July 1, 2004
A Mitzvah Is Its Arab-Israeli Enmity Vanishes at Hospital
After exhausting the capabilities of Palestinian hospitals in Jenin and Nazareth, the mother of a 4-year-old boy with stomach cancer learned that his best chance for survival lay beyond the Green Line at Afula's Emek Medical Center, about 10 miles from Jenin.
Quelling her own fear of becoming a target of Jewish hostility, because of the intifada, Samera permitted doctors to quietly arrange for her son, Halid, to be admitted to Emek's pediatric oncology unit. While the rest of her family remained in Jenin, she lived in Nazareth for six months in housing arranged by one of Emek's Arab staff members.
"She was received with compassion and warmth," said Larry Rich, Emek's development director, who spoke with mother and son before the patient's release last year.
"Halid, do you know your doctor is a Jew?" Rich recalled asking. "He said, 'He's a good man.'"
The grateful mother embraced Rich.
"It made my heart swell," he said in an interview during a recent trip to the United States.
To avoid being branded as a collaborator, most Palestinians would not admit to accepting aid from Israel. Samera bravely told her story to A-Sinara, the largest Arabic-language newspaper in the region. Her experience "was diametrically opposed to everything she'd been told," Rich said.
Yet, not even a small child is free of politics in a nation where every joy seems superseded by bitterness. When Halid's condition worsened, Samera's return was forbidden, according to Rich. The boy died earlier this year.
The 435-bed Emek hospital is a remarkable example of Arab-Israeli cooperation in the bitterly divided Middle East. Even so, because of its proximity to terrorist activity, its emergency room has swarmed with bombing casualties, and several among its staff have suffered disabling injuries from suicide attacks.
The hospital's staff, about an 80-20 mix of Jews and Arabs, closely mirrors Israel's population, where 1.1 million Israeli Arabs make up 18 percent of the nation. But the hospital's patient population is a more diverse 50-50, where Jew and Arab often are roommates.
"Something magical happens here," said Rich, when families visiting at bedside drop their guard and commiserate together. "People begin to talk. The horns melt away. There's no difference between them."
"We don't represent the solution to the Middle East, but we are an example, a living philosophy of coexistence through medicine," Rich said.
Emek's Detroit-born development director is taking on a quixotic challenge: trying to shine a light on the hospital's good work by sharing its story with the American Jewish community, as well as the American Muslim community. His aim is to loosen purse strings and puncture stereotypes hardened on both sides by enmity over endless bloodshed.
The medical center has treated more than 800 victims of terror since the second intifada began in September 2000. Its emergency room treats more than 130,000 people annually.
Yet, anemic funding of Israel's national health-care system has forced Emek to curb elective surgeries, hiring and research. Israel's depressed economy has made more daunting a $100 million growth plan to add 12 operating rooms to Emek. The facility is one of 14 hospitals operated by Clalit Health Services, an HMO with 3.6 million members.
"Our current surgical facilities cannot cope efficiently with the normal caseload of a growing population," wrote Orna Blondheim, Emek's director, in a pitch to potential donors.
On his first fund-raising trip to the United States and Canada that began in April, Rich spent six weeks going to 28 cities to describe the work of Emek's 250 physicians and 600 nurses. In Irvine, about 75 people heard him on May 26 at an event organized by the Beth Jacob Congregation.
Rich realizes he faces a forbidding rival in the fund-raising machine of Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America. In 2002, the group raised $53 million divvied up among six major projects. They include its best known, the Hadassah Medical Organization, comprised of two medical facilities in Israel -- the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center at Ein Kerem and the Hadassah University Hospital at Mount Scopus.
In Orange County, Rich's sponsor was Tim Timmons of San Clemente, a one-time seminary student who has visited Israel 30 times and makes his living as a motivational speaker. Using his own Rolodex, Timmons tried to assist Rich line up speaking engagements.
"He's not getting the response from Jewish organizations," said Timmons, who suggested he contact a Lebanese-born friend with political connections.
"I was warned not to overplay the coexistence message," Rich said. "I thought about it. I'm not going to buy into it."