By Ruthie Blum
In a recent phone call, a friend complained about the pressure that the Israeli government, media and much of the public have been applying to citizens who refuse to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
As someone who felt that she had been virtually “bullied” into getting inoculated, she was protesting in particular the latest carrot-and-stick element of the campaign to rid the country of coronavirus: a proposal to grant certain privileges to those possessing the Health Ministry double-dose certificate.
Among the epidemiological benefits being discussed — aside from the existing exemption from quarantine after exposure to infection — are unhindered entrance into malls, theaters, stadiums and other venues when they reopen.
“Why does it matter whether everyone complies?” she asked, pointing to the warning by officialdom that even after full vaccination, the virus can still strike and be spread. As a result, we’ve been told, mask-wearing and social distancing will continue to be required for a long time.
She clearly hadn’t heard the more encouraging research revealing a serious drop in viral load after a single shot — indicating not only a less severe reaction to infection, but a lower chance of transmitting the virus to others. Nevertheless, she is not alone in her resentment on behalf of the anti-coronavirus-vaxxers.
This might seem odd to foreigners envious of the fact that more than half Israel’s 9-million-strong population has already received the first dose of the vaccine, and about a quarter has gotten both shots, which means that the country is moving steadily toward Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stated goal of inoculating everyone over the age of 16 by the end of March.
It’s not for nothing that Israel is viewed by the rest of the world as a kind of living laboratory. The trouble is that some Israelis interpret this — and the Health Ministry’s data-sharing deal with Pfizer — as proof that they’re serving as the pharmaceutical giant’s “guinea pigs.”
Never mind that this claim has been rejected, hands down, by every virologist, biologist and epidemiologist interviewed daily on the country’s TV channels, radio stations and newspapers. Apparently, fear and suspicion trump evidence.
Then there are the strange bedfellows of certain homeopathic rabbis and their secular followers who have been decrying the vaccine. Take “rabbi to the stars” Yuval Hacohen Asherov as a prime example. Famous Israeli actress and comedienne Orna Banai — one celebrity who buys Asherov’s mystical nonsense—has been vocal about her objection to the “toxic” vaccine, based on his teachings.
Another well-known rabbi — one with a less fashionable, more haredi, but equally irrational clientele who believe his admonitions — is Daniel Asor. A conspiracy theorist with a history of insane admonitions, Asor avers that both the coronavirus and the vaccine against it stem from a “malicious global government trying to establish a new world order.”
But his latest allegation is the looniest. Like the Iranian cleric Ayatollah Abbas Tabrizian, Asor has told his massive social-media audience that the COVID-19 vaccine causes homosexuality.
Ironically, what the cynics and naysayers have in common is neither intellectual nor political. It is, rather, a reaction born of luxury. Yes, the abundance and ready availability of the vaccine makes it less valuable to Israelis who otherwise fight tooth and nail to be at the head of every literal and figurative line — as they did in early December, when the first BioNTech shipment landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport.
Perhaps Netanyahu’s ploy should be to stop trying to persuade people to “come and get it,” and declare a national shortage. Contempt, then, would likely be replaced by desperate demand, as it is elsewhere around the globe.
Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”