In The Politics of Autism, I analyze the discredited notion that vaccines cause autism. This bogus idea can hurt people by allowing diseases to spread. Examples include measles, COVID, flu, and polio.
The Anti-Defamation League presented you with the 2021 Milton S. Popkin Award, recognizing your efforts to combat antisemitism and its links to the anti-vaccine movement. Can you talk about those links and how it became a political force?
The anti-vaccine movement started with false assertions that vaccines cause autism, and that revved up in the early 2000s. Then, about ten years ago, it pivoted to become a political movement linked to the Republican Tea Party’s concept of health freedom, or medical freedom. That’s when the first anti-vaccine political action committees were set up in Texas and other states to support far-right candidates who pushed health freedom propaganda, mostly linked to vaccines. During COVID-19, the movement expanded beyond childhood vaccinations to COVID vaccinations and other COVID prevention measures. That’s when it gained a lot of political strength and when you started to see the health freedom/medical freedom movement adopted by the House Freedom Caucus in the U.S. Congress, amplified on Fox News by senators like Rand Paul and Ron Johnson. Every night Fox News was spewing out rhetoric claiming vaccines were not effective or they weren’t safe. You started to see the white nationalist Proud Boys marching at anti-vaccine rallies. And, in fact, the first arrests in the January 6th insurrection included anti-vaccine activists. There became a very tight link between far-right extremism and anti-vaccine/anti-science rhetoric.
And with that came antisemitism?
Antisemitism was always part of the far right, and here it manifested in two forms: One, there were direct antisemitic threats against Jewish doctors and Jewish scientists. More commonly, however, anti-vaxxers were invoking Nazi-era imagery and statements…kind of to mess with your head. These people would not only compare vaccines to the Holocaust but would claim that vaccines were a violation of agreements made at Nuremberg, along with requests to see doctors hanged or executed after Nuremberg-style trials. They would compare people like myself or Anthony Fauci to Josef Mengele. So, there were direct antisemitic threats, but it was more commonly the heavy use of Nazi imagery that I interpreted as a form of intimidation.
Intimidation to what end? Is this tied to the antisemitic conspiracy theories asserting that Jews unleashed the virus and created vaccines to protect only Jewish people, or that the vaccine is being pushed on non-Jews as some sinister form of control?
I’m glad you brought that up. It’s the third element, which is that the Jews were behind either creating COVID or creating COVID vaccines, which are dangerous. On social media and in emails, I get accused of plotting to make the virus because I’m Jewish. The fact is, a lot of vaccine scientists are Jewish, so conspiracy theorists make that leap.