Building better understanding between Israelis and Palestinians through health


The Jewish-Arab conflict is at the centre of a lot of the news about Jews and Arabs. Most of which includes prominence for physical or verbal violence. Stories of Jews and Arabs in the media leave us with a feeling of despair.

The hostility and enmity thrive thanks to the lack of familiarity with the other side. The lives of Jews and Arabs in the state of Israel are carried out, in almost all fields, in complete segregation: separate living areas, separate education systems, and in the area that true encounter could have been created – the world of business – the segregation, for the most part, is clear.

Against this background, the public healthcare system stands out. In hospital hallways, to which many victims of the hate described above are brought, an alternate reality prevails: Arabs and Jews work together for hours and days, during long and exhausting shifts, as one team. They toil towards a shared goal, beyond the sacred work of saving lives, they save Israeli society from a complete dive into the abyss of despair and segregation. Hospital entrance ways in Israel are also the gateways to what could have been here; to what must be here: Christians, Jews and Muslims, religious and non-religious, working together without separation based on nationality or religion.

The healthcare system is evidence that places of work are the most important pillar, and possibly the basis, for creating normal coexistence and a healthy society in this complex and conflicted reality. By means of shared work and true encounter, mutual respect can be created, which will bring down walls and build good and trusting relationships in other areas of life. The replication of the model presented in the healthcare system to additional places of work will bring about real change that will allow coexistence beyond work.

Arabs find it extremely difficult to integrate and advance in the Israeli employment market. The healthcare system, by contrast, stands out thanks to the extensive integration of Arabs, including the provision of opportunities for advancement, the acquisition of professional status, and equal opportunity.

The largest number of Arab workers in the governmental healthcare system was found in the north of Israel. In the Northern region, for example, Arabs account for 48.89% of the staff of the healthcare office; in Haifa they account for 23.19%. Similarly, hospitals in the north have a relatively high proportion of Arab workers. At the Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya, directed by Dr. Masad Barhoum (himself an Arab, pictured below), for example, 24.5% of all employees are Arabs.

Arab workers account for 18.16% of the staff at Rambam Hospital in Haifa, 23.46% at Ziv Hospital in Tzfat, 29.41% at Poriya Hospital in Tiberias (picture below), and 17.87% at Hillel Yaffe Hospital in Hadera.

In the center and south of Israel, however, the level of employment of Arabs in the healthcare system is much lower. At Sheba Hospital in Tel Hashomer, Arabs account for just 6.99% of the workforce – 309 employees out of a total of 4,635. Nes Ziona Psychiatric Hospital does not employ a single Arab worker, while at Wolfson Hospital in Holon, just 7.55% of the employees are Arabs.

Arabs account for less than 7% of the employees of the district healthcare offices in Jerusalem and in the central region, while in Tel Aviv the figure is 0.36% – one single Arab employee out of a total of 278 workers.

Arab staff members are required to speak Hebrew while working, as we were informed by managers and field workers in the healthcare system. The directors – Jewish and Arab alike – explained that this is needed to ensure that everyone involved in providing care understands what is being said, and to prevent damage to the therapeutic process due to misunderstandings resulting from language barriers. Some hospitals have offered Arabic language courses, in some cases in response to demand from workers. In most cases, the official reason given was to improve communication with patients, but a secondary benefit is a familiarisation with the language and culture of their Arab colleagues.

Many Arab members of caregiving teams we spoke to mentioned that the position they fill in the healthcare system – as physicians, nurses, or pharmacists – significantly improves their status and image in the eyes of Jewish society, and that they notice a clear difference between how they are treated when they are in uniform and how they are treated as Arabs in the public domain.

The healthcare system, unlike other fields, such as the education system, is not segregated. It is a system that provides equal care, under one roof, for Jews and Arabs, and employs both Jewish and Arab workers. This facilitates personal and professional acquaintanceship between Jews and Arabs, with the power to remove barriers and break down walls. In other fields, in which there is segregation, this kind of acquaintanceship cannot happen.

As long as the wall of social, economic, and cultural segregation between Jews and Arabs in Israel remains as high as it is now, recommendations, proposals, and suggestions for improvements will be of little use. Only profound educational and social processes among both Jews and Arabs can promote real coexistence; coexistence that is maintained not only in hospital corridors but on the street, in line at the supermarket, and on the playground.

Below is chart showing the employment levels discussed here.


Report summation, with reference to:

Heroes of Health: Israel’s Healthcare system as a Model of Jewish-Arab Coexistence (December 2016). Supported by Israel Religious Action Centre and Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism.