Monday, May 30, 2011

Israeli "Apartheid," You Say?


One Day in the Life of an Israeli Hospital
Posted By Steven Plaut On May 30, 2011

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
"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
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
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
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
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
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.

Article printed from FrontPage Magazine:
URL to article:

2. The Phantom of the Ephemera
By Steven Plaut
Haifa, Israel

Reb Shunra quietly slips by my hospital room. He peaks inside
with his long grey whiskers. He regularly checks in on me, to see how
I am doing.

I suppose I should come clean right up front. Reb Shunra is a
cat. He lives on the walkways and scaffolding outside the windows of
the hospital ward on the top floor of Rambam Hospital. Being the top
floor, the windows are bolted so they cannot open more than a few
inches. So humans cannot slip outside to the realm of walkways, the
exclusive domain of Reb Shunra. He hops up on the window sills of
hospital rooms from outside, to check on his patients, happily
accepting any food scraps offered through the open window slots. No
one knows how long he has lived out there, but it looks like many

I have a secret theory about him. But you will have to have seen
the Phantom of the Opera to appreciate it, or perhaps to have read the
original book by Gaston Leroux, or seen the movie. There, briefly,
the "phantom of the opera" is Eric, who secretly controls the Opera
House, stalking about in its upper caverns and walkways. He allows
the opera house managers downstairs to delude themselves into
believing that they are really in charge. He keeps himself hidden
from most people, while moving about the scaffolding and secret

Rambam Hospital in Haifa is named after the extraordinary
medieval Rabbi, philosopher and medical doctor, Maimonides, Moses the
son of Maimon. It might be the only hospital on earth named for a
philosopher. The lobby of the hospital features exhibits with copies
of some of the original medical tracts written by the Rambam and
exhibits of some of his herb medicines. The main building of the
hospital is nine stories high.

Maimonides continues to exercise a hypnotic influence over the
modern mind. I think that a new book about him comes out every month
in Israel. A current bestseller is titled, "The Secrets of the Guide
to the Perplexed." It is written by Dr. Micah Goodman, a researcher
at the Hebrew University. It is a modern and fascinating analysis of
"The Guide," perhaps the most challenging and difficult text ever
written by the Rambam. Published in Arabic, "The Guide" was also one
of the most important philosophical tracts ever written.

* * * *

I am not sure what the very worst day of my life was, but I have
no doubt whatsoever which day was the very best day in my life. It
has no challenger day with which it has to compete. And it took place
five floors below. That is the Rambam Hospital floor with the
delivery rooms. And it was there that I became a father. Selecting
the happiest day of my life is easy for me, because that was it. I
confess I was a bit apprehensive that day. Before this, I was worried
about how I would adapt and behave and cope as a father. After all, I
tended to be impatient and distant from the very young children of
others, relating to them with difficulty.

But of course, that was all hogwash. The first day or two I was
afraid to pick up my baby daughter, afraid she might break, because
she was so small. But when I at last summoned up the courage, I
instantly fell in love with her and with being a father. I have never
found any other pleasure in life that could compare with it.

Now in the ward up on the top floor, I try to relive those
moments as I slip in and out of naps. Breakfast and lunch trays up
here are reasonable, but the dinner tray contains things only Reb
Shunra finds appetizing.

Opening my eyes I am overjoyed to see Reb Shunra at the window.
How amusing that the hospital management thinks that they are in
charge of what happens here, I ponder. They do not realize that the
phantom calling all the shots is prowling about the scaffolding
outside the rooms of the top floor. And he is a secret medical plan,
in and of himself. Every patient that he visits is forced to smile
and feels a little better, a little stronger. His services are not
even listed in the health insurance policies or the hospital
directory. He comes and goes as he pleases. He reveals his true face
only to a select few of the patients.

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