A Good Doctor and an Arab? 'Some Jews Have Trouble Reconciling the Two'

Dr. Mushira Aboo Dia is the first woman and the first Arab to head Physicians for Human Rights in Israel. She spends her professional life helping Palestinians, but she also straddles the fence: Five of her siblings have converted to Judaism

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Dr. Mushira Aboo Dia.
Dr. Mushira Aboo Dia.Credit: Emil Salman
Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv

The rays of a winter sun crept out from the cracks between the gray clouds as the doctors, nurses, acupuncturists and other Israeli volunteers – all of them women – gathered early one Saturday morning at the gas station near the Al-Walaja checkpoint south of Jerusalem. Happy to see one another, they embraced and talked about the day ahead. They soon got into two minibuses that, completely full, made their way toward Beit Ummar, a Palestinian town of 14,000 near Hebron between the settlement of Carmei Tzur and the Gush Etzion settlement bloc.

For the past 28 years, the mobile clinics of Physicians for Human Rights have been passing through checkpoints, both physical and proverbial, and providing medical services in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. On these days, which are set in advance and announced to the local people, doctors from various fields offer treatment and medical advice. Hundreds of Palestinians are examined and treated every week by Israeli volunteer physicians.

On this particular Saturday, the mobile clinic that arrived in Beit Ummar provided services for women – gynecology, family medicine, psychological and psychiatric advice, and even acupuncture, the latter from Acupuncturists Without Borders.

The minibuses pulled up at a school that functioned as a medical center for the day. The volunteers took up their positions in classrooms equipped as temporary clinics. Outside the school, a “drugstore” was quickly set up; two volunteer pharmacists filled prescriptions that the local women received from the doctors.

I’m Palestinian-Israeli, not only Palestinian and not only Israeli, but both.

Among the latter was Mushira Aboo Dia, 40, a senior gynecologist and obstetrician, and the new chairwoman of Physicians for Human Rights Israel. She’s the first woman and the first Arab to hold the post. And that’s not the only extraordinary development in her life. She assists Palestinians in the territories, while five brothers and one sister have volunteered to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, some in combat units.

And not only that. Four of her brothers and one sister have undergone Orthodox conversion to Judaism in Israel and today live a Jewish life in every respect. One had joined the African-American Hebrew Israelite Community of Dimona and lived with the community until his death in a road accident. A number of the siblings are Sabbath-observant and keep kosher, and the sister lives in a religiously oriented settlement with her Jewish family.

Aboo Dia draws a connection between her life in a family deeply embedded in Jewish society – not least attending Jewish schools – and her siblings’ decision to convert.

“Growing up like that influences your choices, even if you belong to a different ethnic-religious group,” she says. She and her siblings grew up “like that” because their mother, a woman from a devout Muslim family with unbridled willpower, who was illiterate and whose parents married her off when she was 16 to a man 30 years older, was determined to get them the best education possible. And that meant Jewish schools.

Does it bother you that your siblings chose to convert?

Aboo Dia: “It’s not easy to straddle the fence your whole life, being neither here nor there, knowing that I never really belonged to any group. I can understand their choice.”

Mushira Aboo Dia as a child, light a hanukkiah (right) and dressed up for Purim.

You visit the territories frequently and see the suffering of the Palestinians because of the settlements. Is it hard for you to visit your sister who lives in one?

“I see completely what the settlements are causing, but am I going to wreck family ties because of that? We come from the same family, and that will never change. They bought a plot of land there, because it’s so much cheaper than anywhere else. I believe that if my sister could manage to live in Israel, she’d prefer that. We don’t see each other often, so a political argument is the last thing we have time for. I hope that when we’ll have to talk about [politics], we’ll be able to do it in a way that won’t hurt the relations between us.”

What are the family gatherings like? Are there no arguments or bad feelings?

“The gatherings are mostly of the siblings from the same mother, and they’re calm and pleasant because we don’t talk about religion or politics. We mostly tell stories from when we were little, remember childhood events and recall our mother [who died four years ago]. These days most of us have time to meet, usually at Passover, when the family gathering includes a barbecue at the home one of my sisters, who lives in an Arab village. We serve rolls that are kosher for Passover, and kosher and halal meat.”

Are you thinking about converting?

“No. If I had thoughts like that, it was when I was younger. It’s hard to always feel that you’re on the other side, but as an adult I don’t feel the need to convert to be accepted. Today I know that people who want to accept me will do so, and those who don’t won’t accept me even after a conversion. Religion, any religion, doesn’t preoccupy me anymore. I don’t drink alcohol, and I don’t eat pork anyway because I’m a vegetarian. And in the past I also fasted at Ramadan – but that was because of tradition, not religion. My friends and colleagues have never wondered why I haven’t converted.”

The only time Aboo Dia was asked to explain why she hasn’t converted was when a patient asked about it.

'People aren’t capable of understanding that injustice is injustice even if it’s done to those you categorize as your enemy.'

