Death threats on health officials spike as kids COVID vaccine debate nears

Violent and abusive threats against leading health officials are at an all-time high as the debate on vaccinating kids aged 5-11 nears.

SHARON ALROY-PREIS participates in a Health Ministry video urging citizens to follow coronavirus regulations. (photo credit: REUVEN KASTRO)
SHARON ALROY-PREIS participates in a Health Ministry video urging citizens to follow coronavirus regulations.
(photo credit: REUVEN KASTRO)

As Israel approaches a final decision on whether to vaccinate children aged five to 11, violent and abusive threats against health professionals are spiking.

“We have seen an increase of threats, and death threats specifically, mainly throughout the past weeks when children’s vaccinations were put forward and it seems that there will be a recommendation by the Health Ministry to vaccinate children,” said Tomer Lotan, director-general of the Public Security Ministry.

The US Food and Drug Administration decided last month to greenlight the Pfizer vaccine for the inoculation of young children, a decision that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed last week. Kids have already started getting the jab in America and children’s vaccines – smaller vials with 10 microgram doses – have been ordered from Pfizer and are expected to be delivered to Israel next week.

The Health Ministry decided to hold the final debate of its senior advisers on the matter of vaccinating kids, which is slated to take place Wednesday evening, closed to the public, mainly for fear of verbal and other backlash against committee members.

A statement by the ministry said that it had taken all considerations for and against holding a live-streamed discussion like it had during its first debate on the subject last week, but decided against it. Instead, a summary of the debate will be shared at its conclusion.

 Health worker prepares a Covid-19 vaccine at a temporary Clalit health care center in Jerusalem, September 30, 2021. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) Health worker prepares a Covid-19 vaccine at a temporary Clalit health care center in Jerusalem, September 30, 2021. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

On Sunday, Health Ministry Director-General Prof. Nachman Ash told 103FM radio station that the committee members felt they will be freer to discuss the issue seriously if the meeting is closed.

“They are afraid in light of the reactions in the previous discussion; there were very harsh reactions during the discussion,” he said.

Lotan said that while his ministry is not exposed to the details of police investigations, he was aware of “dozens of threats coming mainly on social networks and directly to cellular phones by WhatsApps and phone calls.”

He said that conspiracy theories and violent threats by anti-vaxxers are prevalent all over the world, but the line that is being crossed in Israel is that they are being directly targeted at public servants – something the country has not seen until now.

“We have seen more and more circles involved in such conspiracies, but have never seen beliefs so dramatically connected to a threat on public servants. This is the line we definitely do not want crossed and that is why we are taking it so seriously,” Lotan said.

The police are charged with determining whether or not the threats are “above the criminal threshold,” meaning that the individuals who are spewing them must be sought out and prosecuted. According to Israeli law, the majority of the threats that health officials are receiving are below this threshold and fall within the bounds of freedom of speech.

Nonetheless, he confirmed that the Police and his ministry are taking all steps to ensure the safety of health professionals, including Head of Public Health Services Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, who was assigned a bodyguard at the end of last month after a series of threats escalated to the level of concern.

Police had already been patrolling her family’s home, and the Health Ministry set up a special hotline for health workers to report threats against them.

When asked if she feared for her life, Alroy-Preis told Ynet over the weekend that “there is fear” and that “the threats are definitely significant.” She said, however, that she would not allow the fear to overwhelm her or stop her from doing her work on behalf of the public.

“The issue [of children’s vaccination] is so sensitive in Israeli discourse today that we need to be profoundly careful to make sure nothing happens,” Lotan said. “We cannot say that any measures we are taking are overkill. We would prefer to take extra measures than not do the right thing.

“It is up to the police to decide what element of security should be attached to each of those people according to the threat,” Lotan explained. “We cannot say this level or that level provides you with a security guard and this and that just patrolling. This is up to the Police to do an assessment of the threat and to recommend which steps should be taken.”

He said that the violence against health professionals comes in waves. He himself experienced threats when he served as head of the Shield of Israel program during the previous administration, but he said he never warranted a security detail.

Ash has also received threats but does not have a bodyguard.

“We need to strengthen Sharon [Alroy-Preis] personally and the really amazing people at the Health Ministry,” Lotan stressed. “We need to stand with them.”