The COVID vaccine blood libel against Israel

The myth that the Palestinians were denied the vaccine demonstrates the persistence of anti-Semitism and ignorance about who governs Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza.

Heads of different religious communities in Israel get a COVID-19 vaccine at the Ziv Hospital in Tzfat, Dec. 24, 2020. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90.
Heads of different religious communities in Israel get a COVID-19 vaccine at the Ziv Hospital in Tzfat, Dec. 24, 2020. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The headline in The Guardian showed why so many people think Israel is the sum of all evil and deserving of international opprobrium. Nothing screams “apartheid state” like the accusation that, “Palestinians excluded from Israeli Covid Vaccine rollout as jabs go to settlers.” Indeed, this follows a traditional pattern of coverage of the Jewish state in the mainstream media in which its achievements—in this case, a rapid and efficient program of mass coronavirus vaccinations that has outstripped the efforts of the rest of the developed world—are highlighted only to be employed as proof of its perfidy. Why cheer a record-setting vaccine distribution if the only beneficiaries are Jews while millions of poor, suffering Palestinians go without?

But there was one problem with the claim. It’s a lie even if the same story has been spread in a number of outlets, including the taxpayer-funded PBS, whose respected “News Hour” program claimed last month that, “Palestinians left waiting as Israel is set to deploy COVID-19 vaccine.”

The truth is that Israel hasn’t excluded Palestinians from its program. Arab citizens of Israel are being vaccinated just like Jewish citizens. Those Arabs who live within the boundaries of Israel, including Palestinians who live in united Jerusalem but who have chosen not to become Israeli citizens, are also getting the vaccine. But contrary to those who harp on Israel’s supposedly tyrannical role as “occupier” of the West Bank and Gaza, the Jewish state doesn’t administer the daily lives of Palestinians who live there. The health-care system in the villages, towns and cities of the West Bank where Arabs live is run by the Palestinian Authority, not Israel. Those who live in Gaza are ruled by the Hamas terrorist organization, which operates the coastal enclave as an independent Palestinian state in all but name.

You had to scroll down to the 13th paragraph of the Guardian article to get a hint of that fact when it noted that the P.A. has not asked for help from Israel. Indeed, it cut off coordination on issues relating to health care and security since early last year to express its pique at the Trump administration’s peace proposal, which it rejected just as it has all such efforts for decades.

But before learning that the P.A. was pursuing its own vaccine solutions with international pharmaceutical companies, Guardian readers had to read heartrending pleas from Palestinians about being ignored by Israel, such as this from a sports coach in Nablus who complained, “Who cares about us? I don’t think anybody is stuck on that question.”

The correct answer to his question was that his own government, led by Mahmoud Abbas—who this month began the 17th year of the four-year term to which he was elected as president of the P.A. in 2005—certainly doesn’t care. The P.A. is a chronically corrupt institution that has squandered the billions it has received in foreign aid, much of which has wound up in the private foreign bank accounts of the leaders of Abbas’s Fatah Party.

Both the Guardian and PBS described the P.A. as “cash-strapped” and forced to depend on help from groups tied to the World Health Organization to get vaccines for its people. But in addition to its corruption problem, the P.A. spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year on salaries and pensions for terrorists who have committed violent crimes, including the murder of Israelis, Americans and those of other nationalities. So dedicated is it to the continuation of its “pay for slay” program that Abbas preferred to give up aid from the United States rather than end the practice after Congress passed the Taylor Force Act, which prohibits further U.S. funds from being given to the P.A. as long as it subsidizes terrorism.

Far from wanting Israel to take over their local government and health care, Palestinians say they want full independence, which would mean excluding Israeli security forces from the West Bank as well as control of their borders. Since the price of that has always been recognition of the legitimacy of a Jewish state next door—and thereby effectively ending the century-long conflict—the P.A. has never been willing to do that. But that doesn’t stop it from ruling Arab areas of the West Bank, including running education, health care and having the power to suppress and imprison those who oppose or criticize Fatah, thereby proving that the autonomy it won in the 1993 Oslo Accords is no sham.

Gaza is a “no go” zone for Israelis and an armed camp that acts as a terrorist base from which rockets are still occasionally fired over the border, even during periods when a ceasefire between the two sides is observed.

As for the settlements, the people who live in them are not governed by the P.A., and obviously, are the responsibility of Israel. Indeed, the Palestinians have made it clear that if they get the power, they will force hundreds of thousands of Jews in the West Bank and Jerusalem out of their homes.

Since vaccinations of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are not Israel’s responsibility, and both the P.A. and Hamas have rejected Israeli offers of coordination and help on the issue, why then have supposedly reputable news organizations spread this lie?

The answer is that the claim fits into the ongoing narrative about Israel and the Palestinians that much of the mainstream media has adopted for the last half-century. In doing so, those who spew such falsehoods not only serve to help demonize Israel, but also to deprive the Palestinians of any agency for their fate or the conduct of their leaders.

It’s important to understand that this is not just another example of inaccurate Mideast reporting by journalists who don’t know any better. By claiming that Israel is deliberately depriving Palestinians of a life-saving vaccine, outlets who give credence to this charge are pumping new life into old anti-Semitic canards that amount to blood libels against Jews.

Much like past allegations that Jews harvest the organs of Palestinians, poison their children or have engaged in mass slaughters in the course of attempting to suppress rocket fire and other accounts of terrorism, the vaccine is just the latest entry in a long list of untruths about Israel intended to make it seem uniquely evil. Such fabrications are a necessary corollary of arguments that call for the elimination of the only Jewish state on the planet and the only nation being targeted for such treatment.

Part of this campaign necessarily involves not just ascribing evil motives to Israelis, but in reinforcing general ignorance about the facts of the conflict. It also shows that the line between legitimate criticism of Israeli policies—and anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic smears—is one that some in the news media who ought to know better simply don’t recognize. Shifting the discussion about what is already a complex conflict from one about territory and national rights to one in which Jews are cast in the role of murderer of non-Jews that stands at the heart of classic anti-Semitic tropes remains deeply troubling. Journalists who do this are not only making peace even harder to achieve; they are also ensuring that the debate about the Middle East is transformed into one in which real crimes against Jews can be rationalized and even justified.

Those responsible for this particular libel—and all those who have shared it on social media—not only ought to apologize, but recognize that what they have done is not advocacy for Palestinians or human rights. It is a hate crime for which they ought to be held accountable.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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