Public engagement with Science among Religious Minorities: Lessons from COVID-19

Public engagement with Science among Religious Minorities: Lessons from COVID-19

Author: Lea Taragin-Zeller – Technion and Cambridge, Israel


  • Ayelet Baram-Tsabari – Technion, Israel
  • Yael Rozenblum – Technion, Israel

Drawing on the disproportionate magnitude of COVID-19-related morbidity on Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Jews, in this paper we examine their processes of COVID-19 health decision-making. While scholars have highlighted how science communication reifies forms of structural inequality, especially race and gender, we examine the challenges science communication pose for religious minorities. We ask: How do religious minorities engage with/and learn about science in their everyday lives? Is conventional public health messaging effective when dealing with a minority population with specific cultural practices and religious beliefs? And, what are the limits of receptivity of science and health advise among specific minority groups?

In Israel, at the height of the pandemic in March-June 2020, Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jews accounted for 40-60% of all coronavirus patients at four major hospitals, even though they make up only 12% of Israel’s population (Waitzberg et al, 2020). In our study, we draw on studies in science communication to explore the ways Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel learned about the pandemic and examined their COVID-19-related decision-making.While scholars have argued that individuals operate either religious or scientific epistemologies (O’Brien and Noy 2015), our survey results show that both religious and health-related justifications were common for personal decisions. Yet, a disparity was found between the ways social distancing guidelines were perceived in the general education context compared to the religious context. Based on these findings, we argue that science-related communication and decision making is negotiated within and through many actors and systems of ‘local’ knowledge, since both scientific knowledge and socio-religious frameworks serve as “cultural and epistemological tunnels” of COVID-19 interpretations, attitudes and behavior (Canfield et al, 2020). The findings make a strong case for the importance of inclusive models of science communication that account for religious sensibilities and state-minority relations.

The author has not yet submitted a copy of the full paper.

Presentation type: Individual paper
Theme: Time