'Another Terrorist Is Born': The Long-standing Practice of Racism and Segregation in Israeli Maternity Wards

While no hospital in Israel has a policy of separating Jewish and Arab patients, testimonies show segregation is implemented in wards with doctors and management turning a blind eye.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Babies in a maternity ward.
Babies in a maternity ward.Credit: Alon Ron
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

For many years the health system has been segregating Arab and Jewish mothers who come to deliver their babies, particularly in hospitals and maternity wards that serve mixed populations. This is obviously not official policy, but is being implemented by nurses on these wards, with doctors and hospital management turning a blind eye. However, in many hospitals that are reimbursed for every delivery, this policy is part of the benefits offered to new mothers, an attractive bonus for those who choose to give birth in a hospital.

Reshet Bet radio has reported that hospitals such as Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem and Hadassah University Hospital, Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, Ichilov in Tel Aviv and Meir in Kfar Sava direct Arab and Jewish women to separate rooms, either automatically or at the women’s request.

The report, which touches a sensitive area of friction relating to demography, discrimination and medicine, has raised a storm. Habayit Hayehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich rushed to inflame the situation by tweeting sarcastically that it was only natural that his wife would want to lie beside a woman who had just given birth to a baby who might want to murder her own baby in 20 years.

Habayit Hayehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich.Credit: Olivier Fittousi

More disturbing is the apparent surprise and the responses of the medical establishment and its spokesmen, ranging from condemnation to sweeping denials. The formal prohibition on segregating mothers is obvious, since this is patently racist and discriminatory. However, anyone familiar with the system knows that this has been going on in many places for a long time. It begins before mothers are assigned to recovery rooms after giving birth.

The maternity ward on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem serves Palestinians in northern Jerusalem as well as ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods. “Delivery rooms here raise the demographic issue more than in other hospitals,” a delivery nurse who used to work there told Haaretz.

“The situation of Palestinian women is more complex a priori. They are usually very young, usually 18, most of them don’t speak Hebrew and they typically come with their mother-in-law. This makes the meeting of populations very volatile, leading occasionally to surreal situations, including violent incidents,” she says, describing how Jewish and Arab women are kept apart in delivery rooms and wards, as well as the attitude of doctors to the non-Jewish population.

“When I started learning the ropes here I was told that after a woman gave birth I should call the ward, where they’d ask if the mother spoke Hebrew or Arabic. They were then assigned rooms accordingly. There were two kinds of rooms, crowded ones with six women and one bathroom, or more spacious ones for two or three women. Clearly the Arab women got the less comfortable ones. There is no such thing as separate but equal, the situation produces discrimination. Nurses often did not separate their politics from their work,” says this nurse.

“When I found out about this I was told that the Arab women are happier that way, having someone to talk to. It’s convenient to say so, but I have enough Arab friends to know that many of them feel deeply insulted.

“The really bad things happen in the delivery room where you can’t prove anything, since anything can be defined as a medical necessity. Discrimination starts there – Hadassah has four small and crowded delivery rooms and three spacious ones, one of which is considered the best. When I started working there an Arab woman in labor arrived and I put her there. Immediately, a few nurses showed up and told me that the room wasn’t for Arab women. I protested, saying that it’s not right but also illegal. In that case they agreed and let me finish delivering the baby. I quickly learned that this was an exception.”

Following this incident, the nurse and some of her colleagues (including a settler delivery nurse) raised a fuss, seeing themselves as defenders of human rights. This led to a stormy session of the ethics committee, ending in a directive forbidding such discrimination.

“This was enforced in shifts where there was someone who cared, otherwise it wasn’t. That’s still the situation today. I have many friends there and know that professional considerations are not always paramount.”

She adds that discriminatory attitudes are also reflected in bedside manners. “This ward deals with healthy people. Delivery nurses have to be soft and supportive, but some of them can’t show empathy to Palestinian women, who are often treated disrespectfully, with family members rudely removed. Attitudes are often cold and harsh. When there are security concerns it’s much worse, with nurses making comments like ‘here’s another terrorist’ after a delivery. If I were a Palestinian woman I wouldn’t go there.”

Trying to separate

This doesn’t apply only to Palestinian Arabs. In 2013 the human rights group Physicians for Human Rights had to deal with requests by Jewish women to separate them from non-Jewish ones. When they approached several hospitals pretending to be women before delivery and requesting such separation, they were told that the wards try to separate mothers and that requests for such separation were common.

The group turned to the Israel Medical Association and were told that this is not their policy and that no ethnic-based separation exists, but that consideration is given to women’s preferences. The human rights group claims that this is a surrender to populism and racism, rather than proceeding according to medical requirements.

Hadassah Hospital responded by saying that they treat all their patients equally and with empathy, giving everyone the best professional care. The hospital added that ethnic diversity is a common sight at the hospital and that teams in all departments are attentive to patients’ needs. New mothers are given particularly warm care, said hospital officials. The hospital and staff "do their utmost to let everyone enjoy the most comfort and all the conditions they require according to their culture, religion and ethnicity," the hospital said in a statement. 

Other hospitals also denied that there was any policy of segregation. A Meir Hospital spokesman said that “we treat new mothers with love and devotion so that the delivery is safe and pleasant. In all our rooms there is a mixture of Arab and Jewish mothers, and placement is done based on vacancy.”

Click the alert icon to follow topics: