At first glance, there appears to be no relation between two plagues now affecting California and much of America, the return of measles and a rise in anti-Semitic rhetoric, vandalism and violence.
But a closer look reveals both are based on misinformation transmitted via the internet and social media, which then becomes widely believed. Both also employ scapegoating.
Neither plague originated in California, or even in America. But Californians and their government can move to stem the spread of both within this state.
With the measles, there’s a grossly overblown autism claim. Vaccinations, goes the frequently repeated trope, often cause autism. This great exaggeration has lurked in the minds of some non-scientists for many years. Its best-known proponent is Robert F. Kennedy Jr. He leads anti-vaxxers who – lacking proof – charge vaccinations increase the incidence of autism, a problem some doctors believe is overdiagnosed. Lacking anything else to blame, some parents make vaccinations the scapegoat.
So far, there are several dozen cases of measles in California this year, and no deaths. Nationally, more than 700 cases are reported, the most in this century – and the year is still young.
Lies and scapegoating are also behind the anti-Semitism plague that most recently manifested as murderous gunfire in the Chabad of Poway synagogue near San Diego. Some of those lies are perpetrated by a movement seeking a worldwide boycott of everything to do with Israel, the world’s only Jewish country, along with divestment from investments there and sanctions against anything Israeli. It’s called BDS – boycott, divest, sanction.
This drive is most vocal on college campuses, including Stanford University and UC campuses like Davis and UCLA.
Hotly contested California student government votes for and against pushing university administrations toward BDS show the efficacy of widespread anti-Israel propaganda, which many times bleeds over into outright anti-Semitism. They also show how ill-informed students can be.
One lie is that Israel is an apartheid state, despite taking in and making full citizens of many thousands of black Ethiopians, not to mention millions of ethnic-Arab Jews expropriated and exiled from several Arab countries at the time of Israel’s founding. Plus, the more than 1 million Arab Palestinians living in Israel have citizenship and full voting rights.
It was likely no accident that the 19-year-old Poway synagogue shooter was a Cal State student exposed to BDS rhetoric on campus. Just as it was no accident when another white American fired on worshippers in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA last fall after seeing Nazi-like ideas on social media.
Is it reasonable to expect impressionable young people to disbelieve what they see or read when similar tropes are purveyed in the New York Times, arguably America’s most influential mass medium? Especially when the editors who print them go unpunished despite the newspaper’s apologies?
When the President of the United States says there were “good people” among white supremacists who chanted “Jews will not replace us” – a slogan based on another lie– during their infamous 2017 Charlottesville demonstration/riot, is it reasonable to expect no one will act on it?
The notion that Jews seek to replace white Protestant Americans is immediately disproven by the fact that Jews have fought and died in every American war and have lived here as long as anyone other than Native Americans. How can Jews replace white Americans when almost all of them are themselves white Americans? But here, as elsewhere, when economic times get tough, Jews get blamed. Such scapegoating spans two millennia.
Of course, anti-Semitism has a far longer, more complex history than anti-vaxx ideology. But anti-vaxxers refusing to inoculate as many as 30 percent of pupils in some schools make California children vulnerable to contagion, where formerly they were not.
Falsehoods like those slandering Jews and vaccinations can only take root among folks willing to believe almost any conspiracy theory about people and things of which they know little.
Sad reality is that the rhetoric of anti-vaxxers and anti-Semites will never stop. It can only be combatted by education, which means public school curriculum must change or these very contemporary plagues will never end.