Israel’s coronavirus vaccination rate has slowed, leading the Health Ministry to open up the nationwide inoculation operation to all ages over 16, even though a significant number of the at-risk 60-plus population has yet to receive a jab. One of the main reasons for the vaccination slowdown is a fearmongering campaign mounted by vaccination opponents, mostly targeting the ultra-Orthodox, Arab and Bedouin minorities.
Israel has led the world in vaccinating its residents by virtue of exclusive agreements with the pharmaceutical and biotechnology pioneers Pfizer and Moderna. Reportedly, the contracts promised as many doses as Israel needs in the fastest possible time — in return for real time data about their effects on the inoculated population. As of Feb. 7, more than 3.3 million Israelis — 37% of the population — had received the first dose and over 2 million the second shot, making them almost completely immune to the virus, at least in its original version. In addition, almost 700,000 Israelis are known to have contracted the virus, meaning they have developed a natural immunity to it.
At its peak some 10 days ago, according to Health Ministry data, the vaccination rate exceeded 200,000 a week; last week it slowed to an average of 130,000. The slowest rate has been recorded among the Arab minority, which comprises 21% of Israel's population, with the lowest number of vaccinated being the members of the Bedouin community. Among the 30 towns and villages with the least vaccinated residents, 23 are Bedouin, two Arab and five Jewish ultra-Orthodox.
Access is the main reason for the low rate of inoculation among the Bedouins, many of whose villages do not have medical clinics and/or sufficient infrastructure of roads, power and water to enable vaccination programs. The low vaccination rate is also being driven by the high degree of fake news about the inoculations that is deterring many in Arab society.
Abdallah Azazme who lives in a small Bedouin community in the Negev Desert told Al-Monitor that many rumors about the vaccines are spread in the name of local sheiks and leaders, though in many cases the sheikhs and community leaders have nothing to do with these false allegations. Among the more absurd stories making the rounds about the vaccines’ effects is damage to male fertility, sexual prowess and miscarriages. Some versions of these rumors even contend that the authorities are deliberately vaccinating the Bedouins in order to reduce their high birth rate.
Ayman Seif, who coordinates the response to the pandemic in the Arab community, told Al-Monitor that only 20% of the Arab population have been vaccinated compared to over 40% of the Jews, confirming that the problem was most egregious among the Bedouins. Seif said that access to vaccinations has been greatly improved over the past month, with 50 clinics now operating and 30 vaccination trucks on the roads in the Negev. Local authorities and HMOs have also embarked on a more proactive approach, calling Bedouins and urging them to present themselves for a shot, rather than waiting for them to make appointments.
Seif explained that the fake news about the vaccines is more effective among the less educated, with social media and TV stations from the Arab world serving as platforms to spread the frightening, false news.
The solution, he noted, is spreading verified information. “We are filming and posting clips in which clerics, doctors and experts call on people to get vaccinated, explain the importance of the vaccines and refute harmful rumors. We have retained the services of advertisement and public relations agencies that cater to Bedouin society, and they are active on platforms such as newspapers, social media and giant billboards,” Seif added.
The Weizmann Institute’s educational arm, the Davidson Institute, has also launched a campaign of clips featuring Arab scientists who explain the coronavirus and its effects, and the threat to the health of those refusing the vaccine. The campaign includes Arabic-language articles aimed at disproving claims of infertility caused by the vaccines.
According to Seif, the campaign is making inroads. He hopes that in a matter of weeks, Israel’s Arab population will achieve the 90% inoculation rate target set by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for Israelis over 50.
The vaccination drive is encountering similar reluctance among the 12% ultra-Orthodox Jewish minority, which is less exposed to scientific and medical information and under the influence of its rabbis. One of the biggest vaccination opponents is Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak, who has even created “Virus TV,” a YouTube channel devoted to denying the coronavirus pandemic and the need for vaccines.
According to Yitzhak, the many lockdowns over the past year and shuttering of the school system were designed to prevent Torah study and to “pervert the souls of the sagacious students.” One clip equates “vaccination” with the rhyme “assassination.”
Yitzhak, a popular proselytizer, accuses the media and the government of seeking to use the vaccine to control the population and undermine religious belief. He quotes "studies" revealing the danger of the vaccines. Yitzhak also rejects the government’s explanation that it sent soldiers to help out in ultra-Orthodox communities hard hit by the virus, claiming the government’s real aim was to impose a dictatorship over the religious.
Menny Hadad, tasked with the Health Ministry’s information campaign targeting the ultra-Orthodox population, told Al-Monitor that in addition to regular messaging through the strictly controlled ultra-Orthodox press — rather than websites and social media boycotted by most ultra-Orthodox — the focus of the campaign is also on billboards. The main purveyors of the pro-vaccination message are influential rabbis.
Senior Health Ministry professionals, among them General Director Hezi Levy and major hospital directors, have also been mobilized. The first spiritual leader recruited for the campaign was the highly influential Rabbi Haim Kanievsky, 92, featured in an early December video clip urging believers to overcome their concerns and get the safe vaccine. The rabbi also served as a channel for advice on the vaccines’ effect on pregnancy and other conditions, with medical experts meeting him and providing answers to such questions, which Kanievsky then passed on to his concerned flock.
Rabbi Shalom Cohen, a leading figure in the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox community even went as far as saying that inoculations are a mitzvah and that God wants people to get them.
According to Hadad, the realization among the ultra-Orthodox that the vaccination drive would hasten the reopening of yeshivas has been highly effective in creating a recent vaccination surge.
Nonetheless, the influence of anti-vaccination rabbis and sheiks is slowing down the inoculation drive among easily manipulated people, although not completely blocking it.