One Day in the Life of an Israeli Hospital

The Bash-Israel Lobby has now become a large choir of totalitarian chanting about supposed Israeli “apartheid.”   Western campuses are filled with the hate fests of “Israel Apartheid Week.”  Friends of Israel attempt to engage the bigots in debate, attempt to challenge their claims.  Statistics are ladled out.  Facts are cited, documentation is presented.  But the libels about Israeli “Apartheid” are notoriously resistant to facts and truth, like mutant bacteria that resist antibiotics.  Anyone who knows anything at all about the Middle East understands that Israel is the only country in the region that is not an apartheid regime.

I must say that I find the “debates” about Israeli “apartheid” to be boring and wearying.  Instead, I would like to offer a simple window into life in Israel and into Arab-Jewish relations inside Israel.  It is based on the routine inside an Israeli hospital, where I had the “opportunity” to spend some time recently.

Apartheid?  Make up your own mind.

Obviously, this is a country that has no shortage of world-class Jewish medical doctors.  The chief physician in my department in the hospital is an Israeli Arab.  He did not get his position out of any gesture of “affirmative action,” but rather simply because he is immensely qualified.   He leads a team of medical doctors that include Jews and Arabs, as well as similar teams of nurses and other personnel.  My personal doctor in the ward is a young Arab.  Russian is the third most common language in the ward, after Hebrew and Arabic; many of the best physicians of the one-time Soviet Union moved long ago to Israel.

I notice that many of the younger Arab doctors have picked up basic Russian.  Many of them have additional academic degrees, like an MPH, besides their MD.  Among the medical students doing shifts in the ward are a small but notable number of Ethiopian Jewish women, first-generation Israelis.  An Arab woman student is doing the ECG checkups in the emergency room.  As she finishes checking me, I ask her if the machine can tell whether I am in love, and this has her giggling.  A young Arab from Haifa is working in the ward as a volunteer.  He just graduated from the highly prestigious Arab Orthodox (as in Greek Orthodox) high school in Haifa and is building up his resume as a volunteer to help him get into med school.

I think the most notable feature of life in the hospital ward is the ready and cordial mingling and socializing of everyone, Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, recent immigrants with old-timers, the well-off with the poor.  The socializing is not some sort of “social engineering” program initiative, but simply occurs spontaneously and naturally.  Patient family members chat amongst themselves, comparing patient histories, offering health tips and advice, suggestions, information about tests and doctors, share foods, assisting one another.  Anyone who spends more than 3 minutes with the patients and their families sheds any delusions about any imaginary Israeli “apartheid.”   There are no politics on the floor of the hospital ward.

“We will call the orderly to wheel you back to the ward,” says the Xray technician.  “No need,” says the elderly Arab man just behind me in line, I will push him back, and we will swap stories along the way.  The odor of strong coffee sneaks into my room. I follow it in a semi-trance to the eating area across the hallway.  A large Druse family is sitting there, and has brought their own coffee in a large “finjan” coffee pot from the village.  The smell of your coffee is already restoring my health and strength, I tell them, and they insist that I sit with them and share a few cups, a bit mystified by my bizarre American accent, especially when I try to say a few words in Arabic.

No one initiates the mingling and mutual support.  Even though in ordinary life Jews and Arabs usually move in different social circles, as indeed do subgroups of Jews and subgroups of Arabs, they find nothing strange about being thrust together in the hospital ward.  This may be the most difficult part of life in the Middle East to explain to outsiders.  All of the passions and politics and political conflict are part of everyday life in Israel.  I doubt that anyone, Jew or Arab, changes his or her political notions and loyalties one iota by spending days or weeks mingling socially.  They will leave with the same ideological orientations they held before coming to the hospital.

Probably the hardest notion of all to explain is that the Middle East conflict has nothing at all to do with “getting to know the ‘Other’” or establishing personal social ties with members of the belligerent community.  As surprising as it sounds, there is no “alienation” or unfamiliarity with the “Other” in Israel.  It is apparent from the first moment in the ward.  Israeli Jews and Arabs are actually enormously familiar with one another, which is why they mingle so easily in the ”artificial” and alien environment of the hospital ward.  They already know the “Other” quite well.  I am told there is even more intense mingling among families in the children’s ward, but I simply cannot bring myself to enter the ward to see for myself.  I find it too draining emotionally.  I can cope with sick adults, no matter how seriously sick, and have even visited people in the worst psychiatric wards, but I am just too weak to come to terms with a ward of sick children.

