For Israeli-Palestinian interaction, a new venue: the Arab doctor's office

As a more ambitious Palestinian middle class seeks to integrate, the number of those pursuing medical careers is surging.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
Cribs for newborn babies are seen through a window at a nursery in Hadassah Ein Kerem Medical Center in Jerusalem Sept. 10, 2015. In the last decade, Arab citizens of Israel have entered the medical professions in increasing numbers. According to a recent study, Israel has half the nurses per capita as the European Union.

At the height of a recent wave of stabbing attacks in Jerusalem and Israeli towns, frightened Israeli Jews pressured municipalities to keep Arab construction laborers away from building sites and cleaning women away from schools.

But no one protested against the thousands of Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel who work every day as doctors, nurses, and pharmacists in Jewish cities, helping patients at especially vulnerable moments.

“I am greeted with a lot of respect,” says Dr. Mahmoud Abo Salwook, an endocrinologist from the Arab village of Kafr Qassem who treats diabetes patients in the ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak. He has worked for nine years in clinics in Jewish neighborhoods.

Anti-Arab remarks from Jewish patients are rare, Dr. Abo Salwook says. “It’s an exception. They usually come from people who are uneducated and closed-minded,” he says. “I get a lot of nice feedback ­– I hear what patients tell the secretaries.”

Abo Salwook’s career path illustrates a growing trend among Israel’s Arab citizens and an employment shift that’s been under way for the past decade in clinics, hospitals, and pharmacies in Jewish communities throughout Israel.

While Arab citizens most frequently come into contact with Jewish Israelis as blue-collar builders, drivers, or waiters in Middle Eastern restaurants, they have streamed in recent years into Israel’s health-care professions.

Even as the Israeli Arab minority confronts increased animosity from Israel’s right-wing government and heightened tensions from the recent violence, the upsurge in the medical professions highlights how a more ambitious Arab middle class is seeking to integrate. At the same time it's spurring a new kind of Arab-Jewish interaction, albeit one that often goes unnoticed.

When Abo Salwook first left home for medical school nearly 20 years ago, he was one of the only students from Kafr Qassem to pursue medicine. Now, thousands of other young people from the village and across the Israeli Arab community are following suit.

Profession with prestige

“It opened a door to others,” says Abo Salwook. “We see that in the last decade, there’s an upsurge in the number of [Arab] doctors. The numbers are only rising.”

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.

While the figures indicate that Arab doctors and nurses are still under-represented relative to their portion of Israel’s overall population – 20 percent – it’s a higher rate than their overall representation in Israel’s public sector, where percentages are normally in the single digits.

Arab Israelis are attracted to medicine for some of the usual reasons: the potential for employment is strong and it’s a profession with prestige.

“It conveys a status. And it’s very important socially," not only to Arab students but to their families, says Hawazin Younis, a doctoral student in anthropology at Haifa University who studies the career paths of Arab professional women.

Shortage of doctors in Israel

The upsurge highlights a growing thirst among Arab citizens to pursue higher education as a means toward socio-economic advancement and integration. A rise in teachers’ performance in Arab schools has resulted in more graduates with the skills to pursue medical professions.

The road is not easy. Thousands of Arab doctors whose applications to Israeli medical schools are rejected choose to go to Eastern Europe to study medicine.

“Even families who are relatively poor are willing to pay money for their kids to get a higher education,” says Abo Salwook.

The upsurge also reflects a human resources shortage in Israel’s medical services fields. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Israel has half the nurses per capita as in the European Union. It is also struggling with a shortage of doctors because Jewish doctors are leaving the socialized health system for more lucrative work in private medicine, clinics abroad, or in high tech.

The Israeli health system also attracts Palestinian citizens because of the centrality of the medical oath, which requires professionals to treat patients without bias – and has become part of general culture of public health services, according to a 2011 report by the Abraham Fund Initiative, a nongovernmental organization that promotes Jewish-Arab coexistence in Israel.

Shared conservative values

“It speaks to the humanity of people, even though it requires a lot of investment,” says Abo Salwook. Even though his ultra-Orthodox patients and Palestinian Israelis seem worlds apart, Abo Salwook says, he sees a common denominator. Both are religious, traditional communities that are socially and economically marginalized relative to Israel’s mainstream.

“I came up from the bottom too. I understand these people; they aren’t a lot different from Muslims. We are also believers,” he says. “I can help with how to deal with the disease spiritually.”

Dr. Mushira Abo Dia, a Hadassah Hospital obstetrician from the town of Lod in central Israel, treats women at a clinic in another religiously observant Jewish town, Beit Shemesh, and agrees that conservative values are a common ground. Both religious Jews and Muslim communities grapple with traditionalist attitudes toward contraception and sexual intercourse.

Working in Beit Shemesh has exposed Dr. Abo Dia to the intricacies of Jewish law on sexual relations and menstruation with which most secular Israeli Jews are not familiar. “I understand a lot of things in the Jewish religion, something that you only understand if you live in Jewish [religious] society,” she says.

Will the progress spur a shift in attitudes? Abo Dia says she has no idea if the interaction in the examining room will change political attitudes. But Abo Salwook, the endocrinologist, says he sees an additional mission beyond caring for his patients.

“I look at myself as an ambassador of my community, so when people leave, they’ll say, ‘Wow, they’re not like what I thought. We can live together.’ ”

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