Israeli group sparks debate with plans to vaccinate world’s Holocaust survivors

Jerusalem-backed Shalom Corps says it will rush doses to 130,000 in Diaspora, but some ask whether plan is feasible, moral, or politically expedient

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Seniors are vaccinated against COVID-19 at a New York State vaccination site in the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, January 13, 2021, in New York. (AP/Mary Altaffer)
Seniors are vaccinated against COVID-19 at a New York State vaccination site in the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, January 13, 2021, in New York. (AP/Mary Altaffer)

A Jewish group backed by the Israeli government is launching an initiative seeking to provide Holocaust survivors around the world with COVID-19 vaccines, but some are asking whether the plan is practical or even ethical.

While most of Israel’s elderly population is receiving vaccines, in many other countries people are gearing up for long waits, and the Shalom Corps humanitarian nonprofit is working on a plan to source vaccines for over 100,000 Diaspora-based survivors and administer them.

But the plan has raised questions about feasibility along with stickier issues related to interfering in other countries’ internal affairs.

Shalom Corps was set up a few months ago by Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry and the Jewish Agency. While Diaspora Affairs Minister Omer Yankelevich has waxed lyrical about the plan, the Jewish Agency only learned about it through the media, and has not echoed her enthusiasm.

“It’s quite an undertaking,” a Jewish Agency spokeswoman told The Times of Israel on Wednesday. “We weren’t aware of it and haven’t had a chance to properly look into whether it’s feasible.”

Haaretz cited an anonymous source familiar with the Jewish Agency’s reaction saying that officials in the organization were “shocked” and “outraged” when they saw a story on the idea, which they called “abhorrent.”

Moshe Halbertal, a leading Israeli philosopher, told The Times of Israel that he thinks the particular ordeal of survivors justifies preferential treatment that he would reject in normal circumstances. “I support it because of this particular trauma,” he said.

An Israeli man receives a coronavirus vaccine at a Clalit vaccination center in Jerusalem on January 4, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

But the source who spoke to Haaretz regarding discussions in the Jewish Agency said it would be “unfeasible, illegal, immoral, diplomatically disastrous and an absolute impossibility” to interfere with the way individual countries distribute vaccines by creating special provision for Jewish Holocaust survivors.

Strict regulations, which vary from country to country, govern medical procedures, and while experts say some do permit private vaccination for select individuals, the plan could run into legal issues in other jurisdictions.

As of 2019, there were thought to be some 400,000 remaining Holocaust survivors worldwide, about half of whom live in Israel. According to Shalom Corps spokesman Steve Rabinowitz, there are some 130,000 survivors in the Diaspora who would be eligible for the shots once the program gets underway in a few months.

The largest community is in the United States, where the vaccine rollout has been slower than expected, stymied by logistical issues. Other countries with large populations of survivors, including France, the UK, Russia, Ukraine and Canada, have also been slower at vaccinating the population than Israel, though there are hopes distribution will ramp up in the coming months with most survivors presumably near the front of the line due to their age.

Announcing the project this week, Yankelevich exuded confidence. “Now is the time for all of us, Jewish institutions and leaders from across the world, to come together around this operation,” she said. “Together, we can ensure that Holocaust survivors are efficiently vaccinated, wherever they live.”

Blue and White MK Omer Yankelevich attends a Knesset committee meeting on August 5, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

She said it is a collective obligation “to safeguard this treasured yet vulnerable population in the spirit of mutual responsibility.”

Rabinowitz told The Times of Israel that the vaccines would not come from Israel’s supply.

“They will be purchased on the open market, and used to fill gaps in various counties where Holocaust survivors are not expected to receive vaccinations in near future.”

Most of the cost will be covered by private charitable foundations and philanthropists, according to Rabinowitz, and they will be administered by local healthcare providers, private medics or Shalom Corps volunteers. He did not say what the budget for the program was.

Approved COVID-19 shots are not currently being sold privately, but one firm, AstraZeneca, has indicated it may offer its vaccines for sale in the Indian subcontinent.

Rabinowitz said that Shalom Corps will work, as far as possible, in partnership with authorities in the countries where survivors live. “We would love for governments and health ministries to administer these vaccines,” said Rabinowitz. “But where that is not possible, practical or expedient, we will have to take other measures, whether contracting third parties or doing it ourselves.”

Professor Moshe Halbertal (photo credit: CC-BY-Tzahy Lerner, Wikimedia Commons)

Halbertal, co-author of the Israeli Army Code of Ethics and a professor at New York University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the moral questions surrounding the planned move were complex.

He said that on the one hand, going into a country and giving priority vaccines to particular people seems “morally wrong.” He also noted that such action by a group backed by the Israeli government could end up being “politically unwise.”

But Halbertal added that Holocaust survivors have become a symbol, and an attempt to treat them with special kindness in their old age is justifiable given their suffering.

The plan is a “gesture of symbolic human resonance” that “transcends moral calculus,” he said.

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