Israel's Education Minister Has the Right to Oppose COVID Vaccines in Schools

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Israeli education minister Dr. Yifat Shasha-Biton at a ceremony last year
Israeli education minister Dr. Yifat Shasha-Biton at a ceremony last year Credit:

I don’t know what her motivation is – to stand out, to grab headlines, or perhaps she’s really “going with her own truth” (that hypothesis always needs to be taken with a grain of salt when it comes to a politician). Maybe she’s concealing an even more extreme position that she’s embarrassed to reveal.

But it doesn’t matter. We have to defend the right of Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton, who insists on presenting exceptions to the rule of hysteria over the coronavirus, to speak her mind.

Shasha-Biton is taking flak from all sides – from members of the opposition, from her colleagues in the cabinet, from senior public health officials and, worst of all, from people who are supposed to be journalists but in practice serve as enthusiastic mouthpieces for the government’s coronavirus cabinet and the medical establishment. And this happens even though it sometimes turns out in retrospect that the expert consensus was wrong (remember how at the beginning of the pandemic, they told us that wearing masks was pointless and even dangerous, because it creates a delusion of safety?).

That’s the reality in any evolving event. People – doctors, cabinet ministers, plumbers and models – are learning about this disease as they go. There’s no other choice.

I listened very closely to the interview with Shasha-Biton on Channel 12 television. Admittedly, interviewer Keren Marciano was gentle compared to other journalists who later wrote about this interview and turned Shasha-Biton into a conspiracy theorist. But even she tried to extract some evidence that the minister was a coronavirus denier. She did so first by quoting other cabinet members, and later by pressing her to encourage children to get vaccinated – as if the education minister were someone like Noa Kirel or Jonathan Mergui, pop stars to whom teens would pay attention (assuming they even know her name).

Shasha-Biton isn’t a coronavirus denier, nor does she oppose vaccination. She urged parents to vaccinate their children before the school year opens and even said the vaccine is effective. But she opposes vaccinating students in schools – a reasonable position to take. The purpose of schools is to educate, not to provide medical services.

Indeed, in a democratic state, this should have been a leading demand – not to exploit any captive audience, much less a young one, to perform a medical procedure. The choice of whether to vaccinate children belongs to their parents, not the state, because children are their parents’ wards, not those of the state. Thank God, we don’t live in the Soviet Union or East Germany before the Berlin Wall came down.

Yes, Shasha-Biton used the word “crime” to describe bringing vaccines into the schools. That was too strong a word. And if she indeed called Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis “hysterical,” “abnormal” or “crazy,” that is truly inappropriate.

Yet the aggression being aimed at her, or at anyone who holds slightly less rigid views on how to battle the coronavirus, is no less awful. Portraying her as an avant-garde figure or a conspiracy theorist is bizarre to the point of being delusional.

All this shows the extent to which the conversation about the virus has become fanatical and undemocratic. It has no room, not even the tiniest bit, for other opinions – which aren’t even always different; sometimes, they’re just offered at a slightly different temperature.

Nor is this true only in the cabinet and the media. People who think of themselves as liberal and democratic are responding with unusually harsh intolerance when they discover that someone thinks a little differently than they do.

Israeli politicians, and the media as well, chronically “excel” at bowing before the professionals. That’s what has happened and still happens when the army imposes its views on the conversation about defense. That’s what has happened and still happens on economic issues, where the Finance Ministry’s budget division has imposed its ideology for years. And that’s what’s happening now on the coronavirus crisis.

The government, the coronavirus cabinet and any forum that makes decisions not only should, but must, hear several different opinions and hold a lively debate among the sides. That’s how things work in a democracy. Let me introduce you to it.

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