Netanyahu Turns to Arab Doctors to Fight the Virus - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Netanyahu Turns to Arab Doctors to Fight the Virus

Netanyahu Turns to Arab Doctors to Fight the Virus

By Mehul Srivastava

Israel’s dependence on its Arab doctors has come at a time when the outbreak is developing quickest in the country’s Jewish ultra-Orthodox communities.


Because it's a reversal for a government that had considered Arabs second-class citizens.

By Mehul Srivastava

Zahi Said was driving to the medical clinic he runs in the Israeli city of Haifa when his phone rang — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to see him.

The four-time prime minister had just seen the Arab doctor on television, discussing how the government needed to reach out to Arab Israelis about the dangers of coronavirus, and he wanted some advice. 

Said, who also advises one of Israel’s largest health care providers on Arab issues, turned his car around and drove straight to Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem. Since then, Said has been on national TV almost daily, taking questions from Arabic speakers, busting myths and begging people to stay home to help break the chain of new infections. 

But when asked whether the Arab community in Israel could expect to receive equal access to coronavirus care as the Jewish majority, Said gives a diplomatic answer.

“We know it’s not a secret that the resources in this country are not equally distributed, but I have to look at the glass as half full,” Said says. “At least when I go meet Netanyahu … he is listening to us.”

Israel has a way of celebrating good Arab doctors while discriminating against all other Arabs.

Osama Tanous, Arab pediatrician

Since Netanyahu first came to power in 1996 he has denigrated Arab politicians as supporters of terrorism, stripped Arabic of its status as an official language and last year passed a law that gave Jews alone the right to self-determination in the state of Israel. Now, in the battle against COVID-19, Netanyahu needs their help.

Arabs make up only a fifth of Israel’s population, but represent half the country’s pharmacists, a quarter of its nurses and just under a fifth of its doctors, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Some of the nation’s largest hospitals have Arab doctors heading major departments, and the country’s leading virologist is Arab. 

Arabs are disproportionately represented in the medical community because attaining professional qualifications has been one way to push back against political marginalization, Arab doctors say. Many trained in Jordan after the two countries signed a peace deal in 1994, and Israel’s Arab community continues to hold medical workers in high regard.

“The Polish [Jewish] mother used to want her son to be a doctor, but now she wants him to get a tech job,” Said jokes. “The Arab mother still wants her children to be in medicine.” 

In Kafr Qara, an Arab town south of Haifa with so many medical professionals that residents call it the city of doctors, Dr. Jameel Mohsen is more critical.

“As an Arab, other jobs are closed off to us, so we became doctors,” Mohsen says, peeling off layers of protective equipment after setting up a COVID-19 ward at the Hillel Yaffe Medical Center, where he is head of infectious diseases. 

Israel’s dependence on its Arab doctors has come at a time when the outbreak is developing quickest in the country’s Jewish ultra-Orthodox communities. In contrast, despite claims from Netanyahu and his right-wing political allies that Arabs were ignoring health directives, none of the Arab-majority cities, even the densely populated neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, have had major outbreaks. 

But for Osama Tanous, a fiery 34-year-old pediatrician who cites the Indian leftist Arundhati Roy as an inspiration and quotes the 19th-century German pathologist Rudolf Virchow in his analysis, the sudden elevation of Arab doctors to national saviors will not usher in new equality for Arab communities. Instead, he says, it will be used to justify continued prejudice.

“Israel has a way of celebrating good Arab doctors while discriminating against all other Arabs so that doctors become the ambassadors of this beautiful Israeli system of coexistence,” Tanous says, referring to a flurry of recent articles in Israeli newspapers praising Arab medics. “It makes it appear that now that you have Arab doctors saving Jewish lives, and helping Israel at a time of national crisis, therefore it is time to stop being racist against them — this is a very slippery and dangerous notion.”

The work of Arab medics so far has certainly not brought their communities any immediate benefits, says Dr. Hani Daoud, head of a pharmacist’s association that represents almost 300 pharmacies in Israel’s predominantly Arab north.

Daoud’s colleagues were the first defenders against the virus as people rushed to pharmacies to stock up on medicine, masks and hand sanitizer. “The government didn’t make any precautions for us — we had to face the panic on our own,” Daoud says, pointing to the inadequate face masks that his staff wore in the first few weeks.

At the century-old Ziv Medical Center, Dr. Jalal Tarabeia, head of infection controls and a consultant for the Ministry of Health, says the pace of work has been so frantic that he and his Arab colleagues have not had time to ponder the politics of the situation. 

“We are very proud to be on the front line — leave politics far away, we just want to save lives,” Tarabeia says. But for Tanous, the pediatrician, interactions between Arabs and Israelis are always political. “It’s just another level of us having to prove ourselves,” he says. “Prove that we can get into medical school, prove that we can be a part of this national effort to fight the epidemic, just so that we can be granted equality by our occupiers.”

By Mehul Srivastava

OZY partners with the U.K.'s Financial Times to bring you premium analysis and features. © The Financial Times Limited 2020.

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