommended doses of the polio vaccine are protected from polio. Along with vaccination, government health officials also recommend frequently washing one’s hands with soap and water. 

In early 2022, the world seemed to be approaching polio eradication, and then cases began cropping up across the globe. Israel’s Ministry of Health estimates that at least 150,000 children have not been vaccinated against the virus. The CDC recommends precautions for people visiting countries where polio is circulating, including the United Kingdom, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Nigeria, Israel, and more.

According to the travel agency Tourist Israel, Passover is one of the busiest times of year for people to travel to Israel. In recent weeks, four children in Northern Israel tested positive for polio, one of whom experienced paralysis, according to the New York State Department of Health. Israel’s health ministry has been encouraging citizens to get vaccinated. 

In February, one case of polio was detected in the wastewater in Rockland County, which is home to large Hasidic communities. Prior to that, in June, an unvaccinated Rockland resident developed paralysis from polio. To encourage more residents to get immunized against polio, Rockland County is offering free vaccine boosters for adults who’ve already completed their polio vaccination series.

In New York City, children between the ages of 4 and 17 who are accompanied by a parent or guardian can get their free or low-cost vaccine at the NYC Health Department’s Fort Greene Health Center, with an appointment.

Assembly members Brown and Pheffer Amato, did not respond to Shtetl’s multiple requests for comment.