Coronavirus, Middle East, New in Lobbying

Israeli diaspora initiative hires PR firm to pitch controversial Holocaust survivor vaccination project

An Israeli nonprofit group behind a controversial proposal to inoculate the remaining 320,000 Holocaust survivors across the globe with free COVID-19 vaccines has hired a former White House press aide to promote the idea in US media and help identify fundraisers to pay for it.

Shalom Corps of Israel has hired former Bill Clinton aide Steve Rabinowitz and his Washington-based Bluelight Strategies to promote the Holocaust Survivors Vaccination Operation, a joint effort between the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs and the Shalom Corps. The $30,000 month-long contract began Jan. 12.

“It’s about COVID … and Holocaust survivors, who are a cherished resource in the Jewish community,” he told Foreign Lobby Report. “Clearly the oldest members of our community — and a dwindling number at that.”

Rabinowitz has done public relations work in the Jewish and pro-Israel space for years. He said the project spoke to him on several levels.

But the project has created a backlash in Israel, with some critics calling it a wasteful and diplomatically fraught political stunt by Diaspora Minister Omer Yankelovitch, who is also a member of the Knesset for the centrist Blue and White party.

Former Knesset member and diplomat Colette Avital, the head of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, has described the idea as “total nonsense,” unimplementable, and politically motivated ahead of upcoming elections, according to the Jerusalem Post.

“Where’s the money coming from, where will they get the vaccines, where are the names of all the survivors, where are the logistics and medical teams?” she reportedly asked.

The program has also raised ethical issues. Professor Nadav Davidovitch, director of the School of Public Health at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, told The Forward that taking part of the COVID-19 vaccine supply from other countries “will not be received well from a public point of view. He also pointed out that many Holocaust survivors already fit into age and risk criteria to receive the vaccine.

“This whole [issue of] prioritizing vaccination lines is a very difficult business,” Rabinowitz said.

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Even members of the Shalom Corps itself were caught flat-footed by Yankelovitch’s gambit. Launched in 2019 to promote volunteering by Jewish youth, the nonprofit is a joint effort between the Jewish Agency and Mosaic United, a partnership between the Diaspora Affairs ministry and Jewish philanthropists. But the Jewish Agency told The Forward that it was still examining the idea when Yankelovitch announced the project on Jan. 11.

The press release said Shalom Corps plans to create vaccination centers in designated countries for survivors to receive the COVID-19 vaccine free of charge. If a recipient is unable to travel to one of these centers, medical personnel and volunteers will be sent directly to their residence to administer the vaccination directly, also for free. The vaccines used in the project are to be separate from the supply Israel purchased for its general public.

The press release acknowledges that Shalom Corps still faces these challenges, stating they are considering options to use Jewish philanthropic networks to finance the operation and looking into how to obtain permits from foreign governments to administer the vaccines. The Shalom Corps’ contract with Rabinowitz notably calls on him to help with both high-level fundraising with Jewish family foundations as well as lower-level fundraising through online appeals and direct mail, with the goal of eventually raising $10 million for Shalom Corps projects.

Rabinowitz said that a substantial supply of COVID-19 vaccines has already been identified for the project, but the Israelis are holding off making an official announcement.

“I think there’s some sensitivity in parts of the world where they’re having trouble getting the vaccine and don’t want to rub it in their noses,” he said. “We thought it may be better to wait a couple of weeks to make the announcement that more vaccines are coming not really to Israel, but to this program that is Israel-sponsored, so as to not draw the ire of anybody who wonders if Israel is getting any kind of special treatment.”