One Day in the Life of an Israeli Hospital

Israeli “apartheid,” you say?

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.