Arab Israelis Fight Coronavirus as First-class Doctors but Second-class Citizens

They account for 17 percent of the country's doctors and save Jewish lives 24/7. But when it comes to representation in government, even in the times of the coronavirus, Netanyahu thinks they are a danger

Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
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A COVID-19 ward in Rambam Medical Center, Haifa, March 9, 2020.
A COVID-19 ward in Rambam Medical Center, Haifa, March 9, 2020. Credit: Rami Shllush
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

It was Saturday evening and she had just finished a 12-hour emergency room shift at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, treating suspected coronavirus patients who were in isolation. Having finally made it home to rest a bit before her next shift, Dr. Suad Haj Yihye Yassin sat down in her living room to watch Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu address the nation about the emergency situation with which she is so very familiar. She’s 31, at the end of her residency in clinical immunology. She and her husband, who’s a surgeon, live in Tel Hashomer, outside of Tel Aviv, where they are raising their 3-year-old daughter between their long shifts.

“I treat everyone who comes to the hospital, it has never and it will never matter to me if they are Jewish or Arab; every person, no matter their race or gender, will get the best care from me,” she says. “When I come home from the emergency room, after I’ve given my all to treat everyone, and hear the prime minister say that we have to form a national unity government to deal with the crisis – but without the Arabs, as if we are second-rate citizens – it hurts. Why is it OK for us to be on the front lines in the hospitals dealing with corona, but not legitimate for us to be in the government?”

Israel's coronavirus crisis could be Bibi's swan song. Haaretz weekly podcast

Over the past week she had encountered a number of social media posts by Netanyahu, who repeatedly wrote on his Facebook page that a government with the predominantly Arab Joint List would be “a disaster for Israel,” or a “danger to Israel.” On Sunday Netanyahu added, “While Prime Minister Netanyahu is managing an unprecedented global and national crisis in the most responsible and balanced way, [Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny] Gantz is galloping toward a minority government that’s dependent on Balad, Heba Yazbak and supporters of terror, rather than join a national emergency government that will save lives.”

“It’s sad to hear the prime minister refer to me as a ticking threat, when in fact we are the ones who are neutralizing the danger and saving patients,” says Yassin. “In the hospitals the work of Jewish-Arab teams together is an example of exemplary coexistence; we all work together, shoulder to shoulder, without any distinctions.”

Dr. Suad Haj Yihye Yassin in Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, March 16, 2020. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Her remarks shed light on a missing piece of the political-medical puzzle of recent weeks that Netanyahu is trying to obscure. According to official figures from the Health Ministry and the Central Bureau of Statistics provided at the request of Haaretz, 17 percent of Israel’s physicians, 24 percent of its nurses and 47 percent of its pharmacists are Arabs. If the Arab doctors and nurses were to strike over the government discourse that incites against them, or if they would even threaten to strike until they were properly represented in government, the health system would not be able to deal with the coronavirus crisis, and the equation that Netanyahu is trying to claim as truth would fall apart.

But from conversations with Arab doctors in various Israeli hospitals, it repeatedly emerges that they are willing to cooperate with the disconnect in the national discourse between the health crisis and the political crisis. Most of the doctors Haaretz approached were not only shocked at the prospect that they might refuse to treat people during a crisis because of racism against them, many refused to even answer questions about their experiences with bigotry or discrimination.

“We’ve gotten used to the fact that they say we’re not human beings in this country, it doesn’t surprise us,” said a female physician who did not want to be identified. “If we say something, they could fire us, or view us as troublemakers. We want to do the work we studied so hard for, to save lives and try to forget the racism. In hospitals everyone is equally susceptible to death, and we remember this. Perhaps the coronavirus will remind the Jewish public that we are all equal.”

Yassin testifies that in contrast to the good relations between Jewish and Arab medical personnel that she says constitute a model for Jewish-Arab cooperation, when it comes to patients’ attitudes, politics and racism frequently enter the hospital. She says that in recent years she has periodically encountered racism from Jewish patients who refused to be treated by her because she is Arab.

“I had a patient who came to me from a different department and who told me that she had refused to be admitted there because the doctors are Arabs,” she recalls. “I looked at her and told her that I’m also an Arab and she looked surprised. She said I don’t look like one and asked for another doctor to treat her.

“I’m proud that I’m an Arab, that I’m a doctor and that I save lives,” she says. “Once I had a patient who was suffering from stomach pains and I was delayed with another patient whose condition was more urgent, and [the first patient] and her husband started screaming at me that I’m a dirty Arab and shouldn’t be working in a hospital. I ignore it and provide treatment anyway.”

Yassin has been working in the health system a bit less than a decade, but Prof. Jihad Bishara, the director of the infectious diseases unit at Rabin Medical Center, Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva, has been treating Jews and Arabs for 30 years. For the past few days he has been part of the team treating those ill with coronavirus at the hospital.

“Within the hospital I disengage from politics, I do my work without any connection to what’s going on outside; it doesn’t influence me during my daily work,” he says. “We are dealing with an emergency situation of a coronavirus epidemic and I am treating patients myself; we are all putting ourselves at risk to treat everyone. Doctors haven’t heard about racism; for decades I’ve been saving Jewish lives every day.

“As a citizen I’ll admit that the incitement really bothers me; they are saying intolerable things about our community, but unfortunately we’ve gotten used to it,” Bishara says. “They are saying that as a citizen I’m not good enough, that my representatives are not human beings enough to be partners in the government – but I am good enough to be at the top of the pyramid of saving lives.”

Bishara recalls that upon returning from one of his trips abroad, he was stopped for a security check at Ben-Gurion International Airport and tried to explain to the young woman at border control that he and she were partners, not enemies. “’Why are you stopping me?’ I asked her. ‘Is it for security reasons? To save Jewish lives?’ She said yes. I said, ‘Great – I’ve been doing that for decades, 24/7.’ I said it with great pride and persuasiveness. I am a doctor before anything.”

Hillel Yaffeh Medical Center in Hadera inaugurated a new inpatient ward this week: Infectious Diseases Department A, which is dedicated to treating patients with the new coronavirus. The ward has 30 beds; it was renovated and adapted to house patients in isolation and has been equipped with new equipment and technologies. The department is headed by Dr. Jameel Mohsen, a specialist in cardiology and internal medicine who previously worked in the hospital’s cardiac intensive care unit.

When asked about the discrimination and racism against the Arab public that has been increasing recently along with the spread of the coronavirus, he also made it clear that he disconnects himself totally from politics.

“There is no tension between Jewish and Arab patients; politics doesn’t enter here,” he says. “I have never thought about the ethnic background of a patient; the only thing I’m interested in is that the patient, as a person, recovers. We doctors feel like emissaries in this situation of distress and emergency; we are committed to the health of every single person in the country. All of us, Jews and Arabs, must fight this epidemic together so that everyone recovers. Maybe politics could take example from the fraternity between Arabs and Jews in the hospitals. I very much hope so.”

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