Opinion |

Guess Who's Fueling Israel's Disastrous COVID Anti-vaxxer Movement?

Out of power, but still eager for the spotlight, Netanyahu is now playing politics with Israel's COVID vaccine campaign. It's unforgivable

Dahlia Scheindlin
Dahlia Scheindlin
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Israelis lift placards in Tel Aviv as they chant slogans denouncing the government's renewed restrictions to combat COVID-19
Israelis lift placards in Tel Aviv as they chant slogans denouncing the government's renewed restrictions to combat COVID-19Credit: AHMAD GHARABLI - AFP
Dahlia Scheindlin
Dahlia Scheindlin

When the editorial page of Israel Hayom is right, something is terribly wrong.

But if one of the most firebrand editorialists in the pro-Netanyahu paper argues that the COVID anti-vaxxer claims, heard so noisily in the West and increasingly in Israel, too, are manipulative, irresponsible rubbish, I can only agree.

What’s wrong about the article is its kavana – the deep intention and motivation – which is not innocent. Anything from Israel Hayom represents a move in Israel’s dangerous game of vaccine politicization.

In the U.S., the politicization of vaccines against COVID-19 is extraordinary: a June survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 88 percent of Democrats are either fully vaccinated or wish to be as soon as possible (just two percent fall into the "soon" group). By contrast, just 54 percent of Republicans say the same (with the same two percent who have not yet done it.)

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The pandemic and the vaccines to end it have inflamed once again what is already a volcanic rupture of American political and social life. And Israel is no less susceptible to paralyzing political polarization based on already-seething rifts – even when confronting a public health crisis.

After Israel’s stellar rollout, the rate of fully vaccinated people from the total population stubbornly remains at approximately 58 percent for both shots (the rate is 79 percent among those eligible for vaccination, i.e. aged 12 and over).

With the delta variant spiking and threats of a fresh lockdown, politicians and public health officials have begged (some would say bullied) the unvaccinated – frequently estimated at one million who are eligible – to get the shot. But the number of new first-time vaxxers is low and only very slowly creeping upward. Every new vaccinated person counts.

The most unvaccinated populations reflect deep, long term social problems in Israel that will not change overnight.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett accompanies his mother, Mirna Bennett, to be vaccinated with a third coronavirus vaccine shot in Haifa, IsraelCredit: Elad Gershgoren,AP

The vaccination rate of Arab Palestinian citizens is well below that of the total population. In the health ministry vaccination rankings by locality the bottom of the list is stacked with Bedouin and ultra-Orthodox communities, such as Rahat and Bnei Brak to (37 percent and 35 percent respectively of recipients of at least one dose). Smaller Bedouin towns and other Haredi towns have pitifully low rates of about one-quarter for a first dose, or even lower for the far-flung Bedouin villages in the south.

To be sure, more people in these communities may also have immunity following higher infection rates (although recovered patients have been eligible for vaccination in Israel since mid-March). And naturally the rate is far lower among 12-15 years olds – the rollout for 12 and up only began in June.

Like minority communities in the U.S., alienation and suspicion, a sense of "autonomy" (in the case of Haredim), or else a belief that prayer or nature will ward off the disease – have very long-term roots and motivations in Israeli society. These are structural problems, often compounded by poor access and information.

Taking into account these large trends, the portion of active anti-vaccination Israelis is probably small. My definition of the term is specific. Out of respect for what we don’t know (due to lack of in-depth, recent public opinion research) about the myriad considerations of any one person, the defining factor is proselytizing.

As delta variant cases soar, Israelis in Tel Aviv lift placards at a rally denouncing the government's renewed restrictions to combat COVID-19Credit: AHMAD GHARABLI - AFP

True anti-vaxxers are those who have undertaken the grave responsibility, with no personal credentials or accountability, of publicly delegitimizing the vaccine. Pumping their feeds full of "just raising questions" counts, as the term is merely a thin veneer for spreading wrong information.

To understand the politicized version of the vaccine debate, Benjamin Netanyahu is a good place to start.

After shamelessly running his last (failed) general election campaign on his vaccine accomplishments, and now as leader of the opposition, many of his rants against the government harp on the vaccine or COVID themes. Last Friday, he released a new tirade accusing the leadership of torpor in rolling out booster shots as part of their general failure to manage the coronavirus crisis.

