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Some years ago, my mother broke her hip and was rushed for emergency surgery to Hillel Yaffe hospital in the northern Israeli town of Hadera.
Visiting her during her painful recovery, I was struck by the high number of Israeli Arab citizens working at the hospital at all levels of the staff — doctors and nurses as well as lab technicians, pharmacists and aides. They and their Jewish colleagues seemed to work very harmoniously together for the sake of their patients, regardless of age, gender, religion or ethnicity. It was an example of Israel at its best, the way it should be.
I was reminded of this when I read in the Israel media this week that the health system for years has been “segregating Arab and Jewish mothers who come to deliver their babies, particularly in hospitals and maternity wards that serve mixed populations.”
Apparently, there is no official policy to do this but nurses have been directing mothers to separate wards with doctors and hospital management have been turning a blind eye. Jewish mothers have been reportedly told in advance they would not have to share a ward with Arab mothers to entice them to give birth at particular institutions.
This opens the disturbing possibility of one level of treatment for Jews and another for Arabs. As if this was not bad enough, one of Israel’s most extreme right-wing parliamentarians, Bezalel Smotrich of the Jewish Home Party, send out a tweet saying that it was only natural that his wife would not want to share a ward or a room with a woman who had just given birth to a baby who might want to murder her own baby in 20 years.
According to Times of Israel, he then added that “Arabs are my enemies and that’s why I don’t enjoy being next to them.”
His wife, Revital, later told Channel 10 that she had “kicked an Arab obstetrician” out of the delivery room when she herself gave birth. “I want Jewish hands to touch my baby, and I wasn’t comfortable lying in the same room with an Arab woman … I refuse to have an Arab midwife, because for me giving birth is a Jewish and pure moment,” she said.
Sadly, there’s nothing new in viewing the maternity ward as another front in the endless war between Jews and Arabs. When my own son Micha was born at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus almost 33 years ago, one of the nurses in the maternity room handed him to me with the words, “Another soldier for Israel. An officer.” Quite a welcome into the world.
But Smotrich’s words, and those of his wife, nevertheless, are deeply disturbing because they betray a level of hatred and racism that previously might have lurked under the surface in the minds of some but is now out in the open. Open racism is now a part of Israeli political discourse.
Israel’s Health Ministry is operating a non-segregation policy, saying that “no separation on a discriminatory basis is allowed in hospitals. Health Ministry guidelines state that no separation by population is to be made — not by race, ethnicity, country of origin or any other factor.”
In fact, Israeli Arabs make a crucial contribution to Israel’s health system, confirming my own anecdotal observations of the situation in Hillel Yaffe. According to a 2011 tally by the Government’s civil service commissioner’s office, 12.5 percent of Israel’s doctors in the public health system are Arab, as are 11.3 percent of nurses. A 2015 study by Tel Aviv University indicated that Arabs account for 35 percent of all pharmacists.
They fulfill a crucial need. Although Israel is proud of offering universal health insurance to its citizens, its national health system is stretched. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Israel has half the nurses per capita as in the European Union. There is also a shortage of doctors because too many Jewish doctors are leaving the socialized health system for more lucrative work in private medicine or leaving the country.
What the whole incident points to is a growing fracturing of Israeli society, and growing and open racism in its ultra-nationalist stream — which can no longer be ignored or brushed aside.
In this case, the patient is Israel itself – and the sickness is getting worse.
Alan Elsner is Special Advisor to the President at J Street. He’s on Twitter at @alanelsner