The presumption that unfamiliarity is what lies behind political belligerence is a Western prejudice and is simply wrong.  Most Israeli Jews know some basic Arabic, and Israeli Arabs are so thoroughly immersed in Israeli culture that when chatting amongst themselves it is rare for them to complete an entire sentence without Hebrew words and terms being interjected, when they convey an idea better than the parallel word in Arabic.

There are decidedly different “cultures” of hospital visiting among the different groups.  Ashkenazi Jewish families tend to come in small numbers, stay for short visits, and speak in near whispers.  Rural Arabs tend to arrive in large numbers, almost the whole village showing up to entertain the patient in near festival tones.  Druse also come in large numbers, but tend to divide themselves into shifts, with one team entering the patient’s room as the previous team is relieved.

There are even more clear differences in the “hospital culture of food” among the different groups.  Arabs and Druse arrive with large picnic coolers of home-made food from their towns and villages.  It goes without saying that their patients should eat home-cooked and not the pathetic excuse for food that the hospitals wards serve up.  Invariably the supplies from home include the delightful “finjan” filled with indescribably delicious coffee.  The families invite roommates of their sick to share.

Down in the lobby is an espresso bar.  It is filled with Ashkenazi yuppie families.  There is a Middle East grill where the Sephardic families hang out, and it is also my favorite source for lunch.  There are some fast-food joints where teenagers, Jews and Arabs, tend to hang out.  Older Arabs however prefer to hang out in the cafeteria eating what they have brought from home, or in small gardens scattered among the hospital buildings.

In a previous hospitalization 11 years ago, I spent the week next to an elderly Bedouin who had been a legendary police “scout” in Israel, solving crimes and exercising near-supernatural powers of forensics.  After leaving the hospital I published a book in large part about his life and about Bedouins in northern Israel, “The Scout.”   Our families have remained on warm terms since our ordeals.

It is all really the diametric opposite of that old mafia cliché about it being business and not personal.  Politics, war, ideology – in the Middle East those are all “business.”   But there is no room for business on the hospital ward.  To the contrary, everything is “personal.”   Relations go well beyond the “correct” to being truly amicable.  Such cordiality does not change the background political-national-religious conflict, that which has been ongoing for so many decades.  Here is where one begins to understand the Middle East.   Do stays of intimate socializing at the personal level in the hospital ward change loyalties, political affinities, ideological passions for those involved when they depart?  Not in the least.  This is the fundamental “contradiction” that underlies everything in this country.

Consider the following.  The Wall Street Journal on May 25, 2011 reported this story:  “A Palestinian woman from Gaza arrives at Soroka Hospital in Beersheba for lifesaving skin treatment for burns over half her body. After the conclusion of her extensive treatment, the woman is invited back for follow-up visits to the outpatient clinic. One day she is caught at the border crossing wearing a suicide belt. Her intention? To blow herself up at the same clinic that saved her life.”

Nothing in that news report really contradicts anything in my above descriptions of life in the Israeli hospital ward.  It is a pair of ideas about which one needs to wrap one’s mind.  It is only when one can digest both that one begins to understand Israel.

This is also the reality of life and of Arab-Jewish relations in the Israel that is being increasingly demonized by bigots, anti-Semites and Israel-bashers as an “apartheid” regime.  I would say that a week in an Israeli hospital is just what could cure such people of their “ideas,” but on second thought they would emerge with their hate and bias intact.   Israel’s own radical leftists get sick as often as other Israelis and are just as aware of the Jewish-Arab relations of the hospital ward.  They too ignore the reality to denounce their own country falsely as “apartheid,” because they are driven by hatred of their country and desire for its destruction.

  • Janet

    Wow! I say, simply WWOOOOWWW!!!

  • kwg1

    My son did a Fellowship at Hadassa Hospital in the mid 1990's. He operated on many Palestinian patients, I know I was in the operating room with him. Neither of us is Jewish! Israel, unlike its enemies, has always shown compassion.

  • SHmuelHaLevi

    Dr. Plaut is one of our people best representatives. This superb article is a must read for every one of us in Israel and every Jew and others elsewhere.
    I lived in South Africa during the Apartheid years and know what that was.
    Israel is the most free and equal opportunity providing country anywhere.