“She was pregnant with twins and I accompanied her during the pregnancy and at the birth,” Aboo Dia says. “When the new mother came for a checkup after the birth, she said, ‘You’re such an amazing doctor, how is it that you don’t convert?’ It took a minute for that to sink in, but then I put her in her place.

“It was hard because I understood exactly why she was asking the question. Some Jews have a hard time reconciling a ‘good doctor’ with a non-Jewish woman. The dissonance in her head, between the fact that I’m her doctor and the fact that I’m an Arab woman, put a dent in her worldview. It didn’t make sense to her. For her to resolve the contradiction in her mind, I’d have to convert.”

Aboo Dia’s siblings each converted for their own reasons, she says, some after marrying a Jewish partner. Her brother Yusuf Abu-Zaim, 59, says in a phone call from Ireland, where he has lived for eight years, that he first considered converting when he was a B.A. student of economics and political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. But he found the process too demanding.

A few years later he met a Jewish-Italian woman – who later became his wife, then his ex – and decided to convert for her sake. First he studied Judaism twice a week at a Jerusalem yeshiva, and later studied intensively, every day, spending the Sabbath at the school. Finally, when the yeshiva’s rabbi thought he had acquired sufficient knowledge, Abu-Zaim underwent questioning by a rabbinical court. Its decision: “He can be a Jew.”

He later went to Italy with his wife and their daughter; after their divorce he moved to Ireland, where he’s in a relationship with a Christian woman; the two are raising their daughter. Thus Abu-Zaim has a connection with three monotheistic faiths.

“I introduce myself as a Jewish Israeli and try not to talk politics with people who don’t know me or my story,” he says. “If they insist, I say that I was once a Muslim and that my opinions are left-wing. When I meet Muslims, I don’t feel as if I’ve ‘left’ them – on the contrary, I feel a cultural kinship with them.

“Religious differences aren’t important for me, and I see religion as something personal, not political. My conversion wasn’t an act of rebellion against Islam, but an act of conciliation with a culture I grew up in. When I meet Jews, I sometimes feel a type of exclusion, but I’m used to feeling that I don’t belong.”

Dr. Mushira Aboo Dia with a patient in Beit Ummar. Credit: Meged Gozny

Alone on Memorial Day

Born in Lod’s “railway neighborhood,” Aboo Dia is the eldest child of her mother’s second marriage. A brother and a sister followed, and the family lived in one room in the grandparents’ apartment. Aboo Dia’s parents divorced when she was 11, and she and her mother and the two siblings moved to Ramle. Her mother provided for them by working as a cleaning lady at Assaf Harofeh Hospital. Aboo Dia’s father remarried and fathered six more children; all told, Aboo Dia has a brother and sister from the same parents and 14 half-siblings.

One memory is of a Memorial Day ceremony in high school. She wanted to participate, but her geography teacher took her aside and asked if she wouldn’t find it difficult.

“In the end, I didn’t take part; I appreciate the sensitivity that was shown me,” she says, though she remembers actively taking part in the school’s Shabbat-welcoming ceremonies as a matter of course.

“It’s hard to grow up different – you really want to be like everyone,” she says. “The further you go in high school, the greater the differences become. All the Jews get a preliminary order for military service and talk about the army, and I’m on the outside.”

She mentioned another childhood memory in her speech after she won the Gallanter Prize for social-justice leadership late last year.

As she put it, “At Purim we went out – my brother, sister and I – all of us in costumes: me in a kimono, my sister as a ballet dancer and my brother as a ninja. On the way to school we passed the astonished eyes of our Arab neighbors. Even though everyone got dressed up that day in school, I felt different from the other children. I felt like an outsider, both at school and in the neighborhood, as if I didn’t belong anywhere. Or maybe I belonged everywhere?”

One of my interviews with Aboo Dia took place on the day of the annual memorial for her mother. The Jewish siblings also attended the event, which was held at a Muslim cemetery. They spoke Hebrew among themselves, the language they feel most comfortable in. A Muslim family holding a funeral nearby stared at them in disbelief. But Aboo Dia’s family is used to getting looks like that.

When her older half-brother was killed, their mother saved money for a few months and ordered a headstone from a Jewish stonemason, so the inscription was in Hebrew. “She couldn’t read or write, either in Hebrew or in Arabic – maybe that’s why it didn’t matter to her what language was written on the tombstone,” Aboo Dia says. But the stone was smashed by people who looked askance at the Hebrew inscription in a Muslim graveyard. “That shattered her,” Aboo Dia says.

My self-fulfillment and activity aren’t determined by my physical condition.

Aboo Dia is a senior obstetrician at Hadassah University Hospital in Ein Karem, Jerusalem, and an on-call expert at the hospital’s Bat Ami Center for Victims of Sexual Abuse. She also treats high-risk patients, mostly ultra-Orthodox women, at the women’s health center run by the Clalit health maintenance organization in Beit Shemesh near Jerusalem. She has been volunteering for Physicians for Human Rights for 15 years and can be found at its mobile unit Saturdays and at its Jaffa clinic Fridays. The Jaffa facility treats asylum seekers, people with no formal legal status and people who lack medical insurance.

