It is late at night. There are four of us on the hospital ward. Two are young men, a religious Ethiopian Jew and a young Arab computer “techie” who spends his days working on his laptop. I am one of the two elders in the room. The other is an Arab from a village in the Galilee. The two younger men complain about the horrific snoring coming from us geezers, but they’re not sure who is the worst offender. The nurses offer them sympathy and sleeping pills, to no avail.
Our ward is unusual in that none of the four of us speaks Russian. In almost every other room in the hospital, Russian is the language of communication, and most of the Jewish and Arab doctors and nurses seem able to speak basic Russian.
Rambam Hospital in Haifa is named after the extraordinary medieval rabbi, philosopher and medical doctor Maimonides – Moses the son of Maimon. The lobby of the hospital features copies of some of the original medical tracts written by the Rambam and some of his herb medicines.
Maimonides continues to exercise a hypnotic influence over the modern mind. It seems a new book about him comes out every month in Israel. A current bestseller is titled The Secrets of the Guide to the Perplexed. Written by Dr. Micah Goodman, a researcher at Hebrew University, it’s a fascinating analysis of The Guide, which was originally published in Arabic.
The Rambam’s command of Arabic and Hebrew, and the ease with which he bridged Jewish and Arab culture, have their modern equivalents in Rambam Hospital. Actually, they are apparent in all Israeli hospitals. I can think of no better arena in which to examine the true nature of Arab-Jewish relations in Israel
“Apartheid,” you say? Make up your own mind.
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Israel is a country with no shortage of world-class Jewish medical minds; a country filled with Jewish mothers who would love nothing more than to tell people about “my son the doctor.” And yet the chief physician in my department in the hospital is an Israeli Arab, and so is my personal doctor on the ward – he’s the only one I trust to insert infusion needles into my arm because he does it gently and without hurrying.
A young Arab woman is doing ECG checkups in the emergency room. As she finishes with me, I ask her if the machine can tell whether I am in love. She giggles. An Arab teenager from Haifa is working on the ward as a volunteer. He just graduated from a prestigious high school and is building up his resume as a volunteer to help him get into medical school.
For anyone who does not live in Israel, without doubt the most noteworthy feature of life in an Israeli hospital is the comfortable mingling and socializing by Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, recent immigrants and old-timers, well-off and poor.
Relatives of patients chat among themselves, comparing their loved ones’ medical histories, offering health tips, exchanging information about tests and doctors, sharing foods, assisting one another.
An elderly Druze woman in the emergency room has health problems similar to those of my mother-in-law, so my wife sits with the woman’s daughter and tells her at length what we have managed to learn. They are astonished that my wife speaks Arabic fluently.
Yes, anyone who spends more than a minute or two with patients and their families here will shed any delusions about Israeli “apartheid.”
“We will call the orderly to wheel you back to the ward,” the X-ray technician tells me. “No need,” says the elderly Arab man just behind me in line, “I will push him back.” We 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 Druze family is sitting there and has brought their own coffee in a large finjan pot.
“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. They seem mystified by my bizarre American accent, especially when I try to say a few words in Arabic.
No one intitiates this mingling and mutual support among Jews and Arabs, or among other groups of people in the hospital. It comes naturally. Alhough in ordinary everyday 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 on a hospital ward and treating each other with decency, consideration – even real affection.
In a previous hospitalization eleven 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 wrote a book (The Scout, available at Amazon.com) based in large part on his life and the Bedouins in northern Israel, Our families have remained on warm terms since our ordeals.
There are decidely 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, with seemingly the entire village showing up to entertain the patient in a festival-like atmosphere. Druze also come in large numbers but tend to divide themselves into shifts, with one team entering the patient’s room when the previous team’s visit is completed.
There are also clear differences in the culture of food among the different groups. Arabs and Druze arrive with large picnic coolers of homemade food. They rightly feel their family members and friends should eat home-cooked meals rather than the pathetic excuse for food served up by the hospital.
Invariably, the supplies from home include the aforementioned finjan filled with indescribably delicious coffee. And as I know from personal experience, the families graciously invite roommates, as well as other patients who just happen to wander by, to share the heavenly elixir.
Down in the lobby is an espresso bar. It is filled with Ashkenazi yuppie families. There is a Middle East grill where 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 prefer to hang out in the cafeteria or in the small gardens scattered among the hospital buildings.
Plaque at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, where Jews and Arabs get along just fine.
In what has to be the ultimate irony, there is a beautiful garden on the hospital grounds where many Arab families like to hold impromptu picnics, feasting on the delicacies they’ve brought from home. This is the Leon Klinghoffer Garden, created in memory of the wheelchair-bound American passenger murdered by Palestinian terrorists aboard the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985.
I doubt one Arab in a hundred could tell you who Leon Klinghoffer was. The vast majority of those who enjoy the garden that carries his name probably assume he was some philanthropist who gave a lot of money to the hospital.
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Probably the hardest thing to explain to those living outside Israel is that the Arab-Israeli conflict has nothing to do with “getting to know the ‘Other’ ” or establishing personal ties with members of a belligerent community.
As surprising as it may sound to outsiders, there is no “alienation” or unfamiliarity with the “Other” in Israel. Israeli Jews and Arabs are actually very familiar with each another, which is why under the right circumstances they can get along so easily, even in the artificial and alien environment of a hospital.
(I am told there is even more intense mingling among Jewish and Arab families on the children’s ward, but I simply cannot bring myself to enter to see for myself. I find it too draining emotionally. I can cope with ill adults, no matter how serious their condition, and I have visited people in some of the most harrowing psychiatric hospitals imaginable, but I am not up to a ward full of sick children.)
The presumption that unfamiliarity is what lies behind political conflict is a Western prejudice and is simply wrong. It is responsible for what I call the “Marital Spat Theory of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.”
In a marital spat, passions may be calmed and domestic harmony restored by taking deep breaths and holding an intense airing of grievances, where anger and hurt are verbalized and expressed. The confrontation has cathartic value.
There is a widespread Western delusion that international conflicts are essentially of the same character and require the same sort of “therapeutic” catharsis.
This, by the way, explains the American obsession with establishing “talks” as the cure-all for any disagreement. In reality, the Middle East conflict has nothing to do with talks or catharsis or verbalizing hurt feelings. It also has nothing to do with a failure to understand the positions or “narrative” of the other side. Arabs and Jews know exactly what the other side seeks.
Just as they understand each other’s political positions far better than Americans imagine, Israeli Jews and Arabs understand each other quite well as individuals. Most Israeli Jews know some basic Arabic. while Israeli Arabs are so thoroughly immersed in Israeli culture that, when chatting among themselves, it is rare for them to complete a sentence without interjecting a Hebrew word or term – particularly when those convey a thought better than the parallel word or term in Arabic.
There is an old Mafia movie clich? about disagreements being “business, not personal.” Politics, war, ideology – in the Middle East these are all business. But there is no room for business on a 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 disagreements that have raged for so many decades. Intense ideological passion and political conflict are part of life in Israel. I doubt that anyone, Jew or Arab, has his or her views and loyalties changed one iota by spending days or weeks mingling socially in a hospital. We all leave with the same ideological orientation we held before we came in.
This is the fundamental contradiction that underlies everything in this country.
Consider the following incident, as recounted recently in The Wall Street Journal: “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.”
And consider this: Years ago I took my young daughter to Hadassah Hospital for a consultation with a specialist in children’s eye problems. Sitting in the waiting room, I noticed someone who looked familiar. It was a man sitting with his own young daughter, waiting to see the same specialist. It took me a few minutes to realize he was none other than Ziad Abu Zayyad, a senior PLO official who served later as a cabinet minister and in various positions of leadership in the Palestinian Authority.
Did the fact that a Jewish specialist saved his young daughter’s sight affect his politics? Of course not. He is someone who insists the Western Wall is a Muslim rather than a Jewish shrine – one where Jews have no rights. He continues to demand that Palestinians enjoy an unrestricted “right of return” to enter Israel (in order to destroy it from within). He refers to Palestinian terrorism as “resistance.” On March 21, 2004, he apologized when PLO terrorists murdered an Israeli Arab “by mistake” when they meant to kill Jews.
Nothing in the above two accounts contradicts anything in my description of life in an Israeli hospital. It is a dual reality around which one needs to wrap one’s mind if one hopes to understand Israel.
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The Bash-Israel Lobby has become a large totalitarian choir endlessly chanting about Israeli “apartheid.” Western campuses host hatefests with names like “Israel Apartheid Week.”
Friends of Israel try to engage the bigots in debate, attempting to challenge their claims. Statistics are ladled out. Facts are cited, documentation is presented. But those who spread the libel about Israeli “apartheid” are notoriously resistant to facts and truth, like mutant bacteria that resist antibiotics.
The picture of life in an Israeli hospital should serve as a devastating repudiation of the false portrait of Israel painted by its enemies.
Some of those enemies libel Israel out of sheer ignorance, their total knowledge of the Middle East paltry enough to fit in a thimble – and even that negligible amount is tainted by the malicious anti-Israel propaganda they’ve been fed on campus and in the media.
Others who speak of Israeli “apartheid” are simply liars who recognize full well the realities on the ground but refuse to let truth get in the way of their political grandstanding.
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.
Steven Plaut, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at email@example.com.