  • Gary Dalin

    My Dear Plauty:

  • Raymond in DC

    Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize on several occasion not just for the equal access it provides to Jews and Arabs but for its outreach to the Palestinians, providing jobs and training experience they wouldn't get elsewhere. But the very idea of awarding a prize for peace to an Israeli institution is something the anti-Israel Norwegians can't wrap their minds around.

    • Maria Nerdrum

      You are so right Raymond. The bloody Norwegian Government is so against Israel and so utterly supportive about the Palestinians that it is sick. They cannot even bring themselves to call Hamas a terrorist organisation, which it truly is. Arafat they happily gave a Nobel Peace Prize. I happen to be Norwegian but have left the country as I can no longer stand it. I support Israel and so does a lot of other Norwegians too. We have unfortunately a leftist government and they are corrupt. They are the ones who oppose Israel. Not us the people of Norway.

  • G.W.

    In a visit to Israel in 2005 to assist my daughter with her first baby I made numerous trips to Naharia Hospital from her Maalot  town home and spent many hours in the hospital halls waiting for my daughter to deliver. I was impressed with the number and presence of Arab/ Druze woman with groups of their close family that felt much at home in the Israeli hospital. Although I speak Hebrew, and feel in Israel at home, for the time I spent in the obstetrics wing of the Naharia hospital I had the impression I am in a foreign land. Arabic is not familiar to me and I could not understand their conversation, but I was taken by the body language and the evident comfort those Arab/Druze families exhibited. Dr. Plaut impressions from his hospital stay reminded of my own experience. I want to use this opportunity to wish Dr. Plaut Good Health and to express my gratitude for his outstanding opinion writings. Dr. Plaut voice coming from Israel is the voice of reason.

  • OLJingoist

    They all share something called sick family members. Most people when taken away from the politics of life and given something to share, will.
    I remember my mom getting angry at world news when violence would break out based on what she referred to as silliness.
    She said she could take children from anywhere and put them together to play. She said that they will break all the barriers that adults won't. They will learn to share, play and communicate openly. She said that adults could learn from them.
    I now know she was right. Now the big question is, how many more things is she going to be proved right about. Smart women my mom.

  • KathleenP

    The appalling story of the young burn victim who later tried to kill the people who healed her will always come to mind now whenever I hear of Palestinians being treated at Israeli hospitals. The sad fact of the matter is they don't deserve the kindness that has been given to them , and have proved how undeserving they are time and time again, but good people can't just extend kindness to the deserving. So although in reality, while this woman deserves to have all the skin grafts given to her painfully removed, bit by bit, we can also take some comfort in the fact that it'll never happen. Perhaps this kind of barbaric punishment can and would be meted out for such betrayal of friends in her own barbaric society, but not in Israel. Therein lies the difference.

    • fmobler

      Hang on. Saying that "they don't deserve the kindness that has been given to them" really misses the point. People deserve mercy and help by virtue of their humanity. How they respond to it is theirs to work out. Of course, Israel has to deal with a "sick, sick culture," as David Horowitz points out, that teaches people to respond to mercy and kindness with hate and murder. Israel stands on the side of righteousness even in the midst of this unfathomable sin.

  • jon dyson

    After having emigrated to Israel (making aliyah) from the UK at the end of 2008 I've had experience of Israeli hospitals as a patient (twice) and as a voluntary worker. This covered three different hospitals.

    From both viewpoints I can say that this article rings absolutely true for patients and staff. There was absolutely no friction – only cordiality and cooperation.

    But there is a caution. As with former colleagues in the UK in the 70's and 80's, who were from southern Ireland and the North, there was a general tendency to avoid serious discussion of sensitive and divisive topics. And unlike the PA, Hamas, and Hizbollah, the IRA never had a policy of destroying their enemy or committing genocide.

    Interestingly, after I stopped being a hospital volunteer I had occasion to visit an Arab town – not known for its friendliness to Israel. To my amazement I heard someone shouting my name in the street. Not realizing that I knew anyone in the area, it was a nice surprise to see an Arab ex-colleague from the hospital where I had volunteered running towards me for a friendly chat.

