A Tel Aviv court dismissed Sunday a defamation suit against a senior Health Ministry official who called a group of doctors “COVID deniers.”
Dr. Sharon Alroy Preis, head of public health services at the Health Ministry, was being sued for NIS 150,000 ($47,000) by four senior doctors who have been publicly opposed to certain measures taken by the ministry to curb the coronavirus pandemic.
“The head of public health services called me a ‘coronavirus denier, antivaxxer’ for no reason and without any basis,” Dr. Amir Shachar, one of the plaintiffs, told Kan public radio.
“I disagree with government policy, but I do not deny the coronavirus nor do I oppose vaccines,” he said.
The four doctors took part in a documentary titled “And What If the Whole World Is Wrong.” Released at the beginning of the year, the film criticized the previous government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, for its handling of the third wave of infections, and in particular for ordering the country into lockdown.
Alroy-Preis responded to the video at the time by saying those who participated in it are “coronavirus deniers and antivaxxers” who were trying to disrupt public faith in the health system. Her remarks prompted the doctors to sue her.
שרון אלרועי פרייס עוזבת את בית משפט השלום בתל אביב בליווי מאבטחים pic.twitter.com/y6FK70z8Di
— Tomer Appelbaum (@tomerappelbaum) October 31, 2021
The Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court judges recommended the four doctors not pursue the case further, writing that “the court has no choice but to express hope that the discourse between the professionals in charge of the fight against the coronavirus will be professional, matter-of-fact, and respectful.”
Shachar said he and the other three doctors accepted the court’s recommendation and withdrew the suit.
Alroy-Preis, who was accompanied to Sunday’s session by a state-funded bodyguard because of threats against her, told the court it was outrageous that the doctors were seeking a legal avenue to determine public health policy.
After the case was dismissed, she called it “an appropriate conclusion to an unfortunate case that should never have been brought.”
The Health Ministry praised the court’s handling of the case. “Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis will continue to act with determination and with a public mission to maintain public health, to conduct pragmatic and professional dialogue in the appropriate forums, to promote information aimed at increasing public trust, without being deterred by defamation and threats,” the ministry said.
Alroy-Preis arrived at Sunday’s hearing closely escorted by a security guard. Armed police officers were also deployed in the street when her car arrived, protecting her as she left the vehicle and entered the courthouse, after deaths threats were made against her, blamed on anti-vaccine activists.
Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash said that the hounding of the head of public health at the ministry “should be condemned and action must taken against it.” He told Radio 103FM that he hoped police would catch the culprits.
Ash said he had spoken to Alroy-Preis the night before, and that though she is having a “hard time,” she has no intention of giving up her position.
Ash revealed he was also getting threats but that they are “much less” substantial than those leveled at Alroy-Preis. “I don’t feel that I’m in danger,” he said.
Ash said those behind the threats are members of a group that opposes vaccination, especially the vaccination of children. Their menacing approach, he said, was “irrational,” because they surely couldn’t believe that forcing a health official to change their position would stop the country’s vaccination drive.
Israel, which already offers a three-dose vaccination regimen for ages 12 and over, is poised to begin inoculating children aged 5-11 following last week’s approval by the US Food and Drug Administration of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for that age group.
The Israel Police and Health Ministry confirmed Saturday that Alroy-Preis had been given a full-time security detail due to the threats against her.
Other health experts are afraid of giving media interviews regarding COVID-19 vaccines due to the concrete threats posed by antivaxxer activists, Prof. Gili Regev-Yochay, the director of Sheba Medical Center’s Infectious Disease Epidemiology Unit, told the Ynet news site.
“It begins with incitement and ends way worse. We already had a prime minister who was murdered,” Regev-Yochay said, referring to the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing extremist.
“They call me a Nazi, a ‘child poisoner,’ these sorts of things, mainly surrounding the vaccines. It isn’t comparable to what Sharon is going through. I think it’s shocking and can’t go unanswered,” she said.
“The threats against Sharon Alroy-Preis are concerning,” Regev-Yochay added.
Alroy-Preis, one of the government’s top COVID-19 advisers, has faced threats and attacks for months. She has been a particular target of anti-vaccine activists and those who chafe against the government’s pandemic restrictions.
In August, she revealed that she had been given a panic button by authorities to alert police of any potential danger, following continued harassment and threats by antivaxxers. Protests held outside her home earlier this year included chants of “Nazi murderer” and “daughter of the devil,” while some in attendance wore yellow stars comparing COVID restrictions to the Holocaust.
Coronavirus czar Salman Zarka also slammed the threats against health officials, saying Sunday that the public’s attitude toward the outbreak was problematic.
“You can’t control a pandemic while under threat,” Zarka told Army Radio. “This is not just a health problem, but a countrywide problem.
“In a democratic country, where senior health care officials have been working for two years to save us from the danger of the coronavirus, Dr. Alroy-Preis needs to walk around with a security guard? That’s unthinkable,” Zarka fumed.