Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Till We Meet: Thoughts upon reading a book by a colleague.

Alice Rothchild’s “On the Brink: Israel and Palestine on the Eve of the 2014 Gaza Invasion” is a collection of blog entries from a tour of Israel and the Palestinian Occupied Territories during the tense period preceding Israel’s last military onslaught on Gaza. The brief and pithy blog posts revolve around Israel’s orchestrated build up to the attack and the reactions of people Alice meets on the ground to this crescendo in the conflict and the extensive and very complicated background to it. This is journalism at its best, getting under the skin of your subjects. But Alice does this not only sympathetically but also with the sensibilities of a concerned physician. Armed with the professional tools of her training, with expectant and alert intelligence and with her high degree of concern for her subjects, she reflects on the major health care and health determinant issues of the Palestinian communities that she visits. “As a physician, I am always impressed by the combination of intelligence, dedication, weariness, and fortitude that characterize so many Palestinians working in the field of health care,” Alice declares halfway through her account.  The admiration is mutual. As a Palestinian public health specialist I am greatly impressed by Alice’s remarkable and deep understanding of what ails the healthcare system (or non-system) in the POTs beyond medicine, doctors, drugs and clinics.

Having spent a lifetime struggling with many of the same issues among the Palestinian citizens of Israel, I highly appreciate her point of view, an obstetrician addressing public health issues. After all, on both sides of the Green Line Israel is the main decision maker and Palestinians are the subject of its practice of assigning or permitting the use of resources to its less than equal non-Jewish subjects. Repeatedly, as I read the professional observations in “On the Brink,” I had a rude reminder of the commonality of Israel’s willful neglect of the health needs of its Palestinians citizens and not only of Palestinians under occupation. Much alarm and accusations of cruelty are leveled against Israel for the destruction of Gaza’s infrastructure and thousands of its homes leading, among other disastrous outcomes, to cases of infants dying of the cold. For years at end, as the head of the Health Ministry’s office in Western Galilee where two thirds of the population were Palestinian citizens of Israel I struggled with the issue of newborn infant deaths from cold injury, occurring exclusively among Palestinians in my area, to no avail. The only response I could elicit from my bosses was that this was an issue of general development and has to await the natural and slow process of overall progress in the Palestinian community, a thinly disguised logic of blaming the victim. The logical question of how such cases had been avoided among Mizrahi Jews who had come from communities with similar backgrounds was never addressed to my satisfaction.

“So, how does a lie get created and sold as the truth?” Alice asks her readers early on. As I see it, this is an appropriate and relevant question whose answer not only shakes the foundations of Israel’s self-righteous image in American eyes but also undermines the multilayered reality “created and sold as the truth” at the base of Israeli-American relations: diplomatic, socio-cultural, economic and military. The lie has gained sufficient credibility to allow Benjamin Netanyahu to insist on staging a veritable Purim show for congress in direct opposition to the wishes of the American executive. Throughout the book the author uses a dry clinical logic to drive her statements of fact home. She gives factual answers to her question using a raw and direct style of writing in which she screams her truth at her readers and impels them to look at the ‘real’ reality, the stark reality, often asking them “right?’ to emphasize her conclusions.

It has been suggested that Dr. Rothchild and I should make a joint appearance. I like the idea. A physician like her, I seek to address the greater dis-ease among those I care about. Alice’s trust in her audience’s shared humanity makes her directness and common-sense style easy to digest and to sympathize with. In contrast, in my new book, Chief Complaint: A Country Doctor’s Tales of Life in Galilee, I attempt to answer the same question she poses but in a different style. Alice dares to address her readers on factual basis whereas I portray the same reality using fiction and relying on my community’s collective memory. Potentially, the two of us can support and defend each other. The standard accusation that Israel’s Hasbara and its sympathizers fling at anyone critical of Israel is that of anti-Semitism, unless of course, if the perpetrator is Jewish, in which case he or she is branded ‘a self-hating Jew.’ Both accusations have lost much of their bite and validity, their currency devalued by forgery and cheap trade. Their original sparkle was further tarnished as it repeatedly went up in flames in Gaza in recent years. Still, for doubly guarding against such malicious defamation tactics, stating our congruent truths in a single setting should be helpful: It is rather asinine to label a “Dr. Rothchild” as anti-Semitic. And self-hating Israeli doesn’t stick or even make sense in the current Western mentality when applied to a Palestinian citizen of Israel. Mind you, in my book I do point the finger at my own country’s system as the underlying cause of much that ails the protagonists of my stories. The reflexive element is there if you wish. But Israel defines itself as the state of the Jews thus excluding me out of its existential identity. Logically, even if I were to admit to hating Israel, (which I do not, provided I am permitted to define Israel my own way,) that doesn’t make me ‘self-hating.’

My agreement with Dr. Rothchild’s stand on our common concerns is not limited to solidarity in the face of potential detractors. I am in full and deep resonance with her pacifism and social justice advocacy. It is mind-boggling that with both of us operating in the same constricted arena of peace activism in Israel-Palestine we have not met so far. This is doubly surprising when one remembers that both of us are physicians and are active with groups that view peace through the kaleidoscope of health and healing. May our meeting and the success of our combined efforts be our reward.

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