Just because he’s won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Israeli government for his groundbreaking medical contributions in Israel and among Africans, Dr. Zvi Bentwich is not at all in retirement mode.
Far from it. The 75-year-old director of the Center for Emerging Tropical Diseases and AIDS at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) recently returned to Israel from his 16th trip to Ethiopia, where he’s labored for years to eradicate common parasitic infestations that contribute to Africa’s AIDS and tuberculosis epidemics. His own research uncovered the strong link between intestinal worms and immune system deficiencies in the 1990s.
The grandson of Dr. Hillel Yaffe, Israel’s legendary malaria fighter after whom the medical center in Hadera is named, Bentwich jokes that he was born to be a physician.
“I always said my grandmother probably brainwashed me to be like my grandfather, because she lived with us,” he tells ISRAEL21c with a laugh. “At the age of nine, I already was saying I wanted to be a doctor. I am fortunate that I love this profession — I always thought it was made for me.”
So was volunteerism. As early at the 1950s, the Jerusalem native was teaching Hebrew to immigrants, as was his wife-to-be, Tirza. “We basically were both built for doing such work, so it is not by chance that the importance of working for the community and with the community has been a major part of my career,” says Bentwich, today chairman of the board of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and a longtime activist in public health projects in Israel.
His father, Israel Prize-winning educator Joseph Bentwich, came from a prominent British Zionist family with ties to Theodor Herzl. His paternal uncle Norman was the first attorney general of Palestine under the British Mandate and during World War II served as the personal advisor to Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. This connection had an indirect but major impact on his nephew.
“I remember as a child, he brought me a rhino tail from Ethiopia — but more importantly, he was considered by Ethiopian Jews as their personal messiah,” says Bentwich. “Call it providence, if you like, that I was later in a position to continue his work with the Ethiopian Jewish community.”
Israel’s first AIDS expert
When the first wave of these immigrants started arriving in Israel in the late 1980s, Bentwich already had a reputation as Israel’s first physician to address the AIDS epidemic that surfaced worldwide around 1982. Having established a research center for clinical immunology at Kaplan Medical Center in Rehovot in 1975, “I was the prime candidate to answer the AIDS challenge medically, scientifically and socially.” He helped found the country’s first AIDS clinic and the Israel AIDS Task Force.
Working at the time as head of medicine at Kaplan, and faced with the high prevalence of HIV among the new immigrants from Ethiopia, Bentwich was intrigued as to why AIDS in Africa is more easily transmitted and spread than in the West, affecting more females as well. He was surprised to discover that the vast majority of these immigrants harbored intestinal parasites.
“Immunologists knew parasites have an effect on the immune system, but it hadn’t been well researched. I started studying non-HIV immigrants and then did a series of studies, which are my major contribution to science, showing that the worms indeed have a profound effect on the immune system.”
Thus began his personal crusade to eradicate intestinal parasite infection, eventually receiving support from private foundations, the National Institutes of Health, and MASHAV, Israel’s agency for international development.
Launching war on tropical diseases
Bentwich’s distinguished career has included teaching medical students at Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School and also research in cancer as well as complementary/alternative medicine.
Though his CV includes a 1970s postdoctoral National Institutes of Health fellowship in immunology at New York’s prestigious Rockefeller University, he is no ivory tower academic. He served as a flight surgeon in the military, and saw action in nearly all of Israel’s wars from 1967 until the first Lebanon war, achieving the rank of major in the Israel Defense Forces.
In 2002, he retired from Kaplan and came to BGU, spending the following five years teaching and working with his oldest son, Dr. Isaac Bentwich, in startup biotech ventures including Rosetta Genomics. During that time, healthcare researchers started realizing the importance of wiping out tropical diseases irrespective of their effect on HIV, and Bentwich dove back into the field.
Between 2006 and today, he raised money for eight trips to Ethiopia in his BGU capacity, and established the NALA Foundation to facilitate his volunteer work outside of Israel. His health education efforts now reach some 300,000 Ethiopian adults and youth, and he hopes to expand his efforts to other African countries.
Bentwich and his wife, a physician who specialized in eating disorders and nutrition education, have