Two years ago she was appointed chairwoman of Physicians for Human Rights Israel after serving for many years on its board. Around the same time she completed an MBA at Harvard’s Kennedy School, part of a Wexner Foundation fellowship.

“The NGO is dear to my heart, both because of the important medical work that it does, and also because it’s an island of sanity, free of the bad things that are happening all around,” Aboo Dia says. “The amazing people who are active in the NGO prove to me every day that things could be done differently here.”

Like many rights groups, Physicians for Human Rights is also under attack. Do you encounter that personally?

“I don’t read the comments under the organization’s Facebook posts because I’ve learned that people aren’t capable of distinguishing between the political context and the human context, and of understanding that injustice is injustice even if it’s done to those you categorize as your enemy. I try to reduce stress in my life,” she says with a laugh.

“Like my mother, who was a very strong woman, my activism doesn’t take the form of demonstrating. It finds expression in my profession. I consider medicine a profession that not only heals a wounded body but also society as a whole. My volunteer work at Physicians for Human Rights lets me choose political activism and do things that advance my belief about equality and justice without leaving any group out. It’s true that we don’t do any kind of heroic medicine on those Saturdays, but basic human interaction takes place between people who live on either side of the divide and who otherwise aren’t communicating.

“My patients at Hadassah’s sex-assault center also teach me a great deal about steadfastness and resilience, and about how willpower can let victims regain control of their life after it was taken away from them. To help a woman do that – that’s the biggest prize you can get.”

Patients outside Physicians for Human Rights’ mobile unit in Beit Ummar. Credit: Meged Gozani

When the doctor is sick

Aboo Dia, who spends most of her time treating people, took me by surprise at one of our meetings when she told me that she, too, is ill. “I was hesitant about whether to tell you. The people who are close to me know, of course, but I decided that I’m ready to say it publicly,” she says.

“Two weeks before I left for studies in the United States, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It started with flashes in my eye, which appeared suddenly and affected my sight. My ophthalmologist said at first that it was a migraine, and afterward I was told it was an inflammation of the optic nerve.

“It passed after a time, but it set off alarm bells because I knew that it’s one of the first symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Five years later, it happened again, and then they thought it was lupus, an autoimmune disease. After the last attack, before I left for the States, I underwent a lot of tests that led to the diagnosis: multiple sclerosis.”

Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease that lasts for life. “The prognosis isn’t clear,” Aboo Dia says. “I might have an attack every five years, which has been the case so far, or it might become aggravated in the next few years, so I’m trying to do as many things as possible because I don’t know what direction it will take.”

One of those things was to realize a dream to visit New Zealand, a trip she probably wouldn’t have made if she hadn’t discovered she was sick.

What made you decide to talk about your MS in the end?

“It’s another message that I want to convey: My self-fulfillment and activity aren’t determined by my physical condition. The disease doesn’t determine who I am and what I can do in my life. Willpower, freedom of choice and the fact that I don’t let the sickness define me or my abilities make it possible for me to fly. I thought that this would empower other people who are ill.”

In general, you seem very conciliatory. You’re not angry about the hand you’ve been dealt, or about Jewish society or the racism you’ve experienced. But is that really the case?

(Smiling) “What good will anger do other than create more stress for me? I don’t want to be angry. I’m not willing to pay with my mental and physical health for the stupidity of others. True, it’s hard for me that society here is racist and doesn’t accept otherness, but I don’t intend to do nothing or just be angry about that. I’m doing all I can to change the situation, and that removes the element of anger from the equation.

“And as for the hand I’ve been dealt, the way I was raised and the person who raised me brought me to the place where I am today, so why shouldn’t I feel fortunate? I see people growing up with lots of money and luck, but without values. I wouldn’t have wanted to grow up like that.”

MS is considered a stress-related disease, and one goal of treatment is to reduce stress. But just reading your weekly schedule could stress anybody out.

“It’s true that this is something I’m not applying so well. Maybe it’s denial on my part. On the other hand, stress is good, because I truly love everything I do – the work, the volunteering and the good things that are happening in my personal life.”

Those “good things” include a relationship with Daniel Stambler, a Canadian-born Jew who lives in Jerusalem and teaches English and Buddhism. Aboo Dia asks that no further details be published about him, while promising with a wink that she doesn’t intend to convert for him.

With all the identities and perspectives you have today, how would you define yourself?

“I’m Palestinian-Israeli, not only Palestinian and not only Israeli, but both. My Israeli identity was part of me even before the Palestinian identity. I care about this place and I choose to be here out of love for it. I’m sometimes overcome by pessimism about what will happen in Israel in the years ahead, and by the thought that, if change does happen, it won’t be in my lifetime.

“On the other hand, the people I volunteer with at Physicians for Human Rights, my colleagues at the hospital and clinics, my friends and family, they all make up a strong foundation and they carry in them the possibility for change. Thanks to them I refuse to surrender.”

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