Although we have no idea what 2021 will hold in store for us, just as we greeted 2020 with great anticipation, most of the world is glad to welcome 2021 and say goodbye to 2020, a year filled with so much stress and so many agonizing, disturbing events.
At a time when the racial divide in America has grown with civil unrest afflicting many of our cities across the country, increasing polarization with businesses forced to close and many people losing their jobs and livelihoods, and an unprecedented worldwide pandemic adversely affecting every aspect of our life and taking the lives of many, it is across the ocean where we find some surprisingly positive news. That’s right. Who would have ever thought that we would look for good news by turning to the Middle East?
Not only has Israel established relations with Arab and Muslim countries—the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco and Bhutan, but on the pandemic front there is especially promising news. As of Jan. 1, more than 11 percent of the population has been vaccinated—almost three times more than the nation in second place, Bahrain, which has 3.5 percent. The United Kingdom is next, which started giving shots two weeks before Israel and has reached about 1.5 percent. (The United States hasn’t even reached 1 percent).
Why is Israel leading the world in the percentage of its population to be vaccinated? It can be attributed to a number of factors.
Companies were apparently happy to rush supplies to the small country, where administration of the doses by a highly professional health service could quickly transform life and create an international poster child for vaccination.
But there must be more to the story to explain the success, for Israel is not the only small country in the world.
Unlike the United States, where health care is privatized and payment is made through a complicated web of employer-provided insurance companies, Israeli health care is nationalized, public, practically free and not as complex as our system. Whereas Britain, which also has a national health system, is served directly by its National Health Service, Israel has four health maintenance organizations (HMOs), motivating them to compete for patients by performing well.
Anat Engel, director-general of Wolfson Medical Center in Holon said, “It’s the responsiveness of [the] public and strong success in logistics. We learn quickly, and we act quickly. We’re alert and always on edge, which means we’re ready for things like this. It’s clear to everyone this is [a] game-changer, so people are getting ready to vaccinate quickly.”
She is, of course, alluding to the fact that Israel is a nation that in its short 73-year history has had to learn by necessity how to mobilize quickly and efficiently to respond to external threats.
The campaign to vaccinate the population is benefitting from the sophistication and widespread comfort and familiarity of its citizens with technology. In England, cards were mailed to people giving appointments, which led to wasted slots if people didn’t get the message or couldn’t make their scheduled time. In Israel, the HMOs sent text messages and emails; people then went online to choose the time and location of where they would get their shot.
But to truly understand the secret sauce to Israel’s response, we have to go even deeper.
Three basic Jewish values—values embedded in the rabbinic mindset that guides us to this day—emanating from the Talmud help explain the response of the Jewish state.
Ever since the rabbinic era, Jews have understood the importance of seeking good medical care and of trusting in science. There is a passage in the Talmud that tells of a time when people refrained from going to doctors and instead sought remedies from a mystical book from the time of King Hezekiah. Concerned that people would turn to it or oracles instead of established medical practice and practitioners, the rabbis banned consulting or relying on the book.
The most famous Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, was himself a physician. He proclaimed that if science contradicted the Torah, since they both are true—as they both come from God—it must be because our understanding of Torah is incorrect and must therefore be amended to conform with scientific knowledge.
Not only is respect for science, health and good medical care a time-honored Jewish value, so, too, is the thrust to preserve life. The concept of pikuah nefesh, “saving a life” is so strong that the rabbis mandated pikuah nefesh doheh et haShabbat—“the saving of a life overrides the restrictions of Shabbat,” and for that matter, all other halachic limitations as well. Uv’cahrta b’chayim—“therefore choose life” is not just a nice phrase in the Bible, but a mandate as to how to prioritize values. Life and the preserving of life takes precedence over all else.
And finally, the third value that helps explain Israel’s receptivity and quick response to the COVID-19 crisis is the Jewish sense of community. Judaism, and as a result, Israel, place more of an emphasis on community, shared responsibility and the need to care for each other than the predominant ideal of individualism, which is the guiding foundation of American thought. Israelis are used to making sacrifices for the good of society and have a sense of being an extended family. As the Talmud dictates, Kol Yisrael areivin zeh b’zeh: “All of Israel is responsible for each other.”
Yossi Klein Halevi wrote an article, otherwise critical of the political process and system in Israel—specifically the lunacy of going to its fourth election in two years—that shed light on the process and surprisingly orderly way in which the immunization efforts have been rolled out.
“Yesterday, I received my COVID-19 vaccination, along with other over-60s in Jerusalem. The experience was stunning in its normalcy. … Now Israel is on its way to becoming the first fully vaccinated country, the first to defeat COVID-19. If all goes well, we may be an immune society by Seder night. Once again we have proven that, when we focus on a mission of national importance, seemingly nothing can stop us.”
These three core Jewish values—belief and trust in science and medical care, the primacy of the command to preserve life and a strong sense of community—contribute to Israel’s success with the vaccination program. They are values that should guide us and which the rest of the world can learn from as well.
In many respects, it is the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Isaiah, as well as the founding leaders of the Zionist enterprise who taught that the Jewish people and nation should be an or lagoyim, “a light unto the nations.”
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt is the founding rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md. He has served as the head of the Jewish National Fund’s Rabbis for Israel and is the founder of the Coalition of Zionist Rabbis for Israel.