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January 4, 2021 4:14 pm

Why Israel Is Winning the Covid-19 Vaccination Race

avatar by Ira Stoll


Israeli Prime Minister Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, Israel December 19, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Amir Cohen/Pool.

Why is Israel, of all countries, so far ahead of the rest in terms of getting its population vaccinated against Covid-19?

As I write, the University of Oxford’s “Our World in Data” chart shows Israel with a pace-setting 14 doses administered for each 100 people, against the United States and the United Kingdom with less than 1.5 doses administered for each 100.

Explanations — sometimes conflicting ones — are proliferating.

A New York Times news article attributed the success partly to Israel’s “centralized government.”

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The executive editor of the Washington Examiner Magazine, Seth Mandel, attributes it to a kind of decentralization: “Israel’s culture of teaching individuals to make decisions.” Mandel cited Columbia professor Yaniv Erlich’s example of Israeli nurses roping in a pizza delivery guy at the end of the day and offering him a vaccine. By doing so, they avoided wasting doses that otherwise would have expired.

My own instinct is for decentralization over centralization. Perhaps Israel’s genius is a centralized policy of decentralization, like Toyota’s rule giving any worker the authority to stop the car production line for a quality issue. The tension between the two tendencies, though, is a reminder that stories about success should be met skeptically.

That caution notwithstanding, it’s hard to resist the temptation to speculate. Maybe the rest of the world can learn from Israel’s winning experience so far.

One factor is that the Jewish religion that shapes Israel’s values places a high value on saving lives. I once visited an Israeli tank base and was told that Israel’s Merkava tank was optimized not for speed or firepower, but to protect the soldiers inside. ”A tank that prioritized crew protection above all else,” is the way an article in the National Interest about the tank puts it. Even other Jewish religious rules, such as resting on the Sabbath, are trumped by the value of life-saving — Israel has been administering the vaccine even on Saturdays, when government offices and workplaces usually shut down.

Another factor is that Israel is a democracy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while long-serving, is in what seems like a perpetual battle for political survival. Netanyahu himself reportedly had two phone calls with the Greek-Jewish CEO of Pfizer to negotiate vaccine supply. Netanyahu also personally announced an agreement for additional vaccine supply from Moderna, whose chief medical officer, Tal Zaks, is a former Israel Defense Forces medic. Netanyahu wants re-election and credit for Israel’s voters for doing a good job with the vaccine. Politics and public health incentives are aligned.

The Israeli health minister, Yuli Edelstein, is from Netanyahu’s governing Likud Party. Edelstein grew up in the Soviet Union, which sent him to the gulag on phony charges after he applied to migrate to Israel. For someone who has defeated the KGB and the Soviet communist superpower, tackling the coronavirus may sem less daunting.

Relatedly, Israelis are not shy about putting their own country first. They are generous in aiding other countries in need, from Africa to Haiti. But when one’s own small country has served as a refuge for Jews fleeing brutal persecution and hardship in places such as Europe, Iraq, Ethiopia, and Yemen, one accumulates a certain hard-earned contempt for the perils of waiting for help from the United Nations or the World Health Organization. Israelis realize that their lives depend on their own hustle. That is what Zionism, the idea of a Jewish state, is all about: Jewish self-reliance and national responsibility for Jewish security.

It’s worth mentioning, too, that the Israeli national identity includes Israeli Arabs and Druze. Many Israeli doctors are Arab — to the point where campaigns are underway to get smart Arab high school students to think about going into the high-tech start-up sector instead of following the well-worn path to medical school. Writing for Bloomberg, Israeli author Daniel Gordis reported on an Arab physician who remarked “Usually, when Israel goes to war, we’re not in the army, we can’t help. But this time, Israel went to war again, and we Arabs got to be soldiers, too.”

The world today has two major Jewish population centers, the U.S. and Israel. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines both come from U.S.-based companies. But American Jews, myself included, are watching with a mixture of pride and envy as Israeli cousins are getting vaccinated ahead of American relatives. Can America, or any other country, duplicate Israeli hustle, democracy, and unapologetic nationalism, and harness it to the cause of public health? Or is that hope as futile as wishing that France were more American? Seeing Israelis farther along toward vaccination than any other country will certainly motivate admiration, but imitation may be more challenging.

Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. His media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

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