Health System Must Stop Segregating Israelis From Birth

The only thing that could overshadow institutionalized racism and discrimination is even more blatant racism and discrimination bearing the name and face of a Knesset member.

Haaretz Editorial
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Babies in a maternity ward.
Babies in a maternity ward.Credit: Alon Ron
Haaretz Editorial

There surely must have been people in the health care system who wanted to thank MK Bezalel Smotrich and his wife, Revital. The service the couple performed for the country’s public hospitals and health system officials was priceless in terms of public opinion. The only thing that could overshadow institutionalized racism and discrimination is even more blatant racism and discrimination bearing the name and face of a Knesset member.

Shortly after Smotrich tweeted that his wife preferred not to share a room in a maternity ward with an Arab woman, most people ditched the important findings presented in the Israel Radio report about the segregation of Arab and Jewish new mothers in the hospitals and the debate shifted to the comfort zone of provocation. The problem is that in certain parts of the health system such racism and discrimination persist.

Certainly they do not exist among all those who engage in saving lives, nor are they evident at every time and every place where health services are delivered (by Arab staff members as well), but they do exist. Sometimes they are manifest in an attitude, in cold or dismissive treatment, in a chance remark or in the insults patients hurl at Arab medical workers. These attitudes should not be displayed in a professional medical setting, even if one could argue that medical staffers and patients don’t necessarily check their political and social opinions at the door when entering a medical institution.

But the segregation of postpartum women is not a matter of atmosphere or mood. This is a consistent practice that has been unofficially implemented in hospitals for many years. It has internal procedures that link the woman’s mother tongue to her room assignment. These procedures are not documented anywhere, but are clarified to the maternity nurses and midwives, as reported in Wednesday’s Haaretz.

The excuse given is that a new mother would prefer to be in a room with someone of similar background. “When I found out about this, I was told that the Arab women are happier that way, having someone to talk to. But I have enough Arab friends to know that many of them feel deeply insulted,” said a midwife who was outraged by the practice.

This matter has been publicized several times over the years, and in 2013 the Health Ministry intervened, after evidence accumulated about segregation at several hospitals. But the segregation policy at some hospitals continues.

The health system does not operate in a vacuum, but responds to its clients’ demands. Jewish women often ask maternity wards in advance not to room with non-Jewish women. The public health system is not supposed to allow this. It must supply equitable medical treatment and uproot such racist phenomena.

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