Israeli Anti-vax Parents Set Up Own 'Vaccine-free' Schools

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Healthcare workers give serological tests at a school in Israel, this month.
Healthcare workers give serological tests at a school in Israel, this month. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Groups of vaccine opponents have begun organizing to set up private schools and home study groups in a number of locations in Israel to evade the regulations intended to impede the spread of COVID-19, including virus testing, quarantines and masks inside schools. Thousands of vaccine opponents have also declared that they will not send their children to school on September 1, in protest over the restrictions.

Over the last two months, vaccine opponents have been organizing to establish alternative school frameworks in different parts of the country, and have held parents’ meetings in many cities including Tel Aviv, Haifa, the Sharon area, Modi’in and Netanya. Groups that have sprouted up online are working to find teachers for these new arrangements, and in some cases teachers are offering their services to home-school children of vaccine opponents. The process has so far gone largely unnoticed, with most of the activity taking place on the Telegram platform.

In the past decade, the number of Israeli schoolchildren in private frameworks that offer an alternative to the standard public schools, as well as the number of children being home-schooled, has been growing. But now it appears that the type of outlook being expounded by the vaccine opponents has penetrated the world of private and alternative education, and become part of the approach of some of these educational arrangements and the parents who are interested in them.

One woman who runs an alternative school says the demand for such educational streams has increased among parents who oppose vaccines, and this prompted her to directly reach out to parents who are active in the anti-vaccination groups. “In the last months, there’s been a surge of interest from parents who never contacted us before, because of the issue of the vaccines and the Education Ministry’s format for opening the school year. These parents have lost faith in the system and have begun to take independent action. The public sentiment against them is only encouraging them to withdraw into these groups and to look after their kids’ education themselves.”

It’s possible that the attitude coming from the Education Ministry lately, which initially opposed vaccines in schools and did not include them in its outline for opening the school year, combined with the outline that takes the lenient approach of opening the school year despite the high infection rates, is giving vaccine opponents a tailwind.

Israelis demonstrate against vaccinating children in Jerusalem, last month.Credit: Hadas Parush

The trend gained momentum even though the Education Ministry’s program for opening the school year is quite relaxed and hardly includes any restrictions aside from masks from first grade up, along with quarantine for students who were exposed to confirmed carriers in order to prevent wider outbreaks at school.

The ministry’s outline also allows for a shortened quarantine period for students who test negative, and the ministry has created a pilot whereby if one student in the school tests positive, the rest can be completely exempted from quarantine by means of a daily coronavirus test.

But the parents who oppose vaccines also oppose this testing. “Pushing a swab on a healthy child is a crime. The [government’s] aim is clear – to wear down the parents and get them to do a vaccine,” said one parent who is active in the groups trying to set up alternative schooling.

Orly (not her real name), the organizer of a private school option in central Israel, says, “This is a parallel universe to the Education Ministry, of organized parents’ groups that are receiving close guidance in establishing new educational frameworks. The Education Ministry is dictating to parents what to do with their children and that’s unacceptable. People send their children to school for an education, they’re not sending them to a medical clinic. These children are being abused with masks and tremendous social pressure is being exerted upon them.”

She says that it’s not just the vaccines, that parents are also opposed to children having to wear masks and get tested. However, she stresses that all of the groups’ activity will be legal. The parents who oppose vaccines believe that the outline agreed on by the education and health ministries – by which if a student tests positive, other students will be sent to quarantine that may be shortened if they present two negative tests – will lead to pressure to vaccinate the students.

COVID anti-vaxxers demonstrate in Tel Aviv, last month.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

“If a student is confirmed to have the virus, the other kids will be tested and return to school to days later, but a kid who doesn’t want to be tested will have to stay home for two weeks, will miss a lot of material and feel terrible,” Orly says. “People don’t want their kids to be subjected to coronavirus tests every other day. It’s all about putting pressure on the parents so they’ll get fed up with the quarantines and then they’ll want to vaccinate their children.

“Many parents were already unhappy with the situation in the school system, but the ministry’s outline gave the final push,” Orly continues. “Before the coronavirus, we could say that this is just how it is and we’ll live with it, but now that they’re dictating to parents to test their children or put them in quarantine for two weeks and let them suffer from the social consequences, parents have decided they’re not going to take it anymore and they’re going to create something new. Parents will decide how to educate their children.”

Dozens of groups nationwide

The Compulsory Education Law requires parents of children age 3 and up to send them to schools that are recognized by the Education Ministry, including private schools. At the same time, the ministry gives parents the option to obtain permission for home schooling, if they can prove they have a unique belief system whose needs cannot be met by the schools, or if there are other unusual circumstances. In the past school year, there was a 40-percent increase in the number of requests for home schooling that were approved by the Education Ministry, though this still accounts for a small minority of students.

The main online group currently trying to organize alternative educational formats has more than 1,000 members. It offers a wide range of information on how to set up private schools and home schooling groups, and also offers parents guidance on the process for obtaining the needed approvals. The group’s moderators say it brings together more than 50 parent groups from around the country. Originally founded to provide information to parents and teachers interested in home schooling or alternative schooling, recently it has also begun to promote educational frameworks for vaccine opponents.

Anti-vaxxer protest in Tel Aviv. The yellow star badge reads: "Not vaccinated"Credit: Hadas Parush

“Our children will not study under the Education Ministry that endangered them by denying and concealing information about the government systems,” says one announcement posted by the channel’s operators. “We will safeguard our children and we will not let anyone say otherwise. This is not the time to wait. In every part of the country, we will organize meetings to meet one another and plan for a safer future. We are circles of truth and we will not be extinguished.”

Another message says: “Our children are healthy, period. The education and health ministries want to create discrimination – and to force healthy children into lockdowns and quarantines. The intimidation and pressure are part of a malicious plan to deliberately make life difficult while denying people their basic rights. If you are parents who don’t want their healthy children to take part in an experiment, who don’t want any medical personnel to come near them with a needle, if you will not endanger them, if you will not agree to blood tests and swabs to prove that they are healthy, don’t take a chance.”

A teacher who joined the group posted this message: “I am a math teacher and I have no intention of teaching in school unless they cancel the testing and the quarantines. I would be happy to see your children in alternative schools.”

The organizers of another alternative framework that’s in the making wrote to parents about what their program will offer students, saying regular schools have “forced masking and medical procedures” that will not exist in the new group. A woman active in the group wrote: “It looks like the ministry’s outline [for opening the school year] involves testing and quarantines and later possibly forced vaccination. It’s great to see that every day more parents are saying they plan to take their kids out of school and switch to home schooling.”

The group’s activity includes messages about starting home schooling groups in different areas in Israel, such as one that announced, “The Petah Tikva community has opened a preparation group for home schooling ahead of the ‘evil decrees’ of September,’” and another spoke of a Tel Aviv group that so far has 140 students. Similar efforts are underway in other places.

‘Infringement on freedom, rights’

Meanwhile, the 4,000 vaccine opponents who are part of a group called Magen Hori (“Parental Shield”), which is fighting the Education Ministry’s plan, announced in late July in a letter to Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton that they will not send their children to school on September 1 unless the coronavirus testing requirement is canceled. They complained that vaccinating students in school will cause social pressure to be exerted on children – an argument that Shasha-Biton also made in an interview with Channel 12 news.

“The Education Ministry’s outlines infringe on the individual’s freedom, choice and rights,” the parents wrote. “As soon as the operation to inject the Pfizer formula began, we witnessed a crisis, medical discourse that led to ostracism and violence in the schools. Many parents made a decision due to institutionalized social pressure rather than out of purely medical considerations.”

They claimed that the Magen Hinuch program – in which coronavirus testing is being done in schools in “red” locales – “normalized invasive tests. Tests that belong in the health system and have no place in schools.” They also said that they “will not send their children to school no matter what,” and that “we will not let them hold our children hostage.”

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