Israel and the Vaccine

Some call it a COVID success story. Others aren't so sure.

If you’ve been following the news about the COVID-19 vaccination rollout, you probably already know that the world’s biggest success story to date is the nation of Israel. Israel has become a world leader in vaccinating against the virus, with more than half of the nation’s population having gotten at least one vaccination dose.

Last week, Israeli leaders celebrated the country’s 5 millionth coronavirus vaccination, out of a population of 9.3 million. Health Minister Yuli Edelstein called this success a “vaccination miracle.”

Israel is reopening

Israel had entered its third lockdown in late December due to skyrocketing infection rates and nearly 6,000 deaths. However, the vaccination campaign has now allowed the country to reopen its shopping malls, tourist attractions, synagogues, hotels, concert venues and more. Israeli health officials say the widespread vaccination is definitely the reason for the declining case numbers, because earlier lockdowns did not result in such a rapid decline in illnesses:

On Saturday, the health ministry said studies revealed the risk of illness from the virus has dropped 95.8% among people who have had both doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

It also found that the vaccine was 98% effective in preventing fever or breathing problems.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is facing re-election this spring, has promised to vaccinate Israel’s entire adult population by the end of April. He named the vaccine rollout “Operation Back to Life” and intends for Israel to become the first country in the world to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic. As of now, around 80 percent of Israeli adults have been vaccinated.

As a result, the country has captured the attention of the rest of the world, who are watching Israel as a test case for returning to normal life.

But Israel’s vaccine passport program is not at all normal.

Open…but not for everyone

On February 21, the government introduced an app designed to help its society return from lockdown. Those who have been vaccinated can use the app to show a “green pass” that displays that they are not a danger to others. The health ministry issues this passport one week after a citizen has gotten their second dose of the vaccine. The green pass is then valid for six months.

People who can show their green pass are allowed to visit gyms, dine indoors and more. One NPR journalist described seeing a 50-year-old be allowed to enter his gym for the first time in months, while a younger man got turned away because he didn’t have the passport. Officials have been promoting the app in a television campaign and hope it will encourage vaccination among Israelis who are hesitant to receive it:

“People who get vaccinated need to know that something has changed for them, that they can ease up,” says Nadav Eyal, a prominent television journalist. “People want to know that they can have some normalcy back.”

Others are pushing back against that idea.

Eroding public trust

Nita Farahany, a leading technology and bioscience expert and a law professor at Duke University, warns that vaccine passports can widen social inequalities, especially among minority populations who don’t trust health institutions:

“The people who are willing to take the vaccine and who have higher levels of trust or who had earlier access because of wealth, or networks, are the ones who would have first crack at jobs as businesses reopen. They would get first crack at schools and slots in each of these different activities, tickets to events. You end up with a much longer-term impact of entrenchment of these inequalities that have arisen as part of the pandemic.”

She says a vaccine pass would erode public trust at a time when people already struggle to trust politicians, health experts and other authorities. Conditioning reengagement into society based on whether or not a person takes a vaccine could cause much bigger societal divisions.

Palestine vs. Israel

This may already be happening to a degree in Israel, where very few Palestinians living in the disputed Gaza and West Bank territories have access to the vaccine. A bioethicist at Edinburgh University says passports that divide people into categories—like vaccinated Jews and unvaccinated Arabs—can be very harmful:

“Vaccine passports, by splitting the population into the dos and don’ts, the wills and won’ts, is likely to lead to even greater polarization and create deeper social divisions. At a time when collective action and solidarity are more important than ever, that is the last thing we need.”

Until this week, the Palestinian Authority had only received enough doses for 6,000 people, even though 5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Many of those Palestinians work in Israel, however, and could lose their jobs if they don’t get vaccinated. At the same time United Nations officials praised Israel for vaccinating its citizens so quickly, they criticized Israel for not sharing its stockpile of vaccines with the Palestinians:

Human rights groups and many Palestinians say that as an occupying power, Israel is responsible for providing vaccines to the Palestinians. Israel says that under interim peace accords reached in the 1990s, it does not have any such obligation.

Israeli officials have said the priority is vaccinating Israel’s own population first, while the Palestinian Authority has said it will obtain its own vaccines through the World Health Organization and other sources. 

I think you can see where conflict might be brewing. Given the ongoing disputes between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs over access to sacred places like the Gaza Strip or the Temple Mount, could vaccine access and ability to move freely throughout Israel cause further divisions in the country? Would the Palestinians even trust a vaccine provided to them by Israeli health officials? Will a vaccine passport stigmatize people who don’t have access to a vaccine? What about people living in poverty, who don’t even have access to a smartphone?

All of these are important questions, and they are just now beginning to be asked.

A privacy catastrophe

Other ethicists worry that Israel’s vaccine passport is a “privacy nightmare.” One technology professor at Haifa University put it this way:

…the pass reveals information that those checking credentials don’t need to know, such as the date a user recovered from covid or got a vaccine. The app also uses an outdated encryption library that is more vulnerable to security breaches. Crucially, because the app is not open source, no third-party experts can vet whether these concerns are founded.

Is this catastrophe in the making something that may find its way to the United States? I’m not sure. The introduction of vaccination and vaccine passports have been relatively smooth in Israel because the nation has a well-developed universal healthcare system in which all residents are connected to a national, digital health network. That makes it easier to track and share medical information.

Obviously, the United States healthcare system is different. Ours is not centralized. It’s much more private and much less efficient. That means it’s not always simple for medical offices to share patient data, let alone deliver it anonymously to the government. At least, that is the case today. But will our medical system change in the future?

Complicated issues and outcomes

I get asked pretty often whether I think the vaccine is the “Mark of the Beast.” My answer: No. But I do think the worldwide vaccination campaign does reveal exactly the kinds of decision-making that will be associated with the Mark of the Beast. That evil scenario may develop from a future set of circumstances very much like these!

We will see the Mark of the Beast divide people.

We will see it destroy our privacy.

We will see it worsen inequalities.

We will see a centralized system track data.

We will see the destruction of privacy.

We will see people unable to travel freely, spend money freely or worship freely.

I believe the choice to get the COVID-19 vaccine is a personal one. It should not be mandated by an employer or a government. But as it is becoming clear in Israel, many people may find their personal freedom to make that choice in dangerous decline. Vaccine availability and vaccine passports are complicated issues and will lead to complicated outcomes. This is happening today.

From increasing conflict between Jews and Arabs to the ability of a centralized authority to allow or curtail freedom, the controversies happening right now in Israel will find their ultimate fulfillment in Bible prophecy about the end times. I would not be surprised at all if these outcomes become front and center as the events prophesied in Scripture begin to clarify.

If you are a student of the Bible and a frequent reader of these articles, you already understand this. Maybe you even predicted it. The end is here. Vaccine or not, I hope you are ready.