Arab Israeli Doctors Fight Coronavirus as First-class Physicians but Second-class Citizens

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

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. 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.”