Open Heart

Prof. Raphi Walden, the personal physician (and son-in-law) of President Shimon Peres, is a devoted activist who works with African refugees in Israel. Under the proposed Infiltration Prevention Bill, doctors like him would be subject to prison terms. Has Israeli society become indifferent to suffering?

Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
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Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon

On a sweltering afternoon last week, dozens of people waited quietly outside the Physicians for Human Rights clinic, in front of a locked iron gate on a side street in Jaffa. At exactly 4 P.M., Prof. Walden enters a dreary street that ends with a tall row of cypresses. Wearing white slacks and white shoes, a stethoscope poking out of his left pocket, he is coming here at the end of a day of work as deputy director of Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer. When the clinic door opens, he and the throng of refugees and foreign workers enter the sparsely furnished lobby. Lots of patients today, he remarks with a brief smile, passing by the admissions office where a warning sign hangs: Caution, wobbly cabinet.

Inside, dozens of refugees and foreign workers without legal status crowd around, filling the rows of plastic chairs a group of mustachioed young men from Eritrea, a Chinese laborer who cant stop blinking, a pregnant woman from Sudan, three Filipinas and an Indian man in a wrinkled button-down shirt. All seeking salvation.

This is where people on the margins of Israeli society gather for lack of other options, explains Walden, a board member and longtime activist in Physicians for Human Rights, which has been running this clinic since the late 1980s. You used to see mostly Palestinians here, but now the situation is different. The place has really changed, and you see it in the huge number of patients that come here: mostly refugees and foreign workers. Every month, more than 500 patients come in here, 200 of them new patients. Seventy percent of the patients are refugees.

The soft-spoken Walden paints a picture of hell. He describes how in the worst times, this clinic has treated refugees who had not eaten for days. Faint, starving people who dislocated their jaws while gulping a glass of water. Refugees who come here hours after crossing the border, with fresh gunshot wounds, are a matter of routine, he says. Not long ago, I had a refugee from Darfur who was wounded by gunfire from Egyptian soldiers in Sinai. He came in with a shattered hand. He was in obvious need of surgery to save the hand, but he hadnt received any help, he was just walking around with a totally deformed hand. Unfortunately, we have become indifferent to the suffering of certain people. We cant let this happen. A case like this signals to me just how far Israeli society has sunk, how unfeeling weve become.

The waiting room in the clinic of Physicians for Human Rights in Jaffa. No state help. Credit: Nir Kafri

Extreme cruelty

Over the years, Walden, the personal physician to Israels president and head of vascular surgery at Sheba, has become an activist dedicated to helping the refugees who live among us. I came here [to Physicians for Human Rights] because of my respect for human beings, for their rights and dignity, he says with deep feeling and no trace of self-satisfaction. It was in the early 1990s. The Oslo Accords were in the background, it was an optimistic time, and still there was a very great need in the Palestinian sector for medical treatment. This is why I got involved in the organization. As part of my physicians oath, I vowed to help people, and it doesnt take any special effort to help only people who are in the same socioeconomic group as you are, or the people who come to your private practice. It is important to mobilize on behalf of people who arent even able to obtain the most basic medical rights.

Today, most of the people in need of such medical care are refugees and foreign workers. These people who come here are doing the jobs were not interested in doing, but theyre treated like theyre invisible. Like they dont exist. Israeli society completely ignores them, it doesnt want to hear about them or know about them. Its a big disgrace. But theyre here they clean our yards, wash the dishes we eat off of at restaurants, look after our elderly.

The problem is that theres no official mechanism to lend them a hand, he continues. In Israel, theres a close connection between civil rights and civil status. Only residents are entitled to national insurance, and so anyone who is not a resident has nowhere to go for medical care. Im talking about a mother whose baby has a fever. There are a significant number of people who cannot obtain simple medical care. This is extremely cruel. Theyre here, after all, and as long as they are here its our duty to look after them. Theyre not beasts, theyre not animals. They are people with feelings, who are experiencing human suffering. Weve neglected pregnant women, children, people with nothing. Weve become totally insensitive.

Some would say that a state cannot provide assistance to anyone who breaks into it; that all the worlds refugees cant be expected to find a home here.

I wouldnt want us to become a land of refuge for tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of refugees from all over the world who would just freely enter our little country. But there needs to be a clear immigration policy that says who is and who isnt allowed to be here. And its impossible to ignore the presence of people who are here. They have to be given basic rights.

Perhaps the health system, in which you hold a senior position, should be the one to wave the flag?

The responsibility does not belong to this or that hospital, which is struggling under budget limitations. The health system is in great distress. I see the budgetary shortfalls that hospitals confront and you just cant expect them to be that generous and take on hundreds of patients for free. Its not realistic. The budget has to come from a state source. Israeli society has to decide, as part of its set of priorities, to allocate resources for this vital human task. I find it a serious problem that social and human sensitivity is left in the hands of a small group of people, and isnt something thats taken on by all.

Was there a certain moment when the Israeli response to the refugees particularly surprised you?

One of the most outrageous things was the image put forth by Minister Eli Yishai, to the effect that refugees and foreign workers are carriers and spreaders of infectious diseases. That was a real horror. That was a tough moment, a peak moment, or, I should say, a low I never expected Israeli society to reach.

Crude rejection

Right after 2005, when (according to data from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees) the first group of about 450 asylum seekers from Sudan and Darfur entered Israel, the state began taking stringent measures to deal with those seeking refuge inside its borders. In early 2006, Walden points out, the authorities hastened to dust off the Infiltration Prevention Law, an emergency law enacted in 1952, and started arresting the asylum seekers. Unlike the Law of Entry to Israel, the Infiltration Prevention Law does not include a mechanism for judicial discretion, and all those arrested on the basis of the law were jailed for a long time.

In 2007, when approximately 5,700 asylum seekers entered Israel, the government made a controversial decision to expel them all. Those apprehended at the border upon entry would be immediately returned to Egypt. The others, who were already in Israel, would also be returned to Egypt in coordination with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and in the interim would be held at a detention facility next to Ketziot Prison a tent camp surrounded by barbed wire fences to which about a thousand asylum seekers were sent, including more than 100 children. The government did decide that year to grant asylum to a limited number of refugees from Darfur, but it also instructed the IDF to expel to Egypt, using the hot return procedure (immediate expulsion of those who had spent less than 24 hours in the country), 48 asylum seekers, including 18 children, many of whom had survived massacres in Darfur.

In 2008, when 7,700 asylum seekers entered Israel, a lightning operation was undertaken in accordance with the following plan: 300 asylum seekers were to be arrested per day, throughout the seven days of the operation. The Prison Service was asked to prepare to take in the detainees and the Foreign Ministry was asked to prepare to deport them to countries with which Israel has no diplomatic ties, such as Sudan. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel protested, but the government decided to go ahead with the deportation idea anyway. And as if that werent enough, a month later the Interior Ministry took the unusual step of asking arrested asylum-seekers to sign pledges regarding their conditions of release, restricting their movements and preventing them from remaining in the central part of the country, between Hadera in the north and Gedera in the south.

This succession of bizarre decisions just goes to show that our approach is to completely disregard the suffering of others, who arent one of ours, says Walden. Its not just abuse, its crude rejection. The sad thing is that we, as Jews, for centuries, experienced what it means to be refugees, to be terribly persecuted. More than once, we, too, knocked on the doors of other nations that could have helped us. But because we were different from then, they turned us away. So we accused the goyim of insensitivity, of cruelty and lack of human compassion. It pains me to see that now that were in a position of power, living in our sovereign state in an affluent society, were completely ignoring people who are suffering horribly. I think our behavior is a disgrace to the Jewish people.

Isnt that analogy a bit extreme?

When Jewish refugees in World War II came to Switzerlands border, they were turned away and sent back to Germany, to the death camps. Tens of thousands could have been saved if theyd been allowed in. So yes, its a harsh analogy and I dont mean to exaggerate, but its sad that were behaving with total indifference to people who are in a similar situation.

No one is saying these people should be given the same health services that people in Ramat Aviv Gimmel are getting. Im talking about the most basic medical care, about care for pregnant women, vaccinations for children, basic family medicine, basic lab tests.

Human solidarity

To understand the depth of Waldens emotional turmoil, one has to know his family history. He was born in France, in the Dordogne region, to a middle-class Zionist family. His mother, Rina, was a doctor and his father, Josef, was an agronomist. Both parents were born in Warsaw and came to France after the universities in Poland started limiting the number of Jews allowed to study at academic institutions.

