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Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Image
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The Equality of Sickness and Death

Working in Israel’s health care sector reveals a country making precious progress toward lived coexistence

Anne Dubitzky
May 05, 2022
Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Image
Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Image

Those in the West who think they know what’s best for Israelis and Palestinians generally demonstrate little knowledge or firsthand experience of life here. Heirs of the 20th-century Orientalists, they see the region in black and white: a centurylong clash between authentic, indigenous Arabs and colonialist, European Jews. (Never mind that only about 30% of Israeli Jews are of European origin; the majority come from Arab and former Soviet lands.) They view the situation as an irreconcilable conflict that requires external intervention in the form of professional “peace processors” who, with their superior wisdom and talents, can impose a resolution on the benighted locals.

This top-down, outside approach has a massive blind spot, in which slow, incremental evolution toward a more peaceful future is happening on the ground without the intermediation of Western diplomats. The most high-profile example is probably Mansour Abbas, the leader of an Islamist party in Israel’s current governing coalition, who has said, “The State of Israel was born as a Jewish state, and the question is how we integrate Arab society into it.”

A less visible but even more salient example of natural integration is the health care system. Since I moved to Israel 2009, I’ve participated in the country’s hospitals and rehabilitation facilities as a patient, a caregiver, and an administrator (I worked for several years for one of the country’s biggest providers). In the waiting rooms of every hospital and clinic, one sees Arab women in hijabs sitting next to Haredi men with peyot and big black hats sitting next to young women in tank tops and shorts. The staff of medical facilities—not only in mixed cities like Jerusalem, Haifa, and Ramla but in Tel Aviv, too—include a patchwork of religious and secular Jews, Muslim and Christian Arabs, and others. About 70% of the pharmacists at the largest Israeli drug store chain, SuperPharm, are Arab Muslims, who make up a similarly high proportion of the country’s physical therapists and nurses. The families comforting and consoling one another in the ICUs and ventilator units are from every possible walk of life; differences in faith, dress, and culture all but evaporate in settings of suffering and loss.

For the last several years, I’ve worked as a gardening therapist at the Reut Medical Center in Tel Aviv, one of Israel’s premier rehabilitation facilities. One young man I’ve been working with in recent months is from Ramallah in the West Bank, where he was operated on for a brain tumor. The surgery resulted in a coma, and when he emerged from it the Palestinian Authority sent him to Israel for rehab services. His mother, who is with him every day, has a room at the hospital where she can stay the night, to save her the daily commute from Ramallah. All of these arrangements are relatively commonplace and frictionless—and at odds with the myth of an “apartheid state.”

One rainy afternoon, after a day of working with the young man from Ramallah, I took a cab home from work. The app told me the driver’s name was Mohammed, and I could only see the back of his head and a bit of his face over his COVID mask in the rearview mirror. Like many Israeli men in their 30s and 40s, he had a shaved head, dark eyes, and dark eyebrows. From what I could see of his shoulders, he appeared to be strongly built. “What do you do for a living?” he inquired. Israeli taxi drivers are notoriously talkative and curious; they often endeavor to extract as much personal information from their passengers and share as many opinions about politics and religion as possible during the ride—so I was neither surprised nor offended by the personal nature of this question from a man I’d met only a few seconds before. I told Mohammed that I worked at the rehabilitation hospital where he picked me up, treating patients using gardening therapy, and that I was also a photographer. I’d hardly stopped answering his question when he asked if I have children. I told him yes, three, and five grandchildren. “Baruch Hashem, sh’yehe’u bri’im,” he replied in Hebrew. “Thank God. They should be healthy.”

I took advantage of the brief pause to ask him if he had children. He has four, he said, and he loves them so much and loves spending time with them, but they live with his ex in an Arab town in the north (whose name I didn’t catch), and he lives in Haifa—Israel’s famously mixed Jewish and Muslim port city. Then, without my inquiring, Mohammed told me the following story.

“My father is Muslim, and my mother is Jewish. We spoke Arabic at home. Both my parents’ families came from Damascus. My mother’s father was a tailor in Damascus and my father’s father was a shoemaker. They were in business together and traveled all over the Middle East, to Lebanon and Palestine and Egypt, sometimes by horse or donkey and carriage, selling wares and doing business. It didn’t matter that one was Jewish and one was Muslim, you see. They were partners.” He paused for a brief breath. “As someone who works in a hospital, you know,” he observed. “People are all the same inside. We all bleed the same red blood.”

At some point before the 1948 war, he continued, his two grandfathers moved from Damascus to Haifa. They moved into apartments in the same neighborhood and continued to do business together. Shortly thereafter, his mother and father were born. They fell in love and married.

“I was raised in a house where it didn’t matter what group you came from,” Mohammed said. “We were taught to treat everyone the same way. We all worship God, and it doesn’t matter what you call Him.” He went on to tell me about his Jewish girlfriend in Petah Tikva.

Mohammed’s story is not representative of Israel’s Muslim population as a whole, but neither is it so exceptional: It exemplifies the complexity of life in the religiously and culturally diverse society of contemporary Israel. Middle East envoys from the West seem to only be able to think about Israel as if it’s the (fictional) Upper West Side of 1958, with the Jets and Sharks engaged in a zero-sum competition for territory. For the majority of the ordinary people who live here, though, that framing is delusional at best. Arab Muslims, both within and outside the “Green Line,” have been assimilating into Israeli society more and more: perhaps not quickly and smoothly enough for foreign diplomats who have their eye on a Nobel Prize, but enough to take advantage of increasing cooperation between Jews and Muslims in education, technology, business, health care, agriculture, and other fields. This is the kind of progress that cannot be decreed, codified, or imposed by law or treaty; it can only be achieved by working collaboratively, building on existing structures of prosperity within Israel and working to integrate the Arab Muslim population into them as much as possible.

I recall the Reut Medical Center’s Purim carnival from a couple of years ago, held annually for the children who are patients at the hospital. The kids were as diverse as the staff. One of them, confined to a wheelchair, was being pushed from booth to booth by a Muslim therapist on staff who wore bunny ears over her hijab and a cotton tail pinned to her tunic. Another handicapped child was accompanied by an Eritrean staff member, a gold cross hanging prominently from a chain around her neck. A man was there playing an accordion and singing, “Oh today we’ll merry, merry be, and nash some hamentashen.”

As I surveyed the scene, I remember wondering if there is anyone in the world outside of Israel who actually knows what life looks like here for so many of us—that it is, in fact, one of the very few places in the modern world where large numbers of Muslim and Jewish people interact, cooperate, collaborate, and do more than simply coexist.

A graduate of Harvard Law School, Anne Dubitzky lives in Tel Aviv. She is currently writing a book, Back to the Garden, about her experiences as a gardening therapist for severely handicapped patients.

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