Could Israel pass a COVID vaccine mandate? Likely yes, but will it?

From a legal standpoint, the country could impose inoculation against the coronavirus, but will authorities enforce it?

 Medical staff receive their third COVID-19 vaccine shot at Meir Medical Center in Kefar Sava, August 13, 2021. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)
Medical staff receive their third COVID-19 vaccine shot at Meir Medical Center in Kefar Sava, August 13, 2021.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

Could the Israeli authorities decide to make the coronavirus vaccine mandatory, as suggested by Coronavirus Commissioner Prof. Salman Zarka on Wednesday?

Likely yes, at least from a legal point of view. But whether the government will really want to pursue that path remains to be seen – and it is likely going to be influenced by how the pandemic in the country evolves as well as by whether other countries decide to take this step.

While the Health Ministry recommends all Israeli citizens to receive several vaccines starting from when they are born, Israel currently does not have any vaccine mandate, including against diseases such as polio, measles or meningitis.

However, there are several reasons to believe that such a mandate would be compatible with the country’s legal framework, as law professor and Hebrew University Rector Barak Medina has noted.

“While it would definitely be unconstitutional to hold someone physically and force them to be inoculated, imposing a mandate and introducing fines or even harsher penalties would be legitimate,” he said.

 Ben-Gurion Airport in wake of the new travel imposed in light of the COVID Omicron variant, November 28, 2021.  (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV) Ben-Gurion Airport in wake of the new travel imposed in light of the COVID Omicron variant, November 28, 2021. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)

There is a legal precedent for vaccine mandates in Israel.

In 2009, the Social Security Law was reformed so that only parents who had their children inoculated according to the directions of the Health Ministry would receive child allowances – at the time around NIS 100 a month per child.

The decision was brought before the High Court of Justice by the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, which claimed that the law represented a violation of constitutional rights. The court upheld the reform, however, stating that the constitutional rights to dignity and autonomy were not infringed upon.

The government decided to cancel the measure despite the court’s decision.

“It was a matter of proportionality,” Medina said. “The judges said it would not be acceptable to put someone in jail over the matter, but a financial burden was legitimate.”

Regarding the situation today, the scholar pointed out that since the pandemic began, the High Court has rejected almost all appeals against COVID measures, including the requirement to present a Green Pass to access many venues and activities, and for some sectors, even to go to work.

“I do not think the court would strike down a vaccine mandate if the government passed one,” Medina said.

But the question is: Will it pass one?

Since Israel began its vaccination campaign, the topic has been raised several times.

In general, Israelis have responded to the call of getting inoculated very well, and if the country still has a significant number of citizens who have not gotten jabbed, it is due more to the fact that a vast segment of its population are children.

Out of a population of 9.3 million people, about 1.23 million children aged 5-11, just became eligible for a vaccine last week.

Another 636,000 Israelis are between 12 and 15. Also in their case, the vaccine was only approved in June, while for individuals over 16 it was approved in December 2020.

Currently, 680,000 people over 12 have not gotten any shot, and another 1.1 million eligible for the booster have not received it.

While government and health officials never miss an opportunity to invite Israelis to get inoculated, the campaign is proceeding relatively slowly, with some 15,000 shots administered every day on weekdays – including boosters and first doses for young children – compared to the tens of thousands of shots which were given out every day at its peak.

But the country is not in an emergency situation. New cases are a few hundred a day, serious cases around 120. At its peak, Israel had thousands of newly infected people per day and hundreds of serious cases.

In light of these trends, it is unlikely that the government would want to impose a vaccine mandate.

In his interview on 103 FM Radio, Zarka himself gave the impression that it should only be considered as a last resort.

Later on Wednesday, Head of Public Health Services Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis expressed skepticism over mandatory vaccines.

Of course, if the situation worsens, the government might consider imposing a vaccine mandate – as is happening in several European countries such as Germany and Austria, where the authorities are discussing the measure amid a spike in cases.

Vaccine hesitancy has proven to be stronger in those countries than in Israel, combined with a larger and older population there.

In Israel, 92% of people over 60 have received at least one dose, leaving only about 100,000 individuals in the age group who are neither vaccinated nor recovered. In Germany, an 86% vaccination rate for people older than 60 has so far left around four million individuals at risk of contracting the disease, many of whom are concentrated in specific areas.

Contrary to what happened with the vaccine campaign, when it comes to a vaccine mandate, Israel is unlikely to become the “laboratory” of the world.