Successful vaccination drives have happened many times in Israel Teddy Brauner/GPO

The History Behind Israel’s Vaccination Success Story

Israel’s health care system is the envy of the world amid the Corona crisis. And it’s not the first time.


Israel’s success in vaccinating millions against the Coronavirus within a few weeks has stirred interest and praise around the globe. Several factors have contributed to this success, such as acquiring the vaccines early on and the nation’s highly-developed computerized health care system.

In the end, however, it is the network of community “sick funds” that provide health care in every town, village and neighborhood across the country that is making the difference. Here’s the story.


Health care, a “mutual responsibility”

Israel’s health providers (Kupot Cholim, or “sick funds” in Hebrew) originated out of a need to provide medical assistance for the Second Immigration (Ha’Aliyah Ha’sheniya) between 1904 and 1914. During this ten-year stretch, 35–40,000 Jews immigrated to Israel, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. The majority came from the Russian Empire, in particular from the Pale of Eastern Europe. Mountain Jews, or Jews who have inhabited the Caucasus since the fifth century BC (it is believed they were descendants of ancient Persian Jews exiled in the 8th century BC) returned to Israel at this time, as well as Jews from Yemen, Iran and South America.

The Eastern European Jewish immigrants who came were heavily influenced by the socialist ideals of their native lands. These were the pioneers who established the first kibbutz at Degania in 1909 on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. They also laid down the foundations of the future independent Jewish nation-state, including establishing Hebrew as the national language and organizing early military defense forces, political parties and workers’ unions.

Many of the families who arrived in the Land at the time came from lower social classes, and though breakthroughs in medical treatments were widely available, they were too poor to afford medial care.

One day in 1911, Baruch Freber, who worked in the orchards of Ein Ganim, an agricultural settlement in the heart of Petah Tikvah, got his hand stuck in a water pump. After being rushed to the hospital, doctors had to amputate. The long distance required to get Freber to a hospital, and the exorbitant costs of the medical treatment, helped to expedite discussions at a meeting of the Conference of Agricultural Workers Union of Judea, which was held at Ein Ganim during Shavuot, 1911.

At the following Conference during Hanukah 1911, the decision was made to create a “pool” for the medical needs of agricultural union workers, who would make regular payments into the “sick fund.” As part of their understanding of “mutual responsibility” within the Yeshuv (Zionist settlements), the arrangement called for family members of union workers to be included in the health care fund, as well as workers who were temporarily laid off, a common problem for seasonal agriculture laborers.

Following in their footsteps, the Union of Shomron Workers, the Union of Galilee Workers, and later civil and political bodies organized their own “sick funds” and clinics across the Yeshuv.

As it turned out, building health care in cooperation with numerous Zionist political movements before the establishment of the Jewish nation-state was a brilliant move. Alongside the health care clinics, they also organized an education system and social and financial assistance programs which contributed substantially to the building of the nation soon to be birthed.

By the time the State of Israel was established in 1948, the entire population had access to a relatively modernized public health system prepared to cope with the masses of new immigrants flooding in from countries around the world, including the local Arab residents who were not included in the original Hebrew workers’ unions.


National vaccination programs

One of the first and most important public health care accomplishments of the young nation was the widespread vaccination of the Arab and Jewish populations against the spread of epidemics like diphtheria, typhoid and tuberculosis.

In 1955, Dr. Jonas Salk, a Jewish scientist who lived in the US, developed a vaccine against polio. When he was advised to register a patent for the vaccine, Salk refused, comparing it to registering a patent for the sun. Nevertheless, nations outside the US found it difficult to acquire the vaccine. Professor Nathan Goldberg, a bacteriologist that served in the IDF’s Medical Corp in Israel, was sent to Yale University in the US, and St. Petersburg University, and upon returning succeeded in developing the vaccine in Israel.

Even before the Jewish Nation was a decade old, Israel became the third country in the world after Denmark and the US to vaccinate its entire population against polio, a viral infection that left children and adults around the world partially paralyzed through the 1950’s and until this day.

Here is a lesson we can learn from Israel. When politics, politicians, unions and private citizens work together for a common cause (like Zionism) they can accomplish incredible feats and overcome mortal dangers against all odds on a national scale. When there is no common ‘higher goal’ towards which the people are working together, and no sense of “mutual responsibility” one for the other, problems are compounded, and dangers increase. Or as the Bible puts it, “Without a vision the people perish” (Prov. 29:18).


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