The best medicine for Arab-Jewish ties is…medicine

By Noa Sattah

The lives of Jews and Arabs in Israel are entirely separate in almost all areas: separate neighborhoods and cities, separate education systems and even mostly separate workplaces. This separation maintains hostility between Jewish and Arab citizens in Israel, creates extreme inequality, and prevents us from realizing our potential as a society.

Many civil society organizations are working tirelessly to understand the barriers and obstacles to integrating Arab citizens into the labor market. Despite their excellent on-the-ground work and the improvement that we have observed in the last few years, the numbers are still frustrating: less than 3 percent of hi-tech employees are Arab, and only 3.5% of financial sector employees are Arab. An Israeli Civil Commission report in 2014 noted that only 6.79% of public sector employees were Arab.

By contrast, the health system paints a different picture. Arabs make up 11% of all physicians in Israel. In the 2014-2015 school year, 16% of all medical students were Arab, and in the Technion, Arabs constituted 38% of medical students. In the nursing field, 14% of Israeli nurses are Arab, and 42% of nursing students are Arab. In the pharmaceutical field, 38% of pharmacists in Israel are Arab, and 43% of all students studying to become pharmacists in the 2014-2015 school year were Arab. At Hebrew University, 48% of students in the field were Arab — in other words, almost half the students. More than just the number, Arabs and Jews work together for long hours in exhausting shifts, both in teams and individually.

Recently, we presented the Israel Religious Action Center’s new report “Hereos of Health” in a meeting of the Knesset’s “Equality in Health Care” lobby. The report was written by attorney Tal Rosner, and it sheds light on the Israeli health care system’s unique shared Jewish-Arab workplace environments. The report explores the day-to-day work and, presents data that confirms the impressions of many within the system that the health care is a remarkable model of cooperation. It asks whether this successful model can be replicated in parts of the economy, and offers a rare glimpse of hope that this shared society can go beyond face to face meeting and actually benefit both sides..

To understand the health care system’s shared Jewish-Arab workplaces we conducted in-depth interviews with Jewish and Arab employees in key areas of the health care system — medicine, nursing, and pharmacies at different levels of the system. Our interviewees shared with us their perspectives regarding the system as a whole, what works and what does not, based on their many years of experience.

The findings presented in the report confirm that the health care system is unique and different relative to the rest of Israeli society because unlike other sectors, the system allows Arab citizens to integrate fully and advance to senior positions. Health care institutions foster mutual appreciation, good work relations, and even friendships stemming from many hours of working together towards a clear goal: saving lives.

The report notes that the medical professions are nearly the only way for Arab citizens of Israel to receive stable and secure income, status and prestige both in Arab Israel society. The medical professions allow Arabs to find employment anywhere in the country, which is unique given that other avenues of employment have been mostly blocked off to Arab candidates for years. As a result, Arab families encourage young people to focus on the medical professions.

The noble goal of saving lives, and the universalistic value system that lies at the foundation of medical ethics combine to create a unique shared Jewish-Arab system based on equality, and on removing discriminatory barriers that are so prevalent in other workplaces in the Israeli economy.

The report calls for implementing policies that recreate the health system’s success in other employment areas. Some of the report’s recommendations include: creating incentives for the private sector to have adequate Arab representation in its work force, targeted affirmative action for Arabs in admission to higher education institutions, developing “respectful discourse agreements” as part of efforts to change workplace discourse and creating a voluntary ethics code that enshrines equality and diversity.

As we continue to march on the long road to addressing discrimination and racism, the health care system can be the beacon that shows us the way.

Rabbi Noa Sattath is the Director of Israel Religious Action Center, the Social Justice arm of the Reform movement in Israel. She is a graduate of the Hebrew University and Gratz college. She was ordained by the Hebrew Union College in 2014. She is a member of Congregation Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem.