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Vassar College Yearbook
Everybody Goes to Harvard

The future of higher education in America is online

by Sean Cooper
OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP/Getty Images
Fringe With Benefits? The Case for Welfare Capitalism.

Maybe we need an evolution, not a revolution

by Michael Lind
Vassar College Yearbook
Everybody Goes to Harvard

The future of higher education in America is online

by Sean Cooper
OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP/Getty Images
Fringe With Benefits? The Case for Welfare Capitalism.

Maybe we need an evolution, not a revolution

by Michael Lind
ANNA ZIEMINSKI/AFP/Getty Images
The Science of Risk

Who knows best how to avoid harm?

by Steven Landsburg
 JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
The New Truth

When the moral imperative trumps the rational evidence, there’s no arguing

by Jacob Siegel
ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images
Williamsburg’s Jewish Liberated Zone Declares War on Clown Mayor de Blasio

Woke nonsense, bigoted targeting of their community, can’t keep children out of their playgrounds

by Armin Rosen
KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/ Getty Images
Invitation to a Beheading

What can American statue-topplers learn from Europe?

by Vladislav Davidzon
William Frederick Yeames/Walker Art Gallery
Love and the Police

Do I want to be policed not by the police, but by my neighbors?

by Michael Walzer
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Socialist Revolution Storms the Bronx

Democratic congressional primary wins by Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones sweep old-guard Jews from power in New York

by Armin Rosen
Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images
We Are Individuals, Not Victims

Seeing African Americans, or Muslims, or Jews, as part of victimized minority collectives is a toxic formulation that ensures that we are never treated fairly as individuals—and denies us the ability to exercise real power

by Zaid Jilani
Lee Balterman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
The Battle of Chicago, 1968

A half century after the political upheaval around the Democratic National Convention that changed America, a former editor from ‘Ramparts’ magazine sees worrying echoes today

by Sol Stern
E.D.N.Y.
Cops and Riots

‘When the voices of citizens are muffled they use their bodies and go into the streets’

by Jonah Raskin
Tablet Magazine
The American Soviet Mentality

Collective demonization invades our culture

by Izabella Tabarovsky
KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty Images
Hub City Riot Ninjas

A young overclass gets dressed up to join the burning

by Michael Lind
© Bettmann/Corbis
Fifty Years After the March on Washington

In honor of a moment of awakening: April 17, 1965, when we got serious about ending the war

by Todd Gitlin
Getty Images
The Great American Breakup

Political scientist Louis Hartz accurately described the United States’ underlying cultural hyperindividualism. Is the next logical step the dissolution of the centralized federal state to become more like the EU?

by B. Duncan Moench
David Ryder/Getty Images
Our Deathwish

How we got to the new normal

by Jacob Siegel
The U.S. National Archives
Welcome to the Revolution You Paid For

The one thing that is undeniably the fault of the rich

by Edward N. Luttwak
JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images
Bringing the Middle East Back Home

The American Orientalist Class attempts to paint a fantasy Middle Eastern landscape on the American canvas

by Tony Badran
Jules Feiffer
Health Advice

from Jules Feiffer's American Follies!

by Jules Feiffer
Luke Frazza/AFP via Getty Images
The State of Emergency as a Paradigm of Government

Is the ‘state of exception’ now the rule?

by Giorgio Agamben
MICHAEL SOHN/AFP/Getty Images
Making Holocaust Education About Jews and Anti-Semites

We must find a balance between overly universal or hyperspecific approaches to ensuring ‘never again’

by Bruce Abramson and Jeff Ballabon
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Obama to the Rescue

The real candidate running under the ‘Joe Biden’ label is his former boss, which is why none of Biden’s public stands and votes matters

by Lee Smith
Tablet Magazine
How Facebook Ate the News

Why Mark Zuckerberg is America’s Public Enemy No. 1

by Lee Smith
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Master Cleanse

Why social justice feels like self-help to privileged women

by Kat Rosenfield
Louis Monier/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
The Heresies of Albert Memmi

The Tunisian-born writer died in May at 99. He leaves a rich, important, and complicated legacy of colonial and postcolonial thinking.

by Jonathan Judaken
Biopolitics

Michel Foucault understood that truly free people must be willing to choose death, like the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. What would he make of the restrictions on liberty in our efforts to safeguard life from COVID-19?

by Blake Smith
Philip K. Dick’s Last Great Obsession

The Dead Sea Scrolls blew the sci-fi writer’s mind

by Shalom Goldman
Drugs, Sex, and Rock ’n’ Roll

New biographical works show how Philip Roth’s and Robert Stone’s hedonism fueled their art-making

by David Mikics
Albert Camus and the Secret of Le Chambon

Did the rescue efforts in the French hamlet influence ‘The Plague’?

by Patrick Henry
A Conversation With Paul Auster, Jewish Poet

Early poetic works of the novelist and filmmaker, in ‘White Spaces’

by Jake Marmer
Three Lies

Filmmaker Pierre Sauvage and the daughter of Holocaust rescuer Peter Bergson talk about people who put their lives at risk to save others

by David Samuels
Double Exposure: Jean-Pierre Melville

The ambiguities and darkness of Nazi-occupied France propelled him to flee his country, take a new name, fight in the Resistance, and then invent film noir. But the past continued to haunt him.

by Adrien Bosc
Obsession

An affair—‘the pain of creation, yet without the creation’—by the great 20th-century Brazilian writer, from the ‘Complete Stories’

by Clarice Lispector
Some Notes on My Father’s Cousin, Joseph Roth

The great Austrian-Jewish journalist and novelist, chronicler of prewar Europe, still has much to tell us

by Barbara Probst Solomon
Moral Cruelty and the Left

The late scholar Judith Shklar warned that liberalism can degenerate into a cult of victimhood that permits our sadistic desires to be passed off as unimpeachable virtue. Her warning is newly urgent today.

by Blake Smith
My Favorite Singer Brother, I.J.

Was Isaac Bashevis’ older brother Israel Joshua Singer the better novelist?

by Dara Horn
Consider the Ostrich

Some words of advice from a man who’s been self-isolating since 2001

by Shalom Auslander
Turning Babi Yar Into Holocaust Disneyland

How Russian movie director Ilya Khrzhanovsky took control of Ukraine’s Babyn Yar Memorial Project, and what should or can be done about it

by Vladislav Davidzon
My Roy Cohn, and Ours

Two recent documentaries, one of them streaming tonight, try to unpack the McCarthyite Trump-whisperer—progenitor of the postmodern political world we now inhabit

by J. Hoberman
Ben Katchor’s Dairy Restaurant

The artist of the decade-in-the-making graphic compendium of a lost Jewish world talks about the ‘milekhdike,’ the power of the Yellow Pages, and the utility of a good place to eat

by Jacob Siegel
Virginia and the Woolf

A drive across Hitler’s Germany and Austria in May 1935 made Leonard Woolf’s Jewishness real

by Jonathan Wilson
The Ontology of Pop Physics

A slew of popularizing science books delve into the basic mismatch between being and human being

by Adam Kirsch
Jews out West

19th-century Jewish American writers described America’s vastness in lyrical—and liturgical—terms

by Michael Hoberman
The Russian Rothschilds

A new biography of the Gunzburgs reminds us that not all Russian Jews were persecuted revolutionaries

by Joshua Meyers
The Wandering Star of Yiddish Lit

Debora Vogel was a brilliant multilingual poet and aesthete who is best known as the muse of Bruno Schulz. But her work deserves a reading—in German, Polish, Hebrew, and especially Yiddish.

by Mersiha Bruncevic
My COVID-19 Adventures in Sexy Weimar Berlin

A German noir export on Netflix leads viewers into the Jewish-inflected Babylon of a legendary sin city

by Jeremy Sigler
The Twinned Evils of ‘Nosferatu’

The great film and social document illuminates a primal fear—that of foreign contagion

by J. Hoberman
The Brilliance of Batya Gur, Israel’s Greatest Detective Author

The late writer’s best work reflects the larger anxieties of a society trying to shield its founding ideals against threats from hostile populations

by Sean Cooper
After the Coronavirus, Who Do We Want to Be?

‘It’s a good bet that, for better or for worse, tomorrow’s world will not be the same as yesterday’s’

by Bernard-Henri Lévy
Letter From Arsuf

On Israel Independence Day, reflecting on more than 20 years of living on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean

by Robert Rockaway
The Philip Roth Archive

A fan’s obsessive rummage through the letters and papers of the writer who died two years ago today reveals a playful, funny, brilliant man

by Jesse Tisch
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Coronaspection: Introspection X

Shrivatsa Goswami, Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

by Alon Goshen-Gottstein
Coronaspection: World Religious Leaders Look Inward During a Time of Global Hardship

One of the most important insights of the Coronaspection project, which brings together 40 world religious leaders for their insights on faith during the time of the coronavirus, has to do with the sense of solidarity and interconnectedness of humanity. Unity is one outcome that almost all participants recognize, and this unity extends also to some significant dimension of unity across religions. United in their struggle with the spiritual challenges of one virus, religious leaders of different traditions share their particular vision across religious boundaries.

by Alon Goshen-Gottstein
Civil Rights: The View From an Orthodox Yeshiva

Halachic thoughts on the present unrest

by Cole S. Aronson
Becoming a Man

How expectations around gender and sexuality led me to embrace Orthodoxy—and then leave it

by Lance Tukell
Transgender Rites

Creating practical guidelines for rituals around death and burial for transgender and nonbinary Jews

by Paula Jacobs
The History of the Zoom Dilemma

Forward-thinking rabbis have been anticipating today’s halachic questions about how technology can be used for more than a century

by Shlomo M. Brody
‘We Must Engage the World Right Now’

Rabbi Norman Lamm—theologian, orator, and my grandfather—believed that in the struggle against racism, Jews should both teach and listen

by Ari Lamm
Eating Our Way to Holiness

The spirit and the letter of keeping kosher

by Mary Lane Potter
Why We Didn’t Circumcise Our Second Son

Our first son got the traditional brit. But not this time around.

by Yagi Morris
Choosing Life

After giving birth to a stillborn baby, finding comfort in Jewish ritual and scripture

by Kate McGee
What My Kippah Means to Me

As a butch lesbian, wearing a yarmulke connects me to my people—and to myself

by Olivia Swasey
The Battle of the Baal Shem Tov

What I learned as a child, listening to my father and grandfather argue over the founder of Hasidic Judaism

by Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman
Learning Hebrew—at Last

Without knowing the language, there was no way to fully participate in my community—not in the way I wanted to

by Roseanne Benjamin
A Sign Upon Your Arm

Why I stopped wearing tefillin—and why I put them on again

by Shloimy Notik
Secular Synagogues Take Root in Israel

by Paula Jacobs
The Orthodox Jew and the Atheist

by Rebecca Klempner
Pants, Pants Revolution: How My First Pair of Jeans Redefined Modesty for Me

When I bought jeans recently, I redefined what ‘tzniut’ means to me as an Orthodox woman

by Simi Lampert
Lost and Found

How I lost my Mormonism and came to embrace the Jewish way

by Nathan Steiger
Why a Conservative Female Rabbi Decided To Pull Away From Her Male Friends

‘I had to dial back my friendships with men, for the sake of my marriage’

by Rachel Miller Solomin
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courtesy of Raad Yahya Qassim
My Father and the Jews of Iraq

On the 79th anniversary of the Farhud, a look back to Yahya Qassim and his fight for Iraqi Jews

by Raad Yahya Qassim
JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images
Bringing the Middle East Back Home

The American Orientalist Class attempts to paint a fantasy Middle Eastern landscape on the American canvas

by Tony Badran
Courtesy KAICIID
A Rabbi in Riyadh

The first Jewish faith leader received by a Saudi monarch recounts his visit with King Salman

by David Rosen
Jalaa Marey/AFP via Getty Images
Lebanon’s Interwoven Fantasy Worlds All Lead to War With Israel

How much should America pay to maintain the fraying fabric?

by Tony Badran
Tablet Magazine
Qatar’s State-of-the-Art Foreign Lobbying Campaign

Think tanks, universities, museums, newspapers, and key congressional committees are all pieces in a game of 3D chess that the tiny Gulf state is playing with its rivals, using Washington, D.C., as its game board

by Lee Smith
Thomas Coex/AFP via Getty Images
Annexing the Jordan Valley

Israel’s coalition government contemplates redrawing the country’s borders, with America’s blessing. Senior ex-diplomat Dore Gold gives the inside scoop on how and why the status quo may not last long.

by Armin Rosen
Surgeons at the Galilee Medical Center
Inside an Israeli Coronavirus Hospital

How Galilee Medical Center in the northern town of Nahariya is tackling COVID-19

by Hillel Kuttler
How Iran Became a Global Vector of Infection for COVID-19

The authoritarian theocracy faces specific challenges in dealing with the coronavirus

by Noam Blum
When May Day Was a Major Event in Israel

In some Israeli communities, the international workers holiday was just as important as the Jewish holidays

by Armin Rosen
A Q&A With Dorit Rabinyan, the Wonder Woman of New Israeli Lit

In a landscape vacated of the two literary giants Aharon Appelfeld and Amos Oz, Israeli fiction ushers in the rise of a new generation of women writers. The author of ‘All the Rivers’ talks about sabras in New York, American Jewry’s allure, and learning to listen for the perfect watermelon.

by David Samuels
The New MMA Hotbed: Israel

A father passes the fighting torch to his prodigal son, and a new generation of combat athletes makes a name for the Promised Land

by Hillel Kuttler
How Osama Bin Laden Outsmarted the U.S. and Got What He Wanted

The point of Sept. 11 wasn’t to terrorize the West. It was to get the U.S. out of the Muslim world—and it worked.

by David Samuels
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images
Bibi, King of Israel

The most talented politician in Israeli history cracks his demented foes like walnuts

by Liel Leibovitz
Photo: Amir Levy/Getty Images
Q&A With Israel’s Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak

A conversation with the Israeli leader on the cusp of an election that he hopes will restore his center-left political coalition to power and once again put him in charge of Israel’s future

by David Samuels
Obama Passed the Buck. Trump Refused to Play.

The Iran deal was never meant to stop Iran from building a bomb—it was supposed to delay it until disaster happened on someone else’s watch

by Lee Smith
Menahem KahanaAFP/Getty Images
One Last Interview

Three weeks before his death in 2016, Shimon Peres sat for what he intended to be a Rosh Hashanah-timed discussion about the state of the world. It was also his final one

by David Samuels
The Jews Make it to the Moon

But not without misfortunes

by Armin Rosen
Malley in Wonderland

How Obama’s ‘progressive’ foreign policy vision—to backpedal away from the Middle East, fast, while kicking our former allies in the region to the curb—became consensus in D.C.

by Tony Badran
Spies in the Basement

The extraordinary true cloak-and-dagger tale of how a chance encounter in a London bookstore made peace possible, on the 25th anniversary of the Israel-Jordan accords

by Haim Be’er
Arafat and the Ayatollahs

The PLO’s greatest single contribution to the Iranian Revolution was the formation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, but the Palestinian leader’s involvement with Iran didn’t end there

by Tony Badran
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Saying Goodbye to Seafood

When I converted to Judaism, I left behind part of my Norwegian heritage

by Nina Lichtenstein
mazaletel/Flickr.com
Kneading Is Fundamental

Learning to make challah during quarantine

by Erik Ofgang
A Land Without a Bagel

My search for my favorite breakfast while studying abroad in China

by Jordyn Haime
The Cake That Unites—and Divides—Israelis

Everyone loves no-bake biscuit cake. But how, exactly, to make it is up for debate.

by Flora Tsapovsky
Eating Our Way to Holiness

The spirit and the letter of keeping kosher

by Mary Lane Potter
The Ashkenazi Version of Mac and Cheese

While holiday and Shabbat specialties fill Jewish cookbooks, we often forget the pleasures of seemingly ordinary, everyday food—like egg noodles with cottage cheese

by Leah Koenig
The Trouble With Tsimmes—and How to Fix It

This stew of root vegetables and dried fruit is a staple of Ashkenazi cooking, but it doesn’t have to be the bland, gloppy mess we’ve come to know

by Leah Koenig
How to Make Kosher Prosciutto

The Jews of Italy used goose instead of pork to make their distinctive charcuterie

by Benedetta Jasmine Guetta
A Tart Taste of Summer

This French dessert will change the way you think about rhubarb

by Joan Nathan
A Pepper Salad That’ll Have You Seeing Red

This Tunisian recipe makes a perfect dish for a summery Shabbat dinner—or anytime

by Joan Nathan
Beet the Heat With Borscht

How to make a perfect cold coup for summer

by Joan Nathan
Saying Goodbye to Bacon

Deciding to keep kosher really meant grappling with one meaty addiction

by Liel Leibovitz
How To Make Homemade Lox

It saves money. You can play with different flavors. And it’s easier than you think.

by Peter Barrett
A Prescription for Sauerkraut

Exploring the health benefits of fermented foods

by Erik Ofgang
Back in Black: The Forgotten Radish

Once a staple of Eastern European Jewish kitchens, the black radish is ripe for a comeback

by Leah Koenig
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Tablet Magazine
The Best Jewish(ish) Books About Summer Camp

If you—and your kid—are in mourning for Jewish camp, maybe a literary visit will help

by Marjorie Ingall
The Ethics of Takeout

How do we balance the seemingly contradictory virtues of supporting our local businesses and protecting workers during the pandemic?

by Marjorie Ingall
No Home Away From Home

For queer kids, summer without camp can be particularly tough

by Josh Marcus
A Welcome Excursion for Bosnian Jews

After months in quarantine during the pandemic, Sarajevo’s community once again gathers for an annual pilgrimage

by David I. Klein
My Nonbinary Journey

After years of confusion around my gender identity and sexuality, I realized I wasn’t gay or bisexual, or a man or a woman. And as I led my congregation through Yom Kippur services, I finally showed up as myself.

by JB Levine
Becoming a Man

How expectations around gender and sexuality led me to embrace Orthodoxy—and then leave it

by Lance Tukell
How to Talk to Your Kids About Police Brutality

And how to talk to them about anti-racist protesting

by Marjorie Ingall
Our True Colors

Coming face-to-face with racism in the Jewish community

by Marra B. Gad
Civil Rights: The View From an Orthodox Yeshiva

Halachic thoughts on the present unrest

by Cole S. Aronson
What It Feels Like to Sit Shiva Alone

I wanted to be comforted by friends, and to hear stories about my dad. The COVID pandemic made that impossible.

by Jamie Betesh Carter
The Resilience of Rituals

Attending a virtual shiva, I saw how Jewish traditions still hold up under the most extraordinary circumstances

by Alanna E. Cooper
Missing My Dad’s Yahrzeit

When my shul closed during the pandemic, I lost the place where I usually commemorate my father’s death and say Kaddish for him

by Leonard Felson
Shul in the Time of Coronavirus

With COVID-19 pushing synagogues to consider virtual gatherings, we should understand what it means to come together physically

by David Zvi Kalman
Welcome to Your Quarantine Summer Camp: Camp BaBayit!

As if pandemic home-schooling were not enough, now parents have to be camp directors, too?

by Marjorie Ingall
A Jew Named Christine

People say the darnedest things to us converts. Please stop.

by Christine Beresniova
Lessons From Jewish Sexual Law (in a Sexless Pandemic)

Judaism has something to say about enforced sexual separation, and not just for the Orthodox

by Merissa Nathan Gerson
Day School Bullies

I was ridiculed and physically abused for being the wrong kind of Jewish boy. As a result, it took decades to come to terms with my identity.

by Aaron Hamburger
My Crushes on Rabbis

My youthful admiration for religious teachers, and my desire to please and even emulate them, ultimately helped me connect with myself as a Jewish adult

by Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman
Among the Mourners

As a woman, I felt left out of Jewish mourning rituals after my father died. Thirty years later, I found a new place where I finally feel like I count.

by Anna El-Eini
Sex and the Religious Girl

Growing up in a religious family where premarital sex was forbidden and sex wasn’t discussed, I wasn’t taught how to deal with the dangers I’d face

by Yona Rose
Headband Nation

A different kind of head covering—not a kippah, not a ‘sheitel’—gains popularity among non-Orthodox women

by Alyx Bernstein
The Best Jewish Children’s Books of 2019

This year’s list features culinary espionage, dragons, and a purse shaped like a french-fry takeout box

by Marjorie Ingall
Judaism During—and After—the Pandemic

Social distancing has, in a way, allowed us into each other’s homes more than ever. Will being apart end up bringing Jews together?

by Micah Streiffer
The Butcher, the Baker, and the Newspaper Seller

A lost documentary captures the old Jewish shopping district of Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill

by Mark Oppenheimer
The Last Thing He Taught Me and the First Thing I Learned

How I stopped worrying and learned to lie to the most important man in my life

by Boris Fishman
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'From Court Jews to the Rothschilds: Art, Patronage, and Power, 1600–1800,' © 1996 Prestel-Verlag and the Jewish Museum, New York, published by the Jewish Museum and Prestel in conjunction with the 1996 exhibition, reprinted by permission
The Life of a Court Jew

Glikl of Hameln's writings say much about Jewish commercial families in Central and Western Europe in the 17th and early 18th centuries

by Natalie Zemon Davis
Wikipedia
Is It Permitted to Flee the City?

The coronavirus creates an unsettling tunnel in time between 21st-century New York and the world of 16th-century rabbis

by Tamara Morsel-Eisenberg
Rare Books and Special Collections, Library of Congress
Three Coins and You’re Married

A manuscript sheds light on a 16th-century tale of Jewish love and betrothal

by Ann Brener
Wikimedia commons
How Think Tanks Became Engines of Royal Propaganda

What their French origins, and their waning and rising relevance to the power structures over the centuries, say about the new Washington

by Jacob Soll
Photo: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images
Turning Away From Poland’s ‘Dark Past’

Should the law be invoked to confront the Holocaust?

by Antony Polonsky
The Maharal of Prague and the Republic of Letters

Science and humanism—and Jews and Christians—collide in early modern Europe

by Joanna Weinberg
Trotsky the Jew

Joshua Rubenstein’s new biography obscures the Russian revolutionary’s violent extremism while overemphasizing his Jewishness

by Richard Pipes
A depiction of a menorah, surrounded by foliate scrolls inhabited by hybrids, at the end of the Pentateuch. Italy, last quarter of the 13th century.
Safed Kabbalah and Renaissance Italy

How Lurianic mysticism made its way to Europe—and back to the Middle East

by Moshe Idel
Luke Frazza/AFP via Getty Images
The State of Emergency as a Paradigm of Government

Is the ‘state of exception’ now the rule?

by Giorgio Agamben
A Beast of Unknown Origins

The surprising Jewish origins of the animated character who taught a generation of Soviet children to be good communists

by Maya Balakirsky Katz
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Enrico Mandel-Mantello
The Satmar Rebbe and the Destruction of Hungarian Jewry: Part 2

The late Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum and his disciples’ interpretation of his decisions and actions during the Holocaust

by Menachem Keren-Kratz
G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Library of Congress
Unveiling the Ka’ba

A meditation on the coy symbolism of the shrine’s hidden truth

by Elliot R. Wolfson
From Klau Library, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, reproduced by permission of The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, copyright © 2011.
About Time

How early modern European calendars changed Jewish conceptions of time

by Anthony Grafton
The Satmar Rebbe and the Destruction of Hungarian Jewry: Part 1

by Menachem Keren-Kratz
Ryohei Noda, Flickr
Hannah Arendt’s Answer to Paul Berman on the Contemporary American Left

The latest entry in a Tablet feature analyzing the state of the American left, inspired by Paul Berman’s series of essays on the subject. Here, a ‘Dissent’ editor asks, ‘patriotism, what’s it good for?’

by Tim Shenk
Photocollage: Tablet Magazine
‘Prairie Fire’ Memories

What does the Weather Underground’s 45-year-old manifesto have to tell us today?

by Jonah Raskin
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine / Esther Werdiger
Jan Gross’ Order of Merit

The groundbreaking scholar of Polish anti-Semitism is caught up in a toxic new nationalism that seeks to edit shameful persecution of Jews out of history

by Anna Bikont
North Wind Picture Archives/Alamy Stock Photo
A Mighty Empire Brought Down by Plague

We have seen this story before, says Kyle Harper’s brilliant ‘The Fate of Rome’

by Edward N. Luttwak
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Up next
Tisha B’Av
Sundown: 12:14 AM
1 month, 5 hours, 37 minutes until sundown

What is Tisha B’Av? It’s the day, the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, on which a series of Jewish tragedies took place, notably the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and the destruction of the Second Temple 656 years later, in 70 CE.

When is Tisha B’Av? Tisha B’Av 2020 begins at sundown on Wednesday, July 29, and ends at sundown on Thursday, July 30.

What’s it all about? We Jews should’ve known this day was no good when, on it, Moses’s spies came from the Promised Land with reports of a terrible place littered with walled fortresses and roamed by angry giants. Moses ordered his doubting emissaries killed, but the curse of Tisha B’Av lived on: the First Temple was destroyed on this day in 586 BCE. The Second Temple suffered the same fate exactly 656 years later, in 70 CE. Sixty-five years after that, in 135 CE, the Bar Kokhba revolt failed, its leader was killed, and its flagship city, Betar, was destroyed. Then, one year later, Jerusalem itself was burned, the Temple area plowed, and the fate of the Jews sealed for millennia. As if further insult was needed, in 1492, King Ferdinand of Spain signed the Alhambra Decree, setting Tisha B’Av as the deadline for all of Spain’s Jews to leave for good.

Coming at the end of the Three Weeks of mourning, which began with the 17th of Tammuz, Tisha B’Av signifies the conclusion of the period known as Bein Hameitzarim, a time of reflection and abstinence from pleasure.

What do we eat? Nothing. But unlike Yom Kippur, most rabbis tend to be a bit more lenient about fasting, making exceptions not only for those whose lives are seriously at risk but also for the ill and the generally unwell.

Any dos and don'ts? Don’ts, mainly. Anything that gives us pleasure is prohibited, which rules out, among other things, bathing, wearing leather shoes, and carnal pursuits. If you thought maybe you’d replace the day’s heavy petting with Torah study—think again. Reading our Book of Books is considered a supreme joy and is therefore forbidden on Tisha B’Av. So is laying tefillin, as phylacteries are referred to as pe’er, or glory, and this is a decidedly inglorious day for the Jews.

Anything good to read? We’re compensated for the day’s prohibitions with two splendid literary masterpieces: the Book of Eicha (Lamentations), which is read in the evening, and the Kinnot, poems of lamentation, in the morning. Taken together, these two are a powerful lesson in mourning. Eicha, while lyrically describing the ruin of Jerusalem, also speaks of a hopeful future, a time when the children of God, chastised, will learn their lessons and return to their former glory. The Kinnot, a vast and changing collection of works written through the centuries, strikes very much the same tone. The most famous author to work in the form was Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, who forever changed the genre’s focus from weeping over the tragedies of the past to looking expectantly at a brighter future. Be sad, these texts tell us, but not for long.

Learn more about Tisha B’Av →︎
Rosh Hashanah
September 18, 2020Sundown: 10:59 PM
Yom Kippur
September 27, 2020Sundown: 10:44 PM
Sukkot
October 2, 2020Sundown: 10:36 PM
Shemini Atzeret Simchat Torah
October 9, 2020Sundown: 10:24 PM
Hanukkah
December 10, 2020Sundown: 9:29 PM
Christmas
December 25, 2020Sundown: 9:34 PM
Tu B’Shevat
January 27, 2021Sundown: 10:08 PM
Purim
February 26, 2021Sundown: 10:43 PM
Passover
March 27, 2021Sundown: 11:19 PM
Shavuot
May 17, 2021Sundown: 12:18 AM
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Herds of bison near Lake Jessie, North Dakota, ca. 1850MPI/Getty Images
Navigate to Science section

The Herd Immunity Taboo

Purity and danger: Why some are strangely comforted by lockdowns, fearful of herd immunity, and quick to punish anyone who questions the stark choice between them

by
Norman Doidge
May 20, 2020
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Herds of bison near Lake Jessie, North Dakota, ca. 1850MPI/Getty Images

As I explained in an earlier journal entry, once a pandemic breaks out, our evolutionary-based behavioral immune system (BIS)—that complex of instincts, attitudes, and behaviors that developed to protect us from potentially infectious people—switches on, and we become predisposed to feel afraid of and disgusted by anyone that might be infected or spread infection, and give them wide berth. For good reason, the BIS tends to fire “false positives” and err on the side that says an infection might be there, even when it isn’t. Its job is not to fight a well-established infection with obvious, easy-to-recognize symptoms—that is the job of the regular immune system. The BIS’s job is to detect potential infections—that may be developing, so the slightest cough or sneeze, or sniffle, or the wrong travel history in a guest, is enough to set it off so we don’t get sick in the first place. It can even turn on with the news that an infected person has arrived in your neighborhood.

Once on, the BIS is not easily switched off, again because it is so prone to fire false positives. Now that it is on, even the thought of leaving lockdown at some point is particularly terrifying for people with a perceived sense of vulnerability to infection. All else being equal, they feel “safest” in lockdown. They can only imagine leaving lockdown voluntarily when there is some kind of scientific, “all-clear sign” that says the virus is nonexistent, which then deactivates their BIS. But the idea of leaving before that seems out of the question.

The behavioral immune systems of much of the U.S. mainstream media is on fire right now and many outlets have generally been passionate opponents of lifting the lockdown. Part of that is because President Donald Trump has come out for easing it, sooner than later, so his many opponents are, as to be expected, against. In the United States, where the pandemic is hyperpoliticized, lockdown’s logic is now taken as an article of faith by many. Questioning the long-term efficacy of lockdowns is seen as dangerous. So is discussing “herd immunity.” Herd immunity is the natural immunity that builds up in a population when people (often younger and healthier members) are exposed to the virus, get ill, and then recover in large enough numbers to ultimately block the spread and shield the more vulnerable from being exposed. At the moment, even discussing whether herd immunity might play a role in emerging from lockdowns is depicted as a heartless, foolish right-wing policy (even though the leading proponent of herd immunity has been the left-wing socialist government of Sweden). But there’s more to it. The U.S. media are centered in New York City, the world’s epicenter at the moment, and members often assume the New York experience is universal, and New York’s experience has been horrible. As members of the media, they are exempt from lockdown’s most stringent isolation restrictions, and are still working, so it doesn’t seem quite so bad to them.

And of course, lockdown is great drama, as would be a new vaccine, but the possibility of a slow incremental improvement, a slow building up of community-immunity to shield the vulnerable, is… boring.

Once the behavioral immune system is firing in a population, the very thought of an alternative to it that involves people getting infected, becomes taboo. Whoever argues for it risks being treated like an infectious agent, and being ostracized. (Please don’t ostracize me, dear reader, for saying so! I’m not here making an argument for, or against. I’m trying to describe how, once we accept the logic of lockdown, our thoughts about how to get out of it become paralyzed by our protective instincts.)

It’s fascinating that even trying to think through the idea of a herd immunity strategy can arouse terror and rage in us—even though, we might be well aware, in the very same instant, that lockdown is not a sustainable strategy because of the total harm it does, not only to the economy, but to health, mortality (increases in untreated cancers, missed cancer diagnoses, strokes, heart attacks, suicide, appendicitis attacks, drug addiction, murder secondary to domestic abuse, etc.). Those “non-corona” deaths or morbidities—not listed on the Johns Hopkins COVID site—must obviously be taken into account before proclaiming that the lockdown approach is more humane than the herd immunity approach.

The Shifting Policies of the Pillars of Science

Lockdowns and herd immunity might reasonably both be seen as partial, interconnected strategies and yet these dynamic experiments in public health policy are treated as mutually exclusive, all-or-nothing articles of faith. How has this come to be? Most people had likely never heard the term “herd immunity” this time last year. To understand what has so galvanized the public debate about these concepts, we can begin by looking to the pillars of scientific expertise guiding pandemic policy. Global authorities like the World Health Organization.

The World Health Organization is “guided by the best available science, evidence and technical expertise,” according to its own “values statement.” So guided, it guides the world. What does such guidance look like?

On Jan. 29, Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization Emergencies Programme, praised and endorsed the China-style lockdown, and its rigorous measures, because they were proving so effective. Ryan said, “China is doing the right things, and China is responding in a massive way…” Videos released from China showed that when Xi’s government said “lock down” they meant it not metaphorically, but “scientifically.” They literally locked people into their homes by welding their doors to their apartment buildings shut—not making clear how they were supposed to get food. Ryan added, “We've seen no obvious lack of transparency,” perhaps because people who reported on such details often disappeared into thin air. By Jan. 30, WHO officials were not only arguing that the Chinese government’s approach was right for China. It was—as WHO head Tedros Adhanom had said—“setting a new standard in outbreak,” for other countries.

Then, on March 30, Dr. Ryan suggested that because many people infect their families in the kind of lockdowns the WHO had just commended, “we need to go and look in families to find those people who may be sick and remove them and isolate them in a safe and dignified manner. …” This was confusing, because he was promoting this scientific policy at the very moment when other equally scientific public health officials, such as those in the CDC, were recommending the opposite policy: People with COVID should stay at home, with their families, but in a separate room if possible, and if not, wear a face covering, unless they had trouble breathing. Then, they could go to the hospital, but otherwise, best not to overwhelm the emergency rooms.

Meanwhile, some became alarmed that at a time when governments have been given unprecedented powers, a WHO endorsement of authorities throughout the world “to go and look in … and remove” would mean that armed men in hazmat suits, would come, bang down the door, then drag people kicking screaming from their homes in a “safe and dignified manner.” Multiple videos and reports showed that that was exactly what was happening in China.

No matter; on April 29, suddenly Dr. Ryan had had enough of the authoritarian/totalitarian-style lockdown model, and he said, “If we are to reach a ‘new normal’ in many ways Sweden represents a future model. … What it has done differently [italics mine] is that it really, really has trusted its own communities to implement that physical distancing.”

“Shield or herd immunity, when practiced in a country like Sweden, is not about ‘the survival of the fittest’ or ‘culling of the herd.’” Stockholm, April 22, 2020.

“Shield or herd immunity, when practiced in a country like Sweden, is not about ‘the survival of the fittest’ or ‘culling of the herd.’” Stockholm, April 22, 2020. JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images

Not only did the Swedes avoid authoritarianism and trust individuals to voluntarily implement the measures, they avoided lockdown from the very beginning of the pandemic. They kept restaurants and most businesses, schools, and gyms open, and have observed social distancing. They also requested that people 70 years and over, and the vulnerable, shelter in place. Realizing it was mostly the elderly and the sick who died in Italy and Wuhan, they hoped those who were younger and healthier and who were out mingling, would be able to handle the virus if they got it, and have infections that were either completely asymptomatic, or mild, or at least not requiring hospitalization. In the process, they would, it was hoped, develop an immune response and antibodies against it. The Swedes turned out to be correct that the majority of infections were mild enough not to require hospitalization.

They knew that in the early days of their program, their case rates of COVID sickness, and death, might well be greater than in other similar countries. They took care that their hospitals did not get overwhelmed. (They weren’t.) They hoped that over the course of a year or so, they would experience no more, and possibly even fewer deaths, than in similar countries, because so many in the Swedish “herd,” or population, would have developed resistance to the virus. By the end of April, the country’s lead epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, estimated that 25% of people in Stockholm had been exposed to the virus and were already probably immune, and he reported a survey of one of the city’s hospitals which showed 27% of the staff was now immune. He hoped Stockholm would reach herd immunity in a matter of weeks. Epidemiologists guess that 60%-80% of a population would be needed to have been exposed (and recover) for herd immunity to occur.

Herd immunity, when it develops, either naturally or with a vaccine (which imitates natural herd immunity), blunts a virus’s effect in two ways. First, the virus is beaten back in that infected person’s body, so they are helped. Second, that person, once they are recovered, becomes much less likely to spread it to others. The recovered, now immune person ceases to be a “vector” to spread the virus further. That is bad news for the virus. These people ultimately form a “shield” that protects the vulnerable. Some scientists call this “shield immunity”—perhaps a better term—and spend their days working out the math, to determine how many people are needed to shield the vulnerable, and the society as a whole, and how to use antibody tests to further this strategy.

Shield or herd immunity, when practiced in a country like Sweden, is not about “the survival of the fittest” or “culling of the herd,” because while it is taking hold, an effort must be made to isolate and protect the vulnerable, because before those robust young people have developed antibodies, they might well infect the vulnerable. But truth be told, few countries, Sweden included, have done well protecting the elderly.

The goal of the Swedish model was also to keep their economy from collapsing (hard to do when the rest of Europe is in lockdown), avoid mass poverty, and the sickness and death that isolation produce. This was based on their assessment that while it is easy to say, “we will stay indoors until the vaccine comes” in fact, there is no certainty a safe and effective vaccine will arrive in sufficient time. It is also questionable how long populations can tolerate full lockdown psychologically without erupting—as was seen this past weekend, in many countries which did a slight easing of their lockdowns. Hundreds of thousands of citizens, many of them young and not perceiving themselves as vulnerable to infection, having been given their first taste of freedom, and throwing all caution to the winds, in a joyful spring revolt, ceased social distancing in public, as though they felt, having survived the lockdown, they had survived the virus too.

It is as though the Swedes had either reasoned, or by accident discovered, that just as populations must be trained to relinquish freedoms to go into lockdown, they would have also to be trained, over time, to emerge from them—call it unlockdown training—and how to function as free people, on the outside, in the presence of the virus, and that that might even be a harder task than learning to lockdown, and even harder still to learn after the lockdown, freedom suddenly providing many social temptations to people so pent up with longing; but, the Swedes also saw that living unlockeddown would be the more essential task for long-term survival. And so, they went, more directly, to the more difficult task.

The Swedish strategy argues that mass lockdown quickly becomes too blunt a measure, filled with waste, and unneeded negative consequences, and that, given human nature and biology, it can’t ultimately be sustained. It argues for a far more “strategic” or “surgical” lockdown of the most vulnerable—the elderly, many of whom have diseases that are risk factors for COVID-19 and who, in many countries, make up well over 80% of all the deaths. Protecting them better might involve paying staff to work in just one nursing home, so they don’t introduce the virus from one to another, expanding quarantine space in nursing homes, and concentrating testing there, while the rest of the population goes out and develops herd immunity, at which point the surgical lockdown would be lifted.

At first the U.K. flirted with a herd immunity strategy—though the government now denies it, probably for fear of being sued for not declaring that the only policy the U.K. would ever conceivably pursue would be one that would not countenance a single citizen succumbing to the virus—something utterly beyond its grasp, of course. Scientists from the Oxford research group, had in fact, developed a model that suggested half of the U.K. population already had been infected, which meant that fewer than 1 in 1,000 of those infected were ill enough to require hospitalization. They also speculated that people had been infected much earlier than had been thought (now known to be true in many countries), and that this probably meant that a protective “herd immunity” was therefore already building in the U.K., and the authors pleaded for the U.K. to do testing to confirm this. However, the lead scientist from the Imperial College, Neil Ferguson—whose numbers were hugely at odds with those of the Oxford group—said his model showed that 500,000 people would die in the U.K. (and 2.2 million in the U.S.). Ferguson ultimately persuaded/terrified the politicians in both countries into a lockdown strategy. The hope was to make sure the NHS was not overloaded with cases. The herd immunity approach seemed done for.

Until the WHO’s Dr. Ryan made his about-face. He papered over this turning from the Chinese to the Swedish model by implying it was a logical, scientific evolution, appropriate for this next stage of the pandemic. But, in fact, Sweden had been using nonlockdown for every stage of the pandemic, and so, the new position contradicted his early praise of China for doing all “the right things.” This change of heart is to my mind the most stunning “scientific” reversal of the pandemic, and it shows that the logic of involuntary lockdown is now being questioned by the very WHO officials who initially endorsed rolling it out across the globe.

Lockdown treats us as equals: it declares we are all vulnerable, all working for each other, against the deadly foe. Herd immunity divides us, because it argues that this deadliness does not apply to all equally, as many of the young already sense.

Lockdown is a total suppression strategy designed to prevent people from spreading the virus beyond their immediate family if they live with them or their roommates. Initially, when we knew nothing of the virus, there was a strong case to be made for lockdown as a temporary measure—to be in place for a number of weeks or a few months, which is how it was sold—to buy time to learn about the virus, the illness, and how to treat it. At the time, we had good reason to believe health care systems everywhere would be overwhelmed, because they were in the first two viral centers, Wuhan and northern Italy, where care was denied to people over 60 who were dying, for instance. The early WHO case fatality statistics (which were based on testing of the sickest patients, who came to hospital, and so presented a worst case scenario in terms of the predicted death rate), and the British Imperial Report (which turned out to be deeply flawed), both suggested that all countries would face a situation in which health care systems would be overwhelmed with patients, as were Italy and Wuhan.

Much was learned during the lockdown period. We learned that patients placed on ventilators had 80% death rates, but then, also, more about how to keep up to two-thirds of people off them, and how to better treat them earlier with oxygen, a huge breakthrough that saved many lives. We saw that in most jurisdictions in the democracies, hospitals were not overwhelmed. We developed our first effective tests for antibodies, and for the virus. And learned that most cases are mild enough not to need hospitalization, and that this suggested that people might indeed be developing resistance.

One of the most important things we learned is that 99% of people who get COVID-19 develop antibodies to the coronavirus (even that was in doubt in the early days). This was shown in a large major study, by Ania Wajnberg, and multiple colleagues from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital New York, which released preliminary results on May 5. This study used a new antibody test, developed by Florian Kramer, that has a rate of only 1% false positives (meaning when it says antibodies are present, it isn’t exaggerating the amount by more than 1%). The study was of people who had had COVID-19, survived it, and who were now offering their antibodies for doctors to give to others who might get a serious form of the illness, in the hope that these antibodies might save their lives. Call them antibody donors.

The next steps to sealing the argument for herd immunity scientifically is to see if COVID-19 antibodies confer immunity over time—which is not far-fetched, because, after all that is what antibodies generally evolved to do, even if they don’t always succeed. We also want to see if those with asymptomatic illness also develop full immunity, and learn how long they remain infectious. Then we must see how long immunity lasts—something which may depend on the virus’s own permutations. Hoping these antibodies will confer immunity, and that it will last, are reasonable hopes, but hopes nonetheless, as lockdown proponents can point out, saying that until all of these matters are scientifically certain, anyone who argues for easing the lockdown restrictions now is simply “in denial.”

Danger Through Purity

But the lockdown logic has its weak points too, one in particular that wreaks havoc with our psychology—and here I don’t mean the well-known despair caused by isolation, which is especially deadly for those who live alone or with those whom they can’t stand, or the despair caused by total economic devastation.

Lockdown has always posed a serious problem that even its exponents, who are skeptical of herd immunity, can’t deny. After the virus has initially spread through a country, the more the lockdown succeeds—and keeps indoor bodies virgin pure and free of the virus—the more likely it is, when the lockdown is lifted, that the virus will rage and kill again, in second, third and fourth waves—as long it has not been completely obliterated from planet Earth. It’s inevitable by lockdown’s own logic. The very purity of the lockdown guarantees danger going forward, and undermines hope for anyone who takes the logic seriously. The pain is deepened and prolonged; with each passing day, the population exhausted, depleted, and of course financially ruined, until, ultimately, it becomes rebellious, which happens recurrently in the history of plagues.

Lockdown also bequeaths us a map, in which my little home, my apartment, my room, the world inside is good and safe; but the outside, is nothing but dangerous. It begins by physically enclosing us, but ends by mentally enclosing us. We may not be paranoid (because there truly is a virus out there), but we nonetheless start living as paranoids do. Lockdown forecloses unlockdown.

That is one of the reasons why what began as a “temporary lockdown” to flatten the curve, in order not to overwhelm our hospitals—a dire outcome that has not materialized in most places—has turned into an extended lockdown in many places. Psychologically, then, the premises behind lockdown demand that we think the outside world as too dangerous for us to handle. Some of us can manage this for a while; others can’t.

Public health officials don’t deny this is true; they just promise to solve the problem with “the vaccine.”

Vaccine supporters don’t just argue a vaccine will save us. They say it is the only thing that can restore our lives as normal, congregating social animals, because they believe long-term lockdown, which they increasingly advocate, never will. All plagues put populations through exhausting manic-depressive cycles of hope and despair, and as intelligent people have watched the WHO and public health officials flip flop on multiple issues, doubt accumulates about our scientific grasp. The “vaccine” seems the one thing we can resort to, to restore our wavering certainty. As Bill Gates has said,

The ultimate solution, the only thing [italics mine] that really lets us go back completely to normal and feel good about sitting in a stadium with lots of other people, is to create a vaccine.

But even Gates and Anthony Fauci concede 18 months is required to get one, and that that would involve skipping normal safety testing—which produces more uncertainty. Safety testing occurs because vaccines, at times, have killed people, especially in mass vaccination programs. In 1976, people developed neurological disease from the rushed swine flu vaccine, so the entire program had to be shut down. The first corona vaccines, for cats, actually made them more prone to getting severe disease and succumbing to it, and other animal studies of the vaccine showed it triggered dangerous inflammatory reactions. There is a reason that responsible health professionals want a vaccine that is both effective and safe. (And safe means not just that the person is well for a few weeks after they get their shot, but that they don’t develop long-term side effects.)

But if it is reasonable to hope for a vaccine not yet invented, or proven safe, to save us, why do we not hear scientists speak more about herd or shield immunity, and how it might be managed, or manipulated in some way, to protect us in the meantime?

That’s because the herd immunity approach has several big disadvantages, even if all its premises are true. First, it might cause more deaths up front, and second, it freaks people out.

YouTube Becomes YouTaboo: Internet Police Force of the Behavioral Immune System

It especially freaks out populations that have just been trained to enter, and remain in, lockdown with a combination of data, scare tactics, 24/7 death charts, and even talking police drones (such as appeared in the skies of Elizabeth, New Jersey, recently, scolding people who were not social distancing with, “You are not immune to the virus”).

As we saw in Britain, democratic politicians are terrified to discuss herd immunity openly, because to endorse it is to concede something unpalatable in a modern democracy: that the government’s policy is actually to permit some people to get ill. And of course, those who get sick and don’t recover will be used to bring that government down.

Lockdown can at least justify itself with the promise that our science will create a vaccine that will reopen the door to normalcy, and it supplies the reassuring fantasy that we are in control after all.

Herd immunity, as policy, is a way of working with nature that begins by accepting that we do not have as much control over nature as we wish, and that the vaccine may not arrive in time. Lockdown treats us as equals: It declares we are all vulnerable, all working for each other, against the deadly foe. Herd immunity divides us, because it argues that this deadliness does not apply to all equally, as many of the young already sense.

It is not only politicians that are hesitant to endorse it. Scientists and clinicians who believe that it is essential we take shield immunity into our arsenal to defeat this virus are have been censored. In cases, their reputations have been savaged, and this caused other scientific critics of perpetual lockdown to back off.

Not everyone speaking of herd immunity has been blocked in the media. Ivy League credentials sometimes help. The thoughtful public health physician David L. Katz, founder of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center has managed to make the argument for herd immunity in The New York Times.

But many can’t get the case heard. At a time when people are spending more time online than ever before, and when YouTube is the biggest online platform, it is hugely significant that Google, through YouTube, had started censoring scientists and epidemiologists that have questioned the lockdown. YouTube CEO Susan Wojciki explained to CNN’s Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter that “Anything that goes against WHO recommendations would be a violation of our policy and so remove is another really important part of our policy.”

Note, Wojciki said, “Anything.”

Thus spake YouTaboo, even though the WHO is all over the map on its recommendations, and thus itself contradicts WHO policies one day to the next. YouTube proceeded to cut off critics of the lockdown, eliminating videos by experienced epidemiologists and physicians (more below). It’s bizarre that an administrator would believe it would be helpful to censor science, especially at a moment when science is in such obvious flux. But then, taboos are usually bizarre. So why do we create them?

Purity and Danger

In this context, I like the approach of the English social anthropologist Mary Douglas, spelled out in her book Purity and Danger, on the ideas of pollution and contagion in cultures ancient and modern, primitive and industrialized. A taboo, Douglas writes, is:

A spontaneous device for protecting the distinctive categories of the universe. Taboo protects the local consensus on how the world is organized. It shores up wavering certainty. It reduces intellectual and social disorder.

The censorship, at this moment, is shoring up the wavering certainty we feel as we go through another cycle of science says “do this,” and science says, “do that,” as seen with the WHO reversal on herd immunity. We are a science-driven society, and almost all educated people believe in science, and many flatter themselves that they follow it. When we fear we are facing a mortal peril, and our scientists are contradicting themselves, or other scientists, our own identities are threatened, because science is not just a tool for us, but rather central to our identity. Our faith in it, its promise that we can control fate, is what supposedly distinguishes us from our helpless predecessors whose attitude toward plagues was generally resignation. And suddenly, with its many about-faces, science is generating not certainty, but uncertainty, and perhaps we momentarily feel no better off than they, the primitive ancestors we are supposed to have transcended; an uncanny feeling.

Douglas goes on to ask, “We may well ask why is it necessary to protect the primary distinctions of the universe, and why are taboos so bizarre?”

When our distinctions can’t be held, ambiguity arises. Ambiguity in our core categories (including particularly those that help define our identities) becomes extremely threatening, and dangerous. In response to this danger that arises when fundamental distinctions or categories are breaking down—we reinstitute them with a focus “purity” to protect ourselves from the ambiguity. And we enforce this purity with taboos, and even micro-taboos.

What is especially hard to accept at the moment, is that science has not yet answered all our questions so that we can know with a comforting level of certainty, what policy is best. We must live, for the moment, with some ambiguity. Those who can’t handle this ambiguity are promoting false certainty, the product of some fictional settled science, and anyone who deviates from that must become YouTaboo, unclean, impure.

Douglas quoted an old English aphorism, and made it central to her work: “dirt is simply matter out of place.” A leaf on your lawn is a delight, on your carpet, it is dirt. The plastic top of your take-out coffee cup, on the kitchen table is unnoticed, but on the floor, it is “garbage.” Food on your plate is wholesome, on your necktie, filth. The concept of dirt, for Douglas, always implies an ordered system of where things belong. Dirt is a kind of “compendium category” for anything which might “blur, smudge, contradict, or otherwise confuse accepted classifications. The underlying feeling is that a system of values which is habitually expressed in a given arrangement of things has been violated.”

People can become dirt, too, and be defiled, if they happen to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, or in the wrong place.

Before the WHO did its reversal and spoke out for the Swedish model, several American epidemiologists had dared to. One of them is the epidemiologist Knut Wittkowski, Ph.D., who spent 20 years as head of the Department of Biostatistics, Epidemiology, and Research Design at The Rockefeller University, New York. He had been an advocate of herd immunity, critical of indiscriminate lockdowns, and even of the language used to enforce them, including the constant emphasis that corona is “novel,” because it stirs up so much panic (which shuts down reason). As he points out, “Every virus that spreads is novel. If it were not novel it would not spread because then we would have antibodies against it. Having a novel virus is not novel.” Each year, for instance, there are novel influenza viruses, which is why new vaccines are made. He argued that if this virus were to behave as most known respiratory viruses, those who survive it would be resistant. His position was that, for now, only the elderly and vulnerable should be in “lockdown” or quarantined. He also questioned WHO case fatality rates. For proposing something much like the Swedish model a few too many weeks before the WHO, Wittkowski was attacked. He spoke, alas, at the wrong time. He was falsely accused of claiming he was a “professor” at Rockefeller (he clearly did not). One of his key videos was removed from YouTube. So have the videos of physicians who similarly used statistics and their medical experience to argue for moving toward more of a Swedish model (once they went viral, and had an influence).

This is why a plague is called a plague: It creates a situation in which most every option is bad, and sorting out which is least bad plagues and torments any honest mind. But the solution is not to make that act of thinking taboo.

Stanford’s highly esteemed John Ioannidis, MD, an Athens-raised American epidemiologist, is one of the most thoughtful physicians in the world and one of the top 100 most cited scientific researchers alive, with more than 1,000 publications. He is famous for his careful methodological work pointing out that many medical studies in the mainstream journals could not be replicated and were hampered by biases. Ioannidis was also one of the first to question the accuracy of WHO case fatality rates, and pointed out the lockdown policy was not based on evidence since we hadn’t gathered enough of it yet, but rather was motivated by “gut feelings.” He didn’t say the lockdown was wrong (he was himself sheltering in), just that it wasn’t based on science, or knowledge of whether our actions would lead to more harm than good.

Around this time the most comprehensive testing undertaken in New York to determine the infection rate showed that 21% of people in New York City had COVID antibodies as of mid-April (and presumably many more now). This suggested that many more New Yorkers had been exposed to the virus than previously believed, and that the death rate from exposure was much lower than had been believed. These death rates were much more in line with the rates Ioannidis was finding in other data sets. Since the overwhelming majority of these New Yorkers who showed antibodies seemed healthy, the testing appeared to suggest they indeed had resistance, and that herd immunity was probably building. He reported on similar suggestions emerging from the cramped Diamond Princess Cruise, and from the fact that most young people seemed spared, and from findings in Iceland, which tested 5% of its population. All this testing suggested that there were more mild cases than the WHO data suggested, and that herd immunity might be building, though he was at pains to say we still needed more data.

Ioannidis then, working with other scientists, did their own antibody study in California, and the group claimed their study also showed that the WHO death rates were far off, at least for California, by an order of magnitude, and that the numbers used to justify locking down were very likely not relevant in many places. He used one of the existing, imperfect antibody tests, and, as is routine during the COVID era, put the study online before peer review. There were some thoughtful reviews in which authors suggested the study had some errors from a statistical point of view, given the accuracy issues with the antibody study used. Ioannidis is as capable of correcting errors as anyone, if they are pointed out, and already did publish one correction.

It is what happened next that speaks to the frenzied forces purity and danger can unleash. Ioannidis was greeted with intense anger, pilloried nonstop, caricatured as implying COVID-19 is not severe (he actually said it was “the major threat the world is facing”) and generally demonized. He was morally vilified—not told, “I think you made a mistake,” but “how dare you betray everything you stood for.” Et tu Brute articles and comments by peers and journalists have appeared on the internet, depicting him as sloppy, skewed, doing horrible science that no one believes, and even being on the take, fixing his results for money. That was a smear (so-called because the idea is to dirty a clean reputation). Fellow scientists treated him as a threat whose errant thinking would erode public confidence in current measures, and criticized him for publishing not in peer review journals but in public (i.e., he was in the wrong place)—not that his critics waited to publish their criticisms of him in peer-review journals.

The point here is not whether Ioannidis was right or wrong. Any attacks in such a situation can always be justified by the charge, “if he gets this wrong, people will die.” It’s without doubt true that if the advocates of herd immunity are wrong people will die needlessly. But it is also true, without doubt, that if advocates of lockdown are wrong, people will die needlessly. This is why a plague is called a plague: It creates a situation in which most every option is bad, and sorting out which is least bad plagues and torments any honest mind. But the solution is not to make that act of thinking taboo.

Ioannides had crossed the behavioral immune system. He became taboo in part because he was one of the first epidemiologists from a prestigious university—a member of that club—who broke ranks with leading public health officials and joined the far less popular club that is criticizing the WHO, the pinnacle of global public health cooperation. It isn’t possible to be a member of both clubs at once! That is definitely out of place, impure, and it makes John Ioannides an ambiguous category, neither fish nor fowl, neither a creature of the sea or land.

We, the children of science and medicine, don’t say, “you will be punished by God for being impure,” since we don’t believe in divine punishment, thunderbolts, or even plagues as being provoked by bad morals (or so we say). But we do endlessly threaten ourselves, or each other, that should we think the wrong thoughts, or do the wrong things (such as eat the wrong foods, drink unclean water, use the wrong forms of energy, take the wrong medicine) there will be dire consequences to our health, or that of the planet. Douglas writes, “Grown-up practice uses impaired health as the threat. … Feared contagion extends the danger of a broken taboo to the whole community.”

Taboos, because absurd, always have to be maintained by societal complicity, says Douglas. That’s easy in a dictatorship. In a free society, it is harder, and it necessitates the self-censorship of the media—a role that Google and the Google-owned YouTube have been only too happy to play.

We are fortunate that the WHO, such as it is, doesn’t have the power to enforce a single global policy at this time (though it wishes it had). This power vacuum allows different countries to take different approaches, and the rest of us to see how they do, empirically. The best policy may vary from place to place, culture to culture, genetic group to genetic group, and vary, too, by how unhealthy the existing population is, with respect to the known risk factors. The United States, for instance, already had two prior uncontrolled, noninfectious epidemics, before corona arrived: among the highest rates of diabetes and obesity in the world, both of which are risk factors for COVID, for instance. How would they be best protected if a general lockdown is lifted?

I am aware that to explain how hard it is to think through and discuss policies in a plague, I have brought together two very different concepts: the behavioral immune system, which is an instinctual response designed to protect us from infection, and Mary Douglas’ ideas. Douglas made a point of emphasizing that what one group sees as dangerous, dirty and unclean, doesn’t necessarily map directly onto our biology, or the modern idea of microorganisms—that is only a recent phenomenon. She might not have approved of my linking the biological behavioral immune system so closely with her ideas, because she emphasized the tremendous variation in terms of what was taboo, dangerous, and impure, from one group to the next.

But the behavioral immune system, although it has biological roots, is plastic, and affected by cultural experience. What we react to as potentially infectious, are disgusted by, fear, and avoid, is in part determined by what we are taught, or learn, might make us sick. It would, after all, require a dramatic reversal of categories to go from a lockdown logic, which sees asymptomatic carriers of the virus as potential assassins who might infect us and other vulnerable people, to a herd immunity logic which sees them—ultimately—as potential “shields” who might actually protect the vulnerable. That shift would, for many people, upend their current view of the situation and the world. Should we, at some point, get the magical, “all-clear signal,” either from a vaccine success, or from herd immunity building, the BIS will then, finally, start turning itself off—not all at once but in stages. Then these foolish, self-destructive taboos will be dropped, and replaced by others equally foolish for a different reason.

As for irrelevant me, dear Diary, what do I, at the moment, think is the better course, the promise and the risk of going for herd immunity now, versus the promise and the risk of staying in lockdown until we have more testing done, so as to eliminate more uncertainty? I’m developing a preference, but I won’t share it, even with you, because I’m uncomfortable having noticed that I still fluctuate in my assessment, and that what determines my fluctuation is not my reason, or my limited knowledge, or my restlessness, but rather an inconstant cue, that sometimes turns on, and sometimes quiets, my behavioral immune system’s activation: i.e., my own perceived vulnerability to infection at a given moment. My heart is not yet pure. And that’s not good enough.

Norman Doidge, a contributing writer for Tablet, is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and author of The Brain That Changes Itself and The Brain’s Way of Healing.