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Israel's 'Green Passport' causes controversy

Sarah Judith Hofmann
March 2, 2021

From concerts to plays, cultural events are taking place again in Israel — at least for those who have been vaccinated. Reactions to the opening are mixed.

Israel | Coronavirus | Kulturöffnungen | Khan Theater
Image: Ronen Zvulun/REUTERS

When Israeli pop star Aviv Geffen took the stage at the Zappa concert hall in northern Tel Aviv, he was visibly moved. "What is happening here tonight is a miracle," he shouted to his fans. The singer hasn't performed for a year — since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Now, 300 people stood opposite him, real people, "not via Zoom," as he says. He can hardly believe it.

Everyone who came out for the show that night had already been vaccinated. At the entrance, they had to show their so-called "green passport," a digital vaccination certificate. For just under a week now, cultural events in Israel have been allowed to take place again under certain conditions.

A man with a mask inside a theater
A vaccinated visitor enjoys a play at the Khan Theater in JerusalemImage: Maya Alleruzzo/AP Photo/picture alliance

Left behind

Theaters and concert halls are allowed to sell tickets for up to 300 patrons indoors and for up to 500 people at open-air events, provided they have a "green passport." Masks are mandatory and physical distancing must be observed. The halls may be filled to a maximum of 75% capacity.

Geffen, a pop musician, was one of the first people to give a concert. At the the Khan Theater in Jerusalem, a comedy premiered, drawing audiences from far and wide eager to once again sit in a theater. It's about enjoying life again, said one elderly gentleman who had driven for three hours to see the show at the venue.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was also in attendance. His message was clear: Life in Israel is slowly returning to normal,  thanks to his vaccination campaign. Around half of the Israeli population has now received at least the first dose of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine. But the initial rush is now faltering. Although everyone over the age of 16can be vaccinated, many young people in particular are staying away from the vaccination centers. Per capita infection rates in Israel remain among the highest in the world.

People sit outside a cafe in the sun on beer crates
Cafes remain closed, but many operators are creatively interpreting the rules.Image: Sarah Hofmann/DW

Society divided 

For some, the idea of a Green Passportis good news, bringing a longed-for return to normality. Health Minister Yuli Edelstein put it this way: "Those who don't get vaccinated will be left behind. The pressure to get vaccinated is enormous," says Itamar Ben Yakir. The trumpet-player in the Israeli indie band El-Khat is an anti-vaccination activist. He has not been vaccinated and does not plan to do so in the future. "I know so many people who were sick and it wasn’t too bad, so I would prefer to catch the disease than get vaccinated," he told DW. He respects it if people see it differently, he says.

For Ben Yakir, the Green Passport divides society, friends, families and band members. Some bands have told him he can't play with them again until he’s vaccinated. "That’s not a nice feeling," he said. He experienced depression during the first months of the lockdown having gone from playing six gigs a week to none at all.

On the Saturday afternoon he met with DW, however, Ben Yakir was playing with his El-Khat bandmates in a restaurant in Jaffa. Not in front of an audience, but for a video clip shot for the "Tune in Tel Aviv" music festival. The festival is taking place digitally, despite the new rules, because it is meant to promote Israeli artists around the world. It's a collaboration with Liverpool, England, although at the moment, travel between the UK and Israel isn't possible. The country's only airport in Tel Aviv has been closed for over a month.

A portrait of trumpeter Itamar Ben Yakir in Jaffa
Trumpeter Ben Yakir was not allowed to perform for months, but still opposes the vaccine.Image: Sarah Hofmann/DW

Doron Gabbay, who manages the festival, hopes that things will change sometime in the next few weeks. "I am now getting requests from international bands to perform in Israel because things are possible here which are not yet possible in most other countries."

Light at the end of the tunnel

He can't wait, he says, to finally get back to what he calls "real work." "You have to see the artists in person; that's when the magic happens." He himself has been vaccinated and hopes that as many people as possible will do the same. He feels one has a social responsibility to get the jab. "It’s been a tough year and now that we can now finally see light at the end of the tunnel, I welcome it with open arms." On the other hand, as a lawyer by training, he certainly understands that the division into vaccinated and non-vaccinated people is problematic from an ethical point of view.

The artists and managers who meet to discuss the festival that afternoon in Jaffa have different views on the Green Passport. Yet all views are tolerated. The atmosphere is relaxed, though a bit subdued. There is little of the euphoria that marked the Aviv Geffen concert.

Portrait of Doron Gabbay outside wearing sunglasses
Music manager Gabbay is getting requests from foreign bands who want to play in IsraelImage: Sarah Hofmann/DW

Bar Zavada explains why this might be. She is the manager of Israeli indie bands and the Israeli singer Rami Fortis, who is scheduled to play at the legendary Barbie Club in Tel Aviv at the end of March. But Zavada is skeptical that performances will take place as before. "For many smaller clubs, a 75 percent occupancy rate is simply not worth it, especially since they are not allowed to sell drinks." Besides, she says, there's still a long way to go before things are back to normal. Just a few days ago, the Jewish carnival festival of Purim was celebrated and the government imposed an evening curfew. She said she expects this to happen again for the Passover vacations, and that Rami Fortis’s concert will have to be canceled once again — if the club's management doesn't do so beforehand anyway.

Controversy surrounding Green Passport performances

Tension is also mounting on social media, says Zavada. Every band that has announced concerts has gotten blowback, she says. "Many bands are considered protest artists against the government and now they are being told they are traitors who support the government because they join Green Pass concerts." But this is not true, she points out: "They are still against the government, but they don't want to put others at risk of infection," the music manager said.

"The government is putting us on the front line. Because they can't force people to get vaccinated, they solve it through artists." Artists, she says, have no choice — everyone wants to start working again.

Photo of the music manager Bar Zavada in Jaffa.
Music manager Bar Zavada understands artists' skepticism towards the Green PassportImage: Sarah Hofmann/DW

Zavada says she would like to see rapid testing as a way to attend concerts, in addition to proof of vaccination. That would invalidate accusations of a two-tier society and still make concerts infection-proof. But she doesn't believe the government has any interest in that, she says — after all, there are still enough vaccines in Israel. For the time being, many musicians and performing artists continue to face the dilemma between rejoicing over the openings and morally indicting their fans.

Visual artists have it easier. Museums and galleries are allowed to sell tickets in time slots, which are supposed to guarantee enough distance between visitors, regardless of whether they are vaccinated or not.

This article was translated from German by Sarah Hucal.