How to distinguish politicization from social concern? Conspicuously missing from Netanyahu’s two minute speech, and from most of his popular Facebook feed, was a simple call for viewers to get vaccinated. To be sure, he tweeted out his own booster shot and wrote "get vaccinated" on July 30th. But Netanyahu’s overwhelming message is that he brought the vaccines and saved Israel from corona, while the Bennett and Lapid government brought the virus back.

'We brought Israel out of COVID. Bennett and Lapid led us back into COVID'

When the Bibi entourage amplifies his words in stereo, there can be no doubt about their real kavana. The same day as his Facebook rant, Galit Distel Atbaryan, a freshly elected Likud member eager to prove her fealty, tweeted:

"Netanyahu has been pleading for a whole month…give the third vaccine already...The criminal, absentee government of Naftali [Bennett] has gone from complete lack of action to threats of collapse [of the health system] and there’s no responsible adult on the horizon. Except Netanyahu, of course."

Where Bibi goes, the anti-Bibi crowd follows. So it’s no coincidence that Eldad Yaniv has become the most influential "but I’m just asking critical questions" type.

Yaniv is a one-man band activist who in recent years has rallied supporters to an anti-corruption, anti-establishment, and very anti-Netanyahu agenda. He often represents urban secular types disgusted with Netanyahu, with little broader political ideology, those who may not be particularly politically engaged otherwise.

Eldad Yaniv, one of the hardcore activists behind the last few years' anti-Netanyahu protests, is now spreading disinformation about vaccine effectiveness and claiming dissenters are being 'silenced' Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Yaniv says publicly that he himself got vaccinated, but has spread disinformation about vaccine effectiveness; he has cultivated the theme that dissenting experts are being "silenced" – flirting with a media-government-big business conspiracy to gag vaccine skeptics, reminiscent of hard right arguments elsewhere.

Yaniv has railed against the country’s top public health officials and government corona advisors - accusing them of financial conflicts of interests (unproven), calling them "hysterical TV studio heroes."

The theme has caught on: this week someone swore at the head of Israel’s public health services, calling her a "bitch" during a Zoom Knesset committee meeting; a senior researcher who participated in Israel’s booster shots research complained to police after receiving a threatening email accusing her of being a "Pfizer-ist," and calling on her to commit suicide.

Meanwhile, Yaniv’s feed is full of praise for the country’s education minister, Israel’s most coronavirus and vaccine skeptical high-ranking government official.

Dig into Yaniv’s followers (which I’ve done, and it was a very bad idea), and one finds a deep well of true anti-vaxx internet trolls. Many appear to have emerged from the front lines of the anti-Netanyahu "Balfour" protests. Why?

Anti-vaxxers at the anti-Netanyahu protests outside his Balfour Street residence last year, adorned with yellow stars and slogans such as 'There is no pandemic'Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The latter believe Netanyahu is corrupt and by association, everything emerging from his leadership is tainted – not an unreasonable notion on its own. For them, the original vaccination sin dates back to Netanyahu’s contract with Pfizer to purchase the vaccines, an agreement that was initially kept secret. The contract was eventually published, but it was redacted and remains an open wound poisoning public trust.

An (erstwhile) close friend who is no fool became a virulent anti-vaxxer of the proselytizing type. He was rarely activist on any social issue in the past. Why now, I have implored him. In maddening, circular conversations, after losing arguments grounded in data, he invariably returns to the Pfizer contract. In his telling, the abrogated verses sound satanic – surely hiding facts about widespread side-effects far more hideous than corona.

Medical staff prepare their protective gear before entering the COVID ward at Hillel-Yafe hospital, Hadera, IsraelCredit: Amir Levy

Social politicization of vaccines now informs policy. Israel’s education minister rejected the idea of offering the vaccine in schools, despite clear precedent for other vaccines, because COVID vaccines are not sufficiently "consensus."

Yifat Shasha-Biton worries that making them available could create social pressure on the students to take them up. Yet for Israel’s underserved communities, who are disproportionately under-vaccinated, insufficient access is one of the reasons for the low rates.

For Israeli society in the time of COVID, politicization may be more toxic than disinformation. The virus is drunk on power and cannot tell the difference between Bibi or the anti-Bibi Balfour-protestor crowd. Netanyahu’s ongoing role in politicizing the vaccines is unforgivable, and anti-Netanyahu activists are falling for it. That’s one sick joke.

Dahlia Scheindlin is a political scientist and public opinion expert, and a policy fellow at The Century Foundation. Twitter: @dahliasc

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