Mark Clarfield on Israeli Arab patients in time of war

Mark ClarfieldSomeone less than familiar with Israel might wonder how during this crisis we handle Israeli Arab patients who walk around the hospital in a bright red kaffieh and use the helicopter pad as a place to pray. After all, we are in the midst of a war just a few miles from the hospital involving an Arab Islamist group bent not only the killing of Jews, but publicly and proudly sworn to the destruction of the Jewish state.

Can one detect any hostility expressed towards our Israeli Arab patients? Do we provide second class service? Is there a problem at all? The simple answer is that both before and during the war, Arab patients were and are treated in our hospital no differently than are their Jewish counterparts. In fact, Soroka Hospital’s staff is made up of both Arabs and Jews, and whatever our politics, in our day to day work we actually get along quite well. In fact, all over the country, Israeli Arab doctors operate on Israeli Jewish patients. For their part, Israeli Jewish paramedics look after Israeli Arabs when the Hamas missiles fall in the south, or Hizbullah rockets in the north. And they can and do strike both Israeli Arabs and Jews. Evidently our enemies believe in equal opportunity.

Oddly enough, relations between the two nations here in Israel reminds me of the charged social/political climate when I lived in Quebec in the fractious 1980s. Then (and now) Anglophones and Francophones, despite sometimes powerful political disagreements, pragmatically worked together. My guess is one can also find an analogy with the relations between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.

It is true that for the most part, Jewish and Arab folk here in my hospital avoid talking much about politics. But we do talk about our patients and their needs. I will not deny that Israeli society suffers from friction between her nearly 6 million Jews and more than 1 million Arabs as well as displaying both social and economic gaps. But then again other countries are burdened with not dissimilar problems: for example, the United States with whites and blacks; Canada and Australia with their aboriginal populations; or the UK with her Muslim minority. And these countries do not have a war raging on their borders nor missiles lobbed at them from just outside.

That being said, neither within the health service in general nor Israeli hospitals in particular have I ever noticed any problems; furthermore despite the tensions, this war has not produced any in this domain. My wife, also a doctor, who works in a Jerusalem hospital feels the same. Despite the conflict, Israeli hospitals remain bastions of civic and civil sanity.

When this war started the hospital administration decided to close down several wards (including my own geriatrics department) because they were located in buildings relatively insecure against a missile attack. (A direct hit would of course pulverize any building here.) The neonatal intensive care unit also had to be transferred. The scene was an evocative one indeed: a variegated caravan of mothers and fathers – half of whom were Bedouins,the women with their long flowing robes mixed in with Jewish mothers and fathers dressed in more conventional styles, all pushing their babies in incubators to their new home in the hospital. Five of the neonates were attached to ventilators, not an easy lot to transfer in a hurry. Along with parents were staff, both Arab and Jewish helping them along.<

We all hope that one day, despite this recent round of fighting, peace will break out between Israel and her neighbours, including the Palestinian Arabs of the Gaza Strip. Until then, despite all pressures, our hospital as well as all health institutions in Israel remain an excellent model for future coexistence between Arab and Jew.