Parents of Kids Treated for Cancer at Hadassah Go on Hunger Strike

'We have completely lost faith in the health system'

The parents of children being treated for cancer in Jerusalem as they began their hunger strike
Emil Salman

Parents of children being treated for cancer in a Jerusalem hospital department that is the focus of a legal and political crisis launched a hunger strike Sunday evening, saying they’ve lost faith in the health system and want the hospital director dismissed.

The parents of some of the young patients in the hemato-oncology (cancers of the blood) department of Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem have pitched a protest tent at Sacher Park in the capital.

“We have completely lost faith in the health system, in the health minister [Yaakov Litzman], Health Ministry director general [Moshe Bar Siman Tov] and of course Hadassah director Prof. [Zeev] Rotstein,” said Shlomo Ben Dor, whose son Nehunya, 6, had been treated in the department.

It has also emerged that the Hadassah Women’s Zionist Organization of America, which owns the medical center, had tried in the past to get Rotstein dismissed, but was rebuffed by Litzman.

At the opening of Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for the parties to make a “final effort” to resolve the crisis and asked the High Court of Justice to move up a hearing on the issue from Wednesday to Monday, saying the children should be spared the “unnecessary suffering” caused by the additional two-day wait.

The department was thrown into confusion in March, when its head, Prof Michael Weintraub, and five senior colleagues submitted their resignations to protest Rotstein’s management policies. The resignations took effect on June 5, after a labor court ruled against the hospital and allowed the doctors to resign.

The department has continued to operate, with new permanent and temporary staff members from Israeli and foreign hospitals, but most of the families whose children were in the midst of treatment have moved them to other hospitals. Hospital sources confirmed that nearly all the children who remain are Palestinian children who must stay there because of agreements between the Palestinian Authority and Hadassah.

The parents are demanding that the High Court permit a new pediatric hemato-oncology department to open at Shaare Zedek Medical Center, also in Jerusalem. They also want Rotstein fired from his position as Hadassah director and want the police to pursue a criminal investigation against him and Litzman.

According to the parents, during negotiations last week that were mediated by President Reuven Rivlin, Bar Siman Tov had agreed to their demands, including a reduction in medical tourism, a cancellation of the plan to hospitalize children together with adults and a return of all the doctors, including Weintraub. But hours later the Health Ministry director general retracted his agreement, while Rotstein announced that he would not agree to fire the department’s new director, Prof. Gal Goldstein.

In its response to the petition, submitted to the court on Sunday, the state said that establishing a replacement department at Shaare Zedek was out of the question because there was no justification for spending public funds to set up another department when Hadassah’s department was adequate.

The New York-based Hadassah women’s organization has apparently had its disputes with Rotstein since he was appointed hospital director in February 2016; some sources say Rotstein and the president of Hadassah, Ellen Hershkin, are not on speaking terms.

“They didn’t want Rotstein there from the start, and this whole relationship started out on the wrong foot,” said a source familiar with the issue. The source added that Rotstein had a different way of working than the Hadassah women were accustomed to – which Litzman may have seen as an advantage when he tasked Rotstein with pulling the medical center out of its financial crisis.

A few months ago, when the crisis in the hemato-oncology department intensified, the organization asked for a meeting with Litzman. According to the sources, Litzman made it unequivocally clear to the Hadassah women that Rotstein had his support, and that he would remain the Hadassah director for as long as he, Litzman was health minister.

Although Hadassah, through the Hadassah Medical Organization, still owns Jerusalem’s two Hadassah hospitals and underwrites their budget, as part of the 2013 agreement to restore them to financial health the group lost its majority on the HMO board. As a result, its ability to influence the management of the hospitals has been considerably reduced.

The Hadassah women’s organization said, “The most important thing for all of us is the welfare of the sick children. The hospital’s management, headed by director Prof. Zeev Rotstein, the Health Ministry and the hospital’s board are working around the clock to find a solution that will allow the children to get the best possible care.”

The Health Ministry did not respond by press time.