Healthy Public Curiosity vs. Official Privacy

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Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler argues that the Protection of Privacy Law does not create an absolute right, and whoever enters public life must be able to give up parts of his/her privacy, no matter how difficult that might be. This op-ed originally appeared in the Atlanta Jewish Times.

A single black shoe left after its owner collapsed. It was a single event that should have been insignificant but could become of great importance — maybe changing the course of history.

The image of U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton being rushed away during a 9/11 memorial service necessitates an open and public discussion on the revelation of public figures’ medical records.

What does this have to do with Israel?

Let’s start from the end: In Israel, public officials are not legally required to reveal their personal medical condition, even when it could affect the ability to function in an official capacity or make decisions on matters of state. To the contrary, the Patient’s Right Act and the penal code forbid the publication of a public figure’s health status, as it is considered to be private information and thus protected by the Protection of Privacy Law.

However, Israeli history is replete with incidents of public figures’ medical conditions possibly affecting their fitness to work in an official capacity.

Can anyone forget the legendary story of Yitzhak Rabin’s questionable ability to function at the beginning of the Six-Day War? How about the severe depression that Menachem Begin experienced over a period of many months, leading to his famous “I can’t go on” quote and subsequent resignation?

A decade ago, several bills were proposed that would have required disclosure of the prime minister’s health status via the establishment of a neutral medical body, before which the medical information would be disclosed. This entity would then decide what aspects of the premier’s medical record were suitable for publication.

None of these proposals was approved. Instead, an official protocol for the “medical treatment of the prime minister” was developed in 2007 that decided who would treat the Israeli premier, who would keep his/her medical records (answer: his/her driver, among others), and that the prime minister would be obligated to publicize his/her medical condition on an annual basis.

As a result of this regulation, anyone reading through the prime minister’s official website has been able to locate such medical reports — most recently that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a polyp removed from his colon.

What about the other members of Israel’s political class?

Members of the Knesset, ministers and other officials have to report on their financial interests but do not need to specify anything related to their health. Not only is such a situation illogical — why is financial data more important than health status? — it also leads to serious ethical questions for medical professionals.

If a doctor diagnoses that an airline pilot has suffered a stroke, is he obligated to release the pilot and let him fly a plane? What about the IDF chief? How about a Cabinet minister who must make high-level decisions involving large amounts of government funds or must weigh in on sensitive security operations?

It’s worth noting that even private information may be published if it’s a matter of public interest. Even though Israel has laws related to privacy, it also has the Freedom of Information Act, whose aim is to increase government transparency.

Here is another way to look at it: Imagine there’s a journalist who discovers the defense minister is undergoing chemotherapy. The diligent reporter contacts the hospital, a public entity, where the minister is allegedly being treated and is stonewalled by hospital officials. How will the court rule if a petition under the Freedom of Information Act is filed? Do the interests served by disclosure of information supersede privacy concerns?

The answer should be that the Protection of Privacy Law does not create an absolute right, and whoever enters public life must be able to give up parts of his/her privacy, no matter how difficult that might be.

What’s clear is that this issue needs to be addressed and settled. History shows that our political culture is not vigorous enough to assume public officials will act with integrity and the public interest in mind when it comes to the issue of personal health. In some cases, public figures have even used their influence with the media to prevent the publication of such information.

Until an arrangement is reached, public representatives should keep in mind that we are a country that suffers from a severe and chronic lack of discretion. Everyone knows everyone, and everyone seems to have that one cousin or close friend with whom they share secrets on WhatsApp, and yet somehow all of Israel is suddenly abuzz with the information.

As in any situation that involves censorship, the mere concealment of information tends to attract more attention than its disclosure.

On Sept. 11, Hillary Clinton learned this the hard way.

Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler is the director of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Center for Democratic Values and Institutions.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Atlanta Jewish Times.