Refusing to Give Birth to Racism: No to Arab-Jewish Segregation in Israel's Maternity Wards

It's shameful that an Israeli lawmaker brought the ugliness of racism, all the talk of 'us' and 'them', back into the one place meant to be the safest space, a space of solidarity, for all.

A newborn baby.
Dan Keinan

Just over two years ago I gave birth to my first child, a boy, at Meir Hospital in Kfar Sava. That’s  one of the Israeli public hospitals named in recent news reports that practice an unspoken segregation between Jewish and Arab mothers in maternity wards. 

The reports sparked an uproar in Israel and have led to Israel’s Health Ministry summoning the hospitals involved to reiterate to them that these practices violate state regulations. 

While I can’t speak to what is official, or even unofficial, policy at Meir, I can speak to my time in its maternity ward, which was one of the more integrated Jewish-Arab experiences I encountered in my nearly eight years living in Israel. 

Ethnic and religious segregation and racism occur all too frequently in Israel, and childbirth isn’t immune. When I was pregnant, acquaintances casually asked me why I would want to deliver my baby at a hospital frequented by Arabs. And just last week, lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich sent the contemptible tweets that set off the hospital uproar, posting about his “not racist” wife not wanting to share a maternity ward room with an Arab

But my time at the maternity ward left me hopeful that Israel could be different (and, no, my optimism wasn’t the after-effect of an epidural, which I unfortunately never had time to get.)

In my four days there after the birth, I shared a room with two different women, neither of whom was Arab. In retrospect that could well have been a matter of logistics rather than conscious segregation. The ward itself was filled with new mothers of every stripe: Ashkenazi Jews, Mizrahi Jews, Arabs, Russians, all trying to do the same thing – heal from their deliveries, in some cases learn the ropes of new motherhood and, most important, care for the newborns who had just made their way into our often crazy world. All these women and their families filled the halls and the nursery, sharing smiles (and sometimes tears), advice and home-cooked food. But more than anything, they shared a sense of civility. 

Even now, two years later, one particular night remains fresh in my memory. The ward’s head nurse had given me a mini primer on pumping breast milk that day and encouraged me to start in order to increase my supply. Hobbling down the hallway in the middle of the night in my hospital-issued pastel-green gown, I entered the nursing room, my mind preoccupied by thoughts of new motherhood. 

Soon enough two other Jewish Israeli women and an Arab woman, all either trying to pump milk or breastfeed their newborns, joined me. There wasn’t much conversation – we were all pretty focused on the tasks at hand – but supportive smiles were exchanged and there was a silent understanding among us that we faced the same challenges. I learned that night that there is no greater equalizer than sitting in a drab hospital room with women you might not otherwise have met, while breast pumps mechanically whoosh away, as you all try to eke out whatever you can to nourish your newborn. 

In my case, breastfeeding was less than successful. The nurses at the ward would patiently try to help me while juggling their other round-the-clock responsibilities – bottle-feeding some of the babies, changing their diapers, paging other mothers to the nursery to come soothe their crying little ones. 

One nurse in particular – an Arab woman and longtime employee of the hospital – stood out for me then, and still does, in the care and attention she paid me. When she could, she would sneak a few minutes away from the station and help me practice breastfeeding, all while telling me about her own children, little tidbits about their lives like what they were studying at school, what they hoped to be. Of course it was everyday chit-chat, but it was also chit-chat between two mothers, one inexperienced and one veteran, who came from completely different backgrounds and were brought together by chance and circumstance.

My time at the maternity ward taught me that, in addition to being joyous, bringing a child into this world is painful, scary and messy. But for those few days, all the ugliness of the outside world, all the talk of “us” and “them” receded, and all of the mothers and their loved ones were united by one shared goal: to care as best as they could for the newest members of their families. That’s why it’s so shameful that MK Bezalel Smotrich and his ilk brought that ugliness back into the maternity ward, a place meant to be the safest space, a space of solidarity, for all.

Anat Rosenberg is the books editor for Haaretz English. Twitter: @AnatRosenberg