In Israeli war on coronavirus, Arab doctors rush to the front

Why We Wrote This

As societies confront a coronavirus enemy that doesn’t discriminate, there is growing appreciation for leadership and sacrifice. In Israel, the prominent role of Arab health care professionals is gaining attention, and praise. 

Courtesy of Dr. Yasmin Diab
Dr. Yasmin Diab (second from right) and some of the other members of the coronavirus team at Rambam Hospital in Haifa, Israel. She says she considers them all, whether Arab or Jew, like a second family.

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Over the past decade, Arab doctors and nurses have become a more familiar presence at Israeli hospitals. But the pandemic has shown them in a new light: as essential foot soldiers and field commanders in the country’s struggle against the coronavirus.

That comes, ironically, at a fraught political moment. Even as Arab Israelis have strengthened their parliamentary representation, they repeatedly have been the objects of hostile rhetoric from Israel’s right.

Yasmin Diab, who shuttles between her home in an Arab village and long shifts on a coronavirus ward in Haifa, says she doesn’t regret taking on the risky job. “I believe this is a mission,” she says. “We are on the front line of this war.”

Noting that Israel’s fight to save lives would be “fatally compromised” without Arab professionals, a Tel Aviv University think tank’s policy brief urged “an end to exclusionary and racist discourse and statements that call into question Arab loyalty.”

Dr. Diab says Israelis have reached out to her on social media to thank her for her work. “People are looking at us differently,” she says. “I hope this isn’t temporary. I hope it’s the beginning and there will be equality between us.”

Yasmin Diab shuttles daily between self-quarantine at her home in the Arab village of Tamra and 24-hour shifts at Rambam Hospital in Haifa – the largest in northern Israel – where she was the first doctor on the coronavirus ward when it opened in March.

Because of her work with coronavirus patients, Dr. Diab cannot have physical contact with her family – her birthday recently came and went without a hug from her parents. The stresses of work make it harder to sleep.

Still, the internal medicine resident doesn’t regret the decision to volunteer for a job that puts her and her family at risk. “I believe this is a mission,” she says. “We are on the front line of this war.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

With a stethoscope draped around her neck, Dr. Diab delivered a round of poised interviews to several Israeli news shows in the early weeks of the crisis. But she is just one of the tens of thousands of Arab health care professionals putting themselves on the line in Israel’s battle against COVID-19.

Though Arab doctors, nurses, and pharmacists have over the past decade become a more familiar presence at Israeli hospitals and state-supported HMO clinics, the pandemic has shown Arab Israeli citizens in a new light: as essential foot soldiers and field commanders in the country’s struggle against the virus.

That elevated stature comes, ironically, at a particularly fraught moment in Arab-Jewish political relations.

Even as Arab Israelis, one-fifth of the population, have strengthened their parliamentary representation via a new alliance, the Joint List, they repeatedly have been the objects of hostile campaign rhetoric from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Leading up to the March 2 election, Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party sponsored billboards that warned Israeli voters against an alternative government that would include or rely on the Joint List, which the prime minister and his allies portrayed as “terrorism supporters.”

In an effort to push back on that sentiment, a new television commercial sponsored by Arab health care workers features a montage of portraits of Arab doctors and nurses. “It’s about time to acknowledge: Arabs are also partners in the country. Partners in destiny, partners in governance,” the commercial concludes. 

Jewish Israeli attitudes may be evolving. Increasingly, there are calls in Israel to shift budgets from military interests to the public health battle. And there are calls to recognize the Arab Israeli contribution.

“This is the first time that Israel is conducting a war and [that] the Arab citizens have been recruited,” says Eran Singer, Arab affairs reporter for Kan, Israel’s public broadcasting company, alluding to the fact that most Arab citizens aren’t obliged to serve in the army. “It’s quite amazing that it happened so soon after the elections.”

The prominence of Arabs in Israel’s health system reflects an effort by many to move into the mainstream, despite decades of discrimination and marginalization. Over the past two decades, as rising numbers of Arab youth have pursued higher education and sought to integrate among Israel’s middle class, many have chosen to become health professionals.

According to official government data published in the daily Haaretz newspaper, Arabs now make up 17% of the country’s doctors, 24% of the nurses, and 48% of the pharmacists.