    But, no matter how friendly and good-natured relations are between Arab and Jews as individuals, and no matter how fantastic a Israel is, it will never be secure until the issue of its existence as a Jewish state is accepted. This dominates everything. And at last we have a Prime Minister who brings this to the attention of the world. Shame that the world's leaders don't make acceptance of Israel a condition for the aid and political support they provide to the Palestinian leadership which finances their genocidal aims.

    Jon Dyson

  • Asher

    The attacks on Israel's people have been relentless. Millions of Christians have been contributing to hospitals and organizations who are supplying Israel's needs… We are not going to abandon Israel no matter what the Heck Obummer does to us!!!!

  • Dr Alexander King

    Great article Steven! Everything rings true to me. As a physician in Israel, I have worked in 6 hospitals during my 14 years here.

  • winoceros

    I do not mean to diminish Dr. Plaut's observations and experiences here. It is true that those who have common goals often find ways to get along, and to the benefit of one another. Is it inconceivable that “Arabs”, as Dr. Plaut terms them, living in Israel might have good experiences, be raised up through education and elucidation and contact to become contributing members of their societies? Of course not. The question is which society will get served. But here is where my cynicism kicks in. Dr. Plaut never once uses the word Muslim. The teen who graduated from the Orthodox school is "Arab". So? There are lots of Arab Christians…been to Detroit? They're doing pretty well, too. (cont'd)

    • winoceros

      I live in a town filled with Somali and other Muslim immigrants. They have cell phones, drive cars, enjoy hot water and flat screen tv's and the internet and education and higher education, receive piles of state and federal aid, use the hospitals for free, and the whole schmear. They isolate and contribute next to nothing. Muslims have no problem whatsoever taking advantage of the advances of modern societies to see to their own health and comforts. As the good doctor points out wisely, it will not change their worldview one whit. The nature of the Jews is clearly described in the Qur'an, so there is no need to rely on one's own experiences, and even if one did, the Qur'an supersedes one's own view anyway. There is no conflict in practicing at an Israeli hospital, working for the U.S. government, or joining a Jewish law firm. It is all a means to an end, whether a personal goal, or a societal one.


      • winoceros

        Aiman Zawahiri. Abdel Rantissi of Hamas. Aafia Saddiqi and her husband Mohammed Amjad Khan. Osama Ahmed Ibrahim who cared a fig for a dying Jew in Chicago. Ahmed Yassin of Hamas. Mohammed Mahdi Akef, Muslim Brotherhood. Hesham Mohamed Hedayet, LAX shooter. Aly Hindy, joy of Canada. Abdul Majeed Al-Zindani, most devout of Yemen. “Abu Hafiza”–Al-Qaeda master planner. Mahmoud Al-Zahar–HAMAS co-founder. Fathi Abd Al-Aziz Shiqaqi, founder of Islamic Jihad. George Habash, who shot a rocket at a school bus. Bashar Assad, Syrian president. Terror cell in Britain. Bombing in Glasgow. Every single one of them devout Muslims.

        Do you see why I am not impressed with "Muslim becomes doctor" angle? (Obligatory disclaimer "of course not all Muslim doctors are terrorists"). Many want to become doctors so they can better serve their local communities. For some, that community is the MB, or Al-Qaeda, or his or her clear understanding of Qur'anic exhortations in favor of a Muslim ummah, or Hamas, being able to patch up jihadists who didn't make that final trip quite yet.

        • winoceros

          What are the "Arab" users of the hospital going to do? Cause trouble and blow their ride? No, they will happily, gratefully allow Israeli medical staff to cure and heal their young ones, whom they love dearly. They will also, happily, learn the best the modern West has to offer in medicine, some to do good, but still others to accept the jizya due them as Muslims, and then to wage the jihad of the medicine, and the cover of a profession.

          Dr. Plaut's point is to show the Israelis' goodwill, and willingness to embrace non-Jews of the region as citizens and care for them as they would their own. This point is well-taken. But I wonder how extensive the security force for the hospitals is, how many cameras, audits, call traces, and sporadic background checks are done so that so many "Arabs" can work in the hospital. Nice article, but never forget that the conflict is not between "Arabs" and Israelis, but Muslims and non-Muslims. Muslims have no problem adopting the gifts of the West, and then destroying their societies in repayment.

        • winoceros

          errata: "Every single one of them medical doctors and devout Muslims"