Israeli Hospitals Admit to Segregating Jewish and Arab Women at Maternity Wards

Three hospitals admit in court that this is their policy, claiming they do so 'at the women's request'

File photo: Haemek Medical Center in Afula, northern Israel, 2016.
Rami Shllush

Three Israeli hospitals have admitted for the first time that they segregate Jewish and Arab women giving birth, at the women's request.

In response to a lawsuit filed against four hospitals, three of them – Hadassah University Hospital on Mount Scopus, Jerusalem, Haemek Hospital in Afula and Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva – have admitted in February that this is their policy, while the Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya, which is also included in the lawsuit, denies it.

Kupat Holim Clalit, the health maintenance organization representing Soroka and Haemek, has told the Jerusalem District Court that separating mothers in labor is part of life in Israel’s reality. “Not respecting the wishes of mothers for specific placement creates an ‘enforced communal hospital stay’ when both sides are not interested in this. The purpose of their stay is not to create an artificial melting pot.”

Hadassah Mount Scopus told the court that “given the differences between various populations, women often request to be in a room with other women from their own community. Hadassah, where possible, accedes to these requests.”

The hospital says that these requests are most common among ultra-Orthodox women, in an attempt to observe the Sabbath and kashrut laws, as well as modesty and other customs. Some Arab women also request to be in different rooms. “This is understandable, given the different languages the women speak,” says the hospital.

The hospital emphasizes that there is no policy or practice of deliberate segregation, and that Jewish and Arab women giving birth are usually placed in the same rooms. Hadassah noted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s daughter, Noa Roth, was placed in a room with an Arab woman. “There is nothing wrong with acceding to individual requests – this is not discriminatory, and when possible, the request is taken into consideration.”

Haaretz first reported the lawsuit filed by four Arab women last year. The women included recordings of conversations with hospital staff and demanded 20,000 shekels ($5,500) in compensation for being insulted by the segregation. In one recording, a nurse is heard supporting the segregation, where there are available rooms. “If there is pressure, we do mix the women, but try to separate them the next day.”

Hadassah maintains the lawsuit is baseless and populist. “The hospital is a beacon of equality and a model of coexistence between Arabs and Jews.” The hospital claims that Hadassah has never received complaints from Arab women giving birth, and that professional considerations by doctors should not be interfered with.

Hadassah has numerous Palestinian patients (4,741 in 2015), with many Arab employees at all levels. The hospital says the Health Ministry, which is also charged in the petition as the hospital’s owner, “is aware of its policy to take into consideration the requests of these women, and has never forbidden it.” The hospital adds that it will be severely harmed if the class action suit is successful.

The lawsuit includes the testimony of a social worker, who had her three children at Mount Scopus. She testified that when giving birth to her third child in 2017, after the segregation was reported, she was put in a room with Arab women only, making her feel “humiliated.”

Hadassah said that she had the right to choose another hospital in the area. “The fact that she kept returning to Hadassah to give birth despite claiming that she was humiliated and insulted shows that her claims are groundless, since she was happy with the service she received there. This is a baseless petition,” said the hospital.

Kupat Holim responded: "The insistence on mixed rooms in contrast to the wishes of women giving birth stems from an ideological and contrarian stance, paternalistic in trying to determine what is best and right for these women, disconnected from their own wishes."