Since my parents couldnt get into the university in Warsaw, they had to leave to study in France, he says. They came to the city of Nancy. There my father shared a room with two roommates: Yisrael Barzilai, who later became health minister [of Israel], and another fellow by the name of Natan Alterman. Alterman also studied agronomy. This trio became the closest of friends.

When his parents finished their studies they moved to Paris, but they subsequently had to leave there as well. Right after the outbreak of World War II, Josef wisely realized that the future did not look good and decided to move his family to a farm in Dordogne, in the center of the country. They bought a farm in a small village of 18 houses, far from any industrial areas, roads or train tracks. We lived on the farm throughout the war and we didnt lack for anything. My petit bourgeois parents rolled up their sleeves and became real farmers, says Walden. They raised cattle and chickens, plowed and planted. That is the place where I was born and where I lived until the age of three.

Despite the relative comfort of life on the isolated farm, the Walden family had to live in secret. Our big secret was our Jewishness, he says. We lived with false papers, with French names that wouldnt give away that we were Jews. My grandfather, for example, a Pole who spoke French with a very heavy accent, had papers saying that he was deaf and mute. This was to avoid his accent giving him away if he were ever questioned. We tried to live a quiet life, even though my parents were very popular among the other farmers in the area because my mother was a doctor who took care of the sick for free and my father, the agronomist, gave free advice to anyone who needed it.

One day, Walden recalls, this bucolic world was disturbed when a neighbor came running to the family in alarm. It was after wed been on the farm for almost a year, he says. A farmer from a nearby village came to our house, out of breath, and said to my parents: Watch out, theres a German patrol approaching the village. Thats when we understood that everybody around us knew that we were Jews, that it was an open secret. This scene, of someone coming to warn us about the Germans, was repeated a number of times. We always received warnings. Then we would leave the house and hide in the forest, waiting for the danger to pass.

At the end of the war, the family returned to Paris. Waldens father, who was to lose his life in a plane crash a few years later, was appointed as the Davar newspapers correspondent in the city. Walden recently found a few articles that his father published, including one piece written back in 1938 that especially spoke to him. It was a piece about the Jewish refugees in France and the attempts to expel them, he says. The arguments against them were that they were taking jobs, that they were foreigners, that the French had no obligation toward them and that they should be returned to the lands from whence they came. When I read the article I thought that if you just replaced the word Jews with refugees from Darfur you could publish it today in any newspaper in Israel.

Coming from a family that went through its own refugee experience, a family that was saved because of a protective community, has much to do with his commitment to helping the refugees. I believe that its because of human solidarity that my family and I survived. People who had no obligation to us saved us. We were strangers there. Even though they knew very little about Judaism, even though all they knew about Jews were some unflattering things from the New Testament, it didnt stop them and they felt it was right to help us. Because of them we lived. All of our relatives who remained in Poland, a huge family, they all perished, every last one. My familys refugee experience has played a very substantial part in shaping me as a person.

Young volunteer

As evening falls, he describes how in 1951, when he was nine, the family came to Israel, moving into a place on Sderot Chen in Tel Aviv.

As a teen, he already displayed an affinity for social justice. He volunteered for the Noar Lnoar (Youth for Youth) organization that worked in impoverished areas. After serving as organization chairman and graduating from high school, he began studying medicine at the Hebrew University, deferring his army service. There, too, he continued his activism and became the first Israeli elected president of the International Federation of Medical Students Associations. In September 1964, his election to a second term was covered in the news pages of Haaretz: For the first time since the organizations founding, a student has been elected twice as president. This is only the second time that a student from a non-European country was elected, and both times it was an Israeli, despite strong propaganda against him from Arab, German and Austrian students and students from Communist bloc countries.

When he finished his studies, Walden enlisted in the army as a doctor in the paratroop brigade. He met his wife, Dr. Tzvia Walden, linguist and daughter of Shimon Peres, around that time. I met her when she was a student in Jerusalem and I was a young doctor at Tel Hashomer, he relates. We got married on September 5, 1973 and the Saturday after the wedding the Yom Kippur War broke out. We had planned to honeymoon in Spain and Portugal, but we ended up celebrating it apart. We didnt see each other for four months.