“The system would collapse without the decisive contribution of Arab medical staff,” said Raphael Walden, deputy director of Sheba Medical Center, the country’s largest hospital, in an interview with Israel’s Channel 12 television news.

Opportunity “not to be missed”

The pandemic has broadened recognition of the Arab Israeli health care contribution to national security experts.

Noting that the fight to save lives would be “fatally compromised” without Arab professionals, a recent policy brief by the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a Tel Aviv University think tank led by former military top brass, urged the government to create a “positive basis” for “full integration” of Arabs in Israeli society and for “an end to exclusionary and racist discourse and statements that call into question Arab loyalty.”

“This is really an opportunity that’s not to be missed,” says Meir Elran, an INSS fellow and former general who co-wrote the paper. “It’s very difficult to find a light in this tunnel. But there’s more than a chance that this can make a difference.”

Still, for all the progress achieved by Arab medical professionals, Israel’s health services are harder to access for the Arab population. Arab towns are located, on average, nearly twice as far from hospitals as Jewish towns, according to the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies.

Early on in the pandemic, it became apparent that fewer coronavirus tests were being administered among Arabs, and that informational material about COVID-19 wasn’t even available in Arabic. As of April 16, the Health Ministry reports that only about 459 of Israel’s some 12,591 COVID-19 cases, or 3.6%, come from Arab towns. The Palestinian Authority reports another 81 cases in East Jerusalem.

The underrepresentation stems from the initial emergence of the virus here among Jews who have limited interaction with Arabs, says Dr. Mohammed Khatib, databank director of the Galilee Society, a center focusing on health policy among Arabs. Israeli coronavirus policy needs to be better fine-tuned to Arab communities and lacks input from Arab public health professionals, he says.

Dr. Diab, who dons bordeaux-colored scrubs worn by the staff on the Rambam coronavirus ward, estimates that about two-thirds of the doctors on the ward are Arab. She says she considers the staff – whether Arab or Jew – like a second family. Her parents, religious Muslims, worried about the risk of infection but ultimately supported her decision to volunteer.

“They believe that God will do what is necessary,” she says. “In the end, they trust me.”

As for her Jewish patients, “I always get smiles from them. They aren’t insulted or surprised to have an Arab opposite them. I’ve never felt anyone treat me differently because I’m an Arab.” While not unheard of, she says, that’s a rare phenomenon at the hospital.

Dr. Diab says she has kept in touch with Ariel Grabois, a ballroom dance instructor, who was one of the first patients on the ward. Released after recovering from the virus, Mr. Grabois describes the medical staff on the ward as “dedicated” and “top notch,” and says he hopes the pandemic prompts Israelis to look beyond identity politics.

“You have to put those things aside,” he says. “The virus doesn’t distinguish between Arab and Jew. I hope this will make people look at things differently – less in terms of [demographic] sectors.”

“We’re all in the same boat”

Indeed, inside Rambam Hospital, the collegiality and collaboration among the Arab and Jewish staff is a marked contrast to the public atmosphere elsewhere in Israel, says Mogher Khamaisi, the hospital’s Arab Israeli director of internal medicine, who oversees a ward of patients with COVID-19 symptoms.

Arabs, who make up much of the senior staff, volunteered for the coronavirus work out of a sense of professional duty. “They want to take an active role in the effort,” says Dr. Khamaisi.

“It’s true that [Israeli politicians] ignore us ... and the prime minister speaks against us. On the other hand, the doctors here do our work regardless, without expecting any favors. People should see that we’re all in the same boat and that our contribution is critical,” he says. “But I fear that in another half year, everyone will forget, and we will return to being second- and third-class citizens.”

Dr. Diab sounds a more hopeful note. Lately, more individual Israelis have reached out to her on social media to thank her for her work. “They think that what I’m doing shouldn’t be taken for granted.”

She says she’s always tried to rise above the national differences in Israel, and focus on individuals as humans instead of Arab or Jew. And while she says she isn’t particularly interested in politics, it bothers her when she hears some insist that Israel is only a Jewish state. Maybe dealing with the coronavirus will change that.

“Ultimately we live in the same country, and we all need to be equal,” she says. “The fact is that we are now more equal, because we are on the front lines of the corona battle, and people are looking at us differently. I hope this isn’t temporary. I hope it’s the beginning and there will be equality between us.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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