Published first at Jerusalem Post
There many reasons to be pessimistic and at times to despair about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet even when things look hopeless, hope has a way of appearing, offering a vision of what can be rather than what is. Recently, I caught a glimpse of this hope in an unlikely place – the Israeli health care system.
In December, I went for a routine checkup with my family doctor in east Jerusalem and received the news everyone fears – I had cancer. What had seemed like a small lump in my neck was in fact thyroid cancer – devastating news for someone in his late 20s. I was quickly scheduled for surgery and given a date of May 17.
I immediately called my close friend Dr. Adel Misk, a Palestinian neurologist from east Jerusalem. Misk works in both Israeli and Palestinian hospitals, treating Palestinians and Israelis alike. He referred me to his colleague, Dr. Shila Nagar, a Jewish Israeli endocrinologist.
When Misk referred me to Nagar, he was not thinking in the terms of Palestinians and Israelis, but rather in terms of which specialist could best treat me. He was not concerned about her religious practices or political opinions. He was only concerned about her track record as a doctor.
In the waiting room outside Nagar’s office, I could not help but notice how many Palestinians were there. It did not bother them that she was Jewish, just like Misk’s Jewish patients do not mind that he is Palestinian. All the stereotypes and fences of nationalist fervor were replaced with basic survival instincts.
I SHARED my thoughts about Israeli-Palestinian medical cooperation with Nagar, who told me a story of a Jewish friend of hers who had prostate problems. One night he was suffering from a painful blockage and went to the emergency room. The doctor on duty was an Arab woman. He was not pleased: It is doubly bad, he thought, an Arab and a woman. At first he refused to let her treat him; however, as the pain increased he changed his mind and called her in. Years later, this Arab woman is his permanent doctor and a close friend. This personal experience was Nagar’s example of how humanity (and physical necessity!) can overcome nationalism.
Fast forward to the day of my surgery. In an ironic twist of fate, here I was, a Palestinian journalist, draped in a hospital gown covered in Stars of David. I was stressed and fearful. Yet none of these emotions had to do with the nationality of my doctors or the pattern on my hospital gown. I was afraid of the surgery, and the possibility of not waking up again. However, when I was brought to the operating room, I was again given another dose of hope.
I had two surgeons, a Palestinian Arab and an Israeli Jew. The anesthesiologist was an extremely experienced and competent Russian who joked with me until I fell asleep. My life was in the hands of an ideal team.
Meanwhile, my family waited outside. My wife and mother were both in tears, and later told me that a Jewish woman waiting for news of her relative’s surgery comforted them.
In the midst of the hatred, anger and bitterness of the conflict, you can still find glimpses of goodness. Unfortunately, this light often passes unnoticed. Yet it offers a practical example of the dream we all share, of a future where we can live safe and full lives without fear of injury.
My surgery went extremely well, and I recovered quickly. Moreover, through this painful experience I caught a glimmer of hope in what seems like a hopeless environment. I have many criticisms of Israeli policies and politics, but the functioning universal health care system in Israel and its ability to separate politics from medicine earns my praise.
This is not to say that the system is perfect. Like any future Israel and Palestine might share, there is the possibility of getting distracted by issues of insurance and bureaucracy. However, when it matters most, Israeli and Palestinian doctors share a commitment to human life regardless of ethnicity, religion or nationality. Moreover, when it comes time to choose doctors, we base our choice on who is mostly likely to promote human life. If only we voted on the same basis!
Unfortunately, I had to experience the health care system personally before being able to appreciate this example of what Israelis and Palestinians can achieve. Despite the pain and suffering, I am grateful to have discovered such a hidden treasure of humanity at its best.
The writer is director of Middle East projects at the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, and a winner of the Eliav-Sartawi Award for Common Ground Journalism. His blog can be found at http://azizabusarah.wordpress.com