Shimon Peres, who was transportation minister at the time, immediately made his new son-in-law his personal physician. Ive been with him ever since, for more than 37 years, says Walden. Its very natural. When you have a son-in-law whos a doctor, why go to someone else? It wasnt a formal appointment, and basically, Im blessed to be unemployed, because Israels president is an extraordinarily healthy man. My job is more on the level of supervision, routine exams and accompanying him on some of his trips abroad. Im happy to say that he doesnt need my good services.

There was that time about six months ago when Peres fainted and lost consciousness. Didnt that worry you?

There was concern, of course. But the circumstances were difficult. That day he was dressed warmly, stood for a whole hour and gave a speech, didnt drink, the spotlights were right on him. His blood pressure dropped for a moment and he fell. He lost consciousness for a few seconds but immediately came to. I got to him within minutes. I was at a concert in Tel Aviv, it was intermission. I got there and assessed his condition and saw that he was basically fine. Still, since hes not a young man, I took him to Tel Hashomer for observation until the next morning.

Dont you sometimes feel that one could expect the president to make his voice heard on the refugee issue? The Israeli public listens to him. Dont you think he could help to open up closed hearts?

I can say that he does get involved in the refugee issue, without creating publicity about it. He maintains a low profile in certain areas, even though he is very often involved in humanitarian issues.

A lonely battle

The Infiltration Prevention bill, due to be discussed soon by the cabinet, has been preoccupying Walden lately. Also known as the Vilnai Law, it proposes a five to seven-year prison sentence for anyone trying to cross the border into Israel illegally. The law would also allow the state to keep refugees in detention for up to 18 days without being brought before a judge, and would legalize the hot return procedure, whereby asylum seekers could be sent back across the border within 72 hours from the time they are caught. The bill also includes the possibility of preventing the release of an infiltrator if an expert opinion is presented by security officials saying that in his country or area of residence there is activity that could endanger Israels security. Refugees that could be hurt by this section of the law are those from Darfur, for example, who come from Sudan, says Walden.

Another draconian section of the proposed law would mandate a five-year prison sentence for anyone who aids an infiltrator during his stay in Israel. This section of the law would make me a candidate for prison, states Walden. Because I treated a refugee with a shattered hand, for example, I could expect to go to prison. According to the proposed law, anyone who provides medical assistance to a refugee is an accessory to a crime. Its appalling. A doctor who offers medical assistance to a person in distress is going to be a criminal. What really disappoints me is that this law is coming out of the Labor Party. Its disappointing that people who purport to be socialists and sensitive to human rights and human suffering are sinking into the general moral abyss. Im more disappointed in Labor than I am in the right-wing religious parties that are naturally antagonistic toward foreigners.

Two years ago, your clinic closed down in protest over the governments ongoing failure to take responsibility for the health of asylum seekers. In retrospect, do you think it was a mistake to reopen it? That perhaps keeping it closed was the only way to force the authorities to deal with the problem?

The clinic closed down because of a sense of despair. Because we were being inundated by tidal waves of people who needed basic health services, and didnt see any public official who cared in the least. We couldnt handle the flow of patients. Its sad that caring for people without legal status has been left to the volunteer organizations, while the government turns its back. So we closed down the clinic; it was absolutely an act of protest. After the closing there was a certain awakening on the part of the Israeli Medical Association and the Health Ministry, but in the end I cant say that we succeeded in the public campaign to increase Israeli societys sensitivity to these problems. Not a lot was accomplished, and after three months we reopened the clinic. We did it because we had a commitment to the patients.

What will happen in the end?

Maybe, in spite of everything, even with this countrys skewed order of priorities, the resources will somehow be found to deal with this most fundamental human issue.

Do you believe this will happen?

Im not too optimistic. "

A French honor

In November 2009, Prof. Raphi Walden was named an honorary Officer of the French Legion of Honor for his work on behalf of Physicians for Human Rights. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner came to Tel Aviv to confer the award, the highest honor that France gives to one who is not a French resident.

Usually, the ambassador is the one who gives the award, but when Minister Kouchner heard that I was getting it he wanted to bestow the honor himself, Walden relates proudly. Id met Kouchner a number of times on his visits to Israel and wed struck up a friendship. I think he had a special sentiment about my activity because he founded Doctors Without Borders. Its an organization whose activity is similar to that of Physicians for Human Rights.

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