There is a new rule at Meir Elbaz’s synagogue near Tel Aviv. Only people who can produce a green pass, Israel’s new Covid passport, may cross the threshold. If you don’t have one of the highly-prized passes, you are relegated to the courtyard and forced to listen to prayers through the open windows.
‘It’s a harsh rule to impose but it’s for a really good reason, and ultimately it’s the kind of approach that will allow Israel to quickly return to normality,’ said Elbaz, a 29-year-old logistics manager.
Last week was the carnival-themed Jewish holiday of Purim, when the whole congregation traditionally attends prayers in fancy dress. It’s the highlight of the calendar for children and the place is normally filled with youngsters dressed as princes, princesses, superheroes and animals, given a once-a-year right to make as much noise as they like.
But only adults can get green passes and it’s hard to hear prayers from the courtyard, so Elbaz’s 18-month-old daughter – like all the other children – stayed home, with only her mother to admire her ladybird outfit.
A holder of the ‘green pass’ (proof of being fully vaccinated against the coronavirus), trains at a gym in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv, on February 21
It’s a stark example of how the new virus certificate, introduced on February 21, is changing Israel. Anyone above the age of 16, the minimum age at which you can be given the vaccine, can download the government-issued certificate to their phone if they have been inoculated against Covid or have recovered from the virus.
The certificate features a QR code that, once scanned, checks Israeli health records to confirm that the holder has received both doses of the Covid vaccine.
It can also be printed out on paper, allowing the smartphone-averse ultra-Orthodox community to also benefit from the scheme.
The government sees the system as having a key role to play in opening up society following the success of its world-beating vaccination programme which has seen public clinics give at least one dose to half the population.
Latest data indicates that the vaccine is proving to be 94 per cent effective. And for the first time in months, Israelis have flocked to gyms and swimming pools last week, with access legally restricted to those who could present a green pass at the door.
A man gets ready to swim in a pool, after entering the facility with his required ‘green pass’, in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv, on February 21
The system will also be introduced at cafes, bars and restaurants as they are allowed to open over the coming weeks.
‘Opening these places is a big deal as recreational activities like eating out are a huge part of our culture and we’re all excited,’ said Joseph Gitler, chairman of Leket Israel, the national food bank. He added: ‘We’ve been seeing chefs and other furloughed restaurant staff turning up at our soup kitchens for meals, and the chance to kickstart our huge hospitality sector will do wonders in reducing poverty.’
The launch of the passport is also welcome news for concert promoter Ronit Arbel.
She is used to laying on gigs for the likes of Sir Paul McCartney, Lady Gaga and Eric Clapton but, thanks to the pandemic, it will be some time before she hosts any more global icons.
Instead she will be organising concerts for local acts and, in another twist, she will be concentrating on those that appeal to an older demographic.
As most people who have been vaccinated so far – and are thus eligible for a green pass – are in the 60-plus age group, Arbel’s target market is now the elderly rather than the young.
She has predicted that artists who play music from the 1950s and 60s could be about to find themselves inundated with bookings.
She added: ‘All over the world, people are struggling with the loss of cultural events but I’m now starting to be optimistic, and think that the green pass will make Israel the first to revive.’
Ticket to ride: Excited green pass holders show their proof of vaccination before entering a concert for vaccinated seniors, organised by the municipality of Tel Aviv, February 24
Indeed, Tel Aviv held its first live cultural event for 11 months last Wednesday with a ‘green pass only’ concert by singer Nurit Galron for the city’s senior citizens.
However, there is little sign of this revival at the empty student union of Bar-Ilan University. But Rifat Sweidan, the man responsible for extra-curricular programming for students, is confident that the green passes will bring the place back to life within weeks.
‘For a year, students have been mostly only seeing each other remotely but this will get them studying and socialising together again,’ he predicted.
The problem is that the student demographic – those in their late teens and early 20s – has been the least worried by Covid and thus the slowest to get vaccinated since the offer of the jab was extended from the over-60s to everyone over 16.
However, Sweidan is convinced that the lure of a return to the pleasures of normal life will soon have young Israelis lining up to receive their jabs.
‘We set up a vaccination station on campus last week and there was very little demand – but now people see the value of a green pass, it’ll cause many more to take shots,’ he said.
‘After all, students are really keen to get back to restaurants, cafes, concerts and events, and are realising the green pass is the way.’ Sweidan, an Israeli-Arab, also reports a sense of excitement among Muslim families as it dawns on them that, unlike last year, they will be able to host guests during Ramadan.
And some are already considering hinging invitations on green passes. ‘Ramadan starts in the middle of April and I expect many will only be prepared to host those who have the pass, which I think will lead to a further rise in vaccination rates over the coming weeks,’ he said.
The release of the green pass is already creating signs of life in Israel’s decimated tourist industry. Tour operator Geoff Winston said that his phone has suddenly started ringing this week, with people from overseas wanting to book trips to Israel.
‘After months of quiet, I’ve had a couple of dozen groups wanting to plan trips, some as soon as the summer,’ he said.
‘They think the fact that such a high percentage of Israelis have taken shots and we have the green pass means they can visit and more or less only encounter vaccinated people.’
But not everyone is happy. Some critics have argued that Israel is rushing to institute a system that infringes civil rights.
‘In principle it’s a good idea and I support vaccination – but the green pass discriminates against those who don’t vaccinate for ideological or health reasons,’ said Jonathan Klinger, legal counsel for the Israeli Digital Rights Movement.
He also has data-protection concerns. While the government insists it isn’t collecting data on where people use their green passes, he wonders whether they can be trusted to resist the temptation.
But his objections have little traction in a country that is itching to take steps along the road back to normality.
Business leaders such as Paul Israel, executive director of the Israel-Australia Chamber of Commerce, are especially keen on the green pass. ‘The economy has taken a big hit and we can’t afford to wait,’ he said.
He hosts dozens of high-level delegations in a normal year as they are drawn to Israel by its cutting-edge tech scene. He is confident that the early adoption of green passes will see them return, and put the economy in a good position to bounce back.
‘As we will be one of the first countries to open up to international travel, this will provide an immediate boost to the economy,’ he said.
Not surprisingly, Israel’s introduction of the world’s first Covid passport is being followed keenly internationally.
Observers will note the concerns over civil liberties and the problems associated with unvaccinated children – but perhaps the surest indicator of the success of the green pass is that it has already been targeted by criminals.
Less than a week after the green pass was introduced, the authorities became aware of the first attempts to create forgeries.