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Israel’s ‘Green Passport’ Raises a Red Flag About Civil Liberties

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Police enforce a nationwide coronavirus lockdown in Tel Aviv, January 27, 2021.
Police enforcing a nationwide coronavirus lockdown in Tel Aviv in January. Credit: Moti Milrod
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The incidence of COVID-19 in Israel continues to decline despite Israelis’ accelerated return to their pre-pandemic routine. The doomsters probably have one more week. If there’s no concrete rise in daily new infections and positive tests despite the large family gatherings of Passover, we'll be able to say with some certainty that the disease has been contained thanks to the impressive efficiency of the vaccination project.

The steep fall of the infection rate has triggered a spat between the education and health ministries, with the former demanding, rightly, for schools to resume full activity next week. The Health Ministry wants to go on with the cautionary measure of some classes being at school physically for only half the week.

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In the meantime, Pfizer has announced promising results in the clinical trials of its vaccine for kids between 12 and 15. Taking into account the number of doses Israel already has, it will probably be one of the first countries in the world to vaccinate this cohort, already before the summer.

In the background, Netanyahu has managed to turn even the vaccination issue, his great success, into a political dispute by accusing Defense Minister Benny Gantz of torpedoing a massive purchase of doses. Conveniently, the prime minister is ignoring Gantz’s logical condition for discussing the acquisition of doses: the extension of his term as justice minister in the caretaker government. Netanyahu has recruited the top ranks of the Health Ministry to back his controversial claim that Israel must immediately acquire tens of millions of doses to be prepared for a worst-case scenario.

The onset of the economy’s return to routine raises questions about the policy behind the “green passport,” the vaccination-proving document that Israelis need to enter certain public places and sometimes even return to the office or factory. A paper by Physicians for Human Rights and the Zulat Institute for Equality and Human Rights states that expanding the demand to show the Green Pass could lead to a slippery slope eroding individual rights.

The document was drawn up by attorney Shelly Kamin-Friedman with the aid of public health experts. The paper examines principles for coping with “vaccination hesitation,” based on a human rights perspective. “The Green Pass has significant advantages in opening the economy, but expanding legislation to enable the transmission of information on the vaccinated to public agencies infringes on the human rights of the vaccinated,” the authors write.

They say the documentation on whether someone has chosen to be vaccinated is confidential information that must not be sent to others without consent. They say it’s disproportionate to craft legislation that infringes on medical confidentiality before other possibilities to encourage people to be vaccinated have been exhausted. According to the paper, conditioning the return of teachers and others to schools on possession of a green passport must be passed in primary legislation or at least approved by the cabinet, not left to the mayors and heads of local councils.

“The failure in disclosing medical information is not only judicial but also ethical and professional, and it can affect mutual trust in the commitment to the goal of controlling infection rates,” the authors write. In their view, the coronavirus law was passed in the Knesset without considering less intrusive alternatives such as efforts by municipalities or employers to encourage people to be vaccinated.

“The response to vaccination in Israel is very high,” the authors write. “Adding methods, in rapid succession, to step up the response to vaccination without examining their effectiveness ... stirs public antagonism and is not useful. We find particularly problematic a legislative foundation that enables the disclosure of medical records to employers (in this case, the Education Ministry).”

In the future, this could expand into a demand for the disclosure of other medical records that will be perceived as relevant for employers. “Even during a pandemic, we must not forgo the principle by which identifying information is not transferred without the individual’s consent,” the authors write. They recommend leaving the task of encouraging people to be vaccinated to the medical community, and to keep out municipalities and government ministries.

According to the paper, to deal with the hesitation phenomenon, the public can be persuaded that a high response to the vaccination project is in the common good; it won’t only protect the individual from sickness and death, it’s an act of social solidarity. Another recommendation is comprehensive legislation, with resources and personnel allocated for promotion of the policy, computerization and making the vaccinations accessible to the weak.

Transparency is essential in decision-making on vaccination policy, the authors write, adding that the public should have access to the minutes of meetings of the coronavirus cabinet (something Netanyahu adamantly opposes and over which a legal battle is underway). Also, decisions should be based on professional criteria, with their rationale explained to the public. The paper lambastes the government regarding the vaccination priorities that discriminated against Palestinian prisoners and the Palestinian population in the territories.

“The coronavirus vaccination policy in Israel is a matter of great pride, but some decisions don’t meet the criteria of protecting human rights,” says Zulat's executive director, Einat Ovadia. She adds: “There is serious concern that the decisions weren’t based on professional epidemiological considerations. We need to ensure that expanding the demand to present a Green Pass won’t lead to other infringements of individual rights.”

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