Health Ministry fails to sway ultra-Orthodox rabbis to back vaccination drive

Director-general Levy and national coronavirus czar Ash meet with community leaders, but encounter fears that rapidly rolled out vaccines may not be safe

Screen capture from video of a meeting between health officials and lead ultra-Orthodox rabbis in the city of Bnei Brak aimed at encouraging coronavirus vaccination in the local community. (YouTube)
Screen capture from video of a meeting between health officials and lead ultra-Orthodox rabbis in the city of Bnei Brak aimed at encouraging coronavirus vaccination in the local community. (YouTube)

Top health officials held a meeting with leading rabbis in the largely ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak in an effort to convince them to publicly back the national coronavirus vaccination program, but failed to get the support they wanted, which would have countered community reluctance to get the shots.

Israel is gearing up to begin a mass vaccination program next week, but health officials are concerned about public hesitance to be immunized.

Polls have shown that 50 to 75 percent of Israelis are leery of getting the coronavirus vaccine shot, apparently out of fears that the rush to produce an inoculation may have compromised its safety.

The issue is particularly sensitive in the ultra-Orthodox community, where rabbinic leaders govern public attitudes. Adding to the problem has been the recent appearance in ultra-Orthodox areas of unsigned posters urging against taking the vaccine. An initial virus outbreak earlier this year hit the community — especially Bnei Brak — hard after top rabbis advised against adopting Health Ministry orders that were aimed at curbing the virus spread but would have disrupted ultra-Orthodox community life. Pushback against some Health Ministry directives continues in some parts of the community.

Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy in a press conference Thursday, December 3, 2020. (Screengrab: Mako)

The face-to-face meeting was attended by Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy and national coronavirus czar Nachman Ash, who faced, among others, the city’s Chief Rabbi Shevach Tzvi Rosenblatt and the head of a prominent rabbinical court, Rabbi Yehudah Silman.

Video from the Sunday gathering, broadcast by the Walla news site and the Kan public broadcaster, showed Levy and Ash sitting at a table but separated from the rabbis by clear plastic dividers as a precaution against the virus spread.

Levy explained that the coronavirus is more harmful than influenza, and that the process of recovery, even for young patients, is much longer.

The coronavirus vaccine Israel will begin using works on the same principle as that of the flu inoculation, he told them.

While the rabbis backed the overall idea of vaccination they also expressed some concerns, in particular that the trial period for available vaccines was too short to rule out long-term effects and any future problems that may arise.

“You well know that a four-month study does not rule out the possibility that there may be long-term problems,” Silman said.

He also claimed that up to 50% of doctors have said they do not intend to get the vaccine, a figure that Levy rejected as being based on initial responses by medical staff before they had seen the full data from trials.

Silman told the health officials that rabbinic leadership prefers to wait a few weeks and sit out the first round of vaccinations.

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash briefs the press, November 26, 2020 (Health Ministry)

Ash noted that while a delay of a few weeks won’t make a significant different to the vaccination program, in the meantime there are those who will become infected, and possibly die.

“You need to take that into account,” Ash warned.

Israel is taking delivery of millions of vaccines shots, beginning with the Pfizer inoculation, which has been approved for use in the US by the FDA.

The Health Ministry on Monday told health maintenance organizations that Israel’s COVID-19 vaccination drive will kick off next week, with members of the general public to begin receiving vaccinations on December 23.

The planned rollout of the vaccine comes as Israel grapples with a rising infection rate and passed the grim milestone of 3,000 coronavirus deaths on Monday.

According to the latest Health Ministry figures, there are 18,651 active virus patients in the country. Since the start of the pandemic earlier this year there have been 360,297 cases diagnosed in the country, and 3,004 people have died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

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