I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation between two women in the locker room of my gym a few weeks ago. They were, after all, speaking at full volume, Israeli-style as they got dressed, preparing for their exercise class.
One of the women was a physical therapist who worked with client in their homes. She was telling her friend that she had been so overwhelmed by the number of appointments that she had to find younger therapists to fill in when she wasn’t available. But she faced a dilemma, she related while lacing her sneakers.
The most qualified available therapists were all young Arab women, whom she described as “young, lovely, intelligent and skilled.” Yet, she lamented, it was impossible for her to hire them because “I couldn’t in good conscience send an Arab to their house without telling them about it first. And if I was honest with them and told them ahead of time that their therapist would be Arab, they would object.”
Her friend nodded sympathetically and agreed. Hiring one of these young women wouldn’t be a wise business decision, and besides, she said ominously, “you really never know what they are thinking, do you?”
I bit my tongue, slammed my locker shut, and left appalled at how the current terror wave in Israel was accelerating the rate of blatant, unabashed racism in Israeli society, even when it came to providing a health care service.
I was reminded of this locker room exchange – and my own startled reaction – as the firestorm raged on Tuesday over Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and Habayit Hayehudi MK Betzalel Smotrich’s defense of policies of racial segregation in maternity wards.
"It's only natural my wife would not want to lie next to someone who just gave birth to a baby that might murder her baby in another 20 years," Smotrich tweeted, following up on his earlier statement: “My wife isn’t a racist, but after giving birth, she wanted rest, not the mass parties that are common among the families of Arab women who give birth.”
The most horrific aspect of Smotrich’s tweet was, of course, the fact that he is so profoundly racist that he is able to view a newborn baby as a future terrorist. But also devastating was the fact that, he, like the women in the locker room, felt comfortable trumpeting this to the world shamelessly – and he, unlike them, was a public figure.
Another similarity between the incidents was the fact that, like the women’s conversation, Smotrich was addressing racism within the health care system.
Smotrich had been commenting on an Israeli Radio investigation that exposed the willingness of some Israeli hospitals to accede to the desire of some Jewish mothers that they not share a room with Arabs after giving birth. Other hospitals, the report revealed, had been segregating childbearing women on a systematic basis.
In a follow-up television interview, Smotrich’s wife, Revital, took her husband’s views on maintaining racial purity in the maternity ward up a notch when she declared that in addition to refusing to room with an Arab, she would never allow an Arab doctor or nurse to deliver her child, because such a “pure” and “Jewish” experience should not be “contaminated.”
The radio – and the Smotrich couple’s statements – took direct aim at what is a point of pride for many Israelis: the fact that hospitals are a space where the country’s racial and religious tensions are set aside in the quest to heal the sick and save human life.
For decades, Israeli hospitals have emphasized how, even in the times of highest tension and conflict, Arab doctors treat Jewish patients and Jewish doctors treat Arab patients - including, in some cases, Arab terrorists. For those who hold out hope for real coexistence and cooperation, in a society where Jews and Arabs live apart, attend separate schools, and often have different life trajectories, hospitals are supposed to represent an ideal of co-existence, and doctors and nurses, when they put on their white robes or their scrubs, cease to be Jews and Arabs, and become merely healers.
The report of the maternity ward practices, and the manner in which the Smotrich couple defended them, did damage to that illusion in the same way the controversial Hebron shooting video poked holes in the common belief that the IDF is the “most moral army in the world.”
Those in the know say it shouldn’t have been surprising. Maternity wards cater to their patients in a way that other hospital departments don’t, due to the economics of childbirth in Israel. Every hospital in Israel receives a payment of thousands of shekels from the National Insurance Institute, motivating them to cater to the childbearing consumer in hopes that she will choose them again when she gives birth to more children. Part of making their clients happy, obviously, is putting them with their “own kind.” As Haaretz’ health reporter points out, “anyone familiar with the system knows that this has been going on in many places for a long time.”
These are ugly realities the majority of the Israeli public would prefer not to confront. Just as the Hebron shooting video was difficult and painful to watch, and the locker room conversations hard to overhear, the Smotrich tweets were hard to read.
But they were useful. Without his tweets and his wife’s declarations, the maternity ward story would have been a blip on the fast-moving Israeli media screen. Instead, it dominated the news for a full day, with politicians from the left and the right distancing themselves from the Smotrichs’ sentiments, and across social media everyday Israelis denounced their views, recounting positive experiences with Arab doctors, nurses and fellow patients in maternity wards and other parts of the country’s hospitals.
While quiet and subtle racism is hard to identify and difficult to battle, blatant declarations of racial superiority can be confronted, denounced, and countered. So let’s take a moment to thank the shameless racists among us – with Mr. and Mrs. Smotrich as the current prime example of the species.
They are the ones who force us to take a hard look at the disturbing turn our society is taking. And without seeing what is happening clearly, there is no way we can effectively work to change it.
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