Alon Goshen-Gottstein
Alon Goshen-Gottstein
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The moral challenge of the third vaccine shot

The World Health Organization's call for a freeze on booster shots until poor countries can get their first doses deserves serious consideration in Israel
Image source: Daniel Schludi (Unsplash)
Image source: Daniel Schludi (Unsplash)

The Coronavirus pandemic could not be some random meaningless event. This is more or less axiomatic from a religious perspective. Having interviewed dozens of world religious leaders and having published a book that summarizes religious responses, across the diversity of world religions, I can say with certainty that it is taken for granted that an event of this magnitude has meaning, and the meaning is significant in religious terms.

But what is its meaning? How do we consider its significance, from the vantage point of 18 months into the pandemic, and, alas, going strong? Here is one possible answer. It has been stated by others, in my interviews and elsewhere. The present sharing explores its meaning for us, in Israel, at this particular point in time, as we battle the virus.

COVID-19 has shown how we are interconnected, inseparably so. As we often hear, no one will be safe till all are safe. The spread of the virus has demonstrated how we are one, beyond any distinction of nationality, race, or religion. This basic fact goes to the heart of spiritual teachings of all religions, that in their respective ways affirm our unity. If we could emerge from the pandemic with deeper appreciation for this fact and with a global consciousness that prioritizes this unity and translates it to our international institutions, then the pandemic will have served a very important, and much-needed, positive purpose. 

The awareness translates to a very basic approach to the other – solidarity. The pandemic is a lesson in solidarity and this solidarity is required on all levels -within each community, within each nation and across the differences of nation-states. Philosophical affirmation of unity and interconnectedness leads to a response of solidarity. 

If this recognition emerged from the spread of the virus, it is becoming increasingly apparent as we confront the challenges of vaccine distribution. At the heart of Israel’s present struggle to overcome the fourth wave of the Delta variant is the challenge of solidarity. We are facing the social challenge of about a million individuals who have not been vaccinated and we are told that they are thereby endangering the nation as a whole. The required moral response relies on solidarity.

But we cannot consider the question of internal solidarity without also considering the challenge of outward-facing solidarity. Israel is in a unique situation on the international front. For several months it served as a model for how to “beat” the Coronavirus. Esteem for Israel rose thanks to its early success. In line with its own self-understanding, Israel was thought of as a leader. But being a leader comes with its challenges and these challenges point back to the foundations of a Jewish vision of responsibility and universality. Recalling the deep-seated sense of being a “light to the nations” and having a mission for the world, such that justifies our particularity, the pandemic now forces us to think of how to live the tension of our particularity/isolation in relation to global responsibility/solidarity. 

The question has come to light following the World Health Organization (WHO) issuing a demand of nations to cease from administering the third vaccine / booster shot until other nations have had the opportunity to receive the first. This is a serious moral challenge. On the one hand, it is natural for Israel to seek to protect its people. On the other hand, how can we criticize internal lack of solidarity when we show blindness to the moral implications of being so far advanced in administering vaccines, compared to other nations? It is not only that “solidarity” explodes in our face if we are unable to show solidarity to others. The challenge goes to the heart of being Israel, its particularity and mission. What is the spiritual and moral responsibility of a nation that has been blessed to be number one, in this respect, towards the rest of the world? If we fail to address this challenge, the praise and esteem we earned several months ago could turn against us, unleashing another “virus” we are suffering from, that of antisemitism.

I don’t think there are easy answers. Israel has a responsibility to its citizens. I am not suggesting we do not administer the third shot, nor am I calling on anyone to not take it (I am scheduled to receive mine in a few days). But at the very least we must ask ourselves some of the hard questions that are right for us, as Jews and as a state, at this point in time, as the pandemic continues to challenge us. The pandemic is a reminder, and Israel, global leader in vaccine administration, must also be challenged to ask the hard questions and to reflect on the moral challenges of the moment. It must do so not only because of world pressure or the recent call of the WHO. It must do so because keeping this question alive is fundamental to Israel’s mission and its very being. The question must be asked and it must be kept at the forefront of our thinking. Only thus will new ideas and insights emerge.

About the Author
Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading figures in interreligious dialogue, specializing in bridging the theological and academic dimension with a variety of practical initiatives, especially involving world religious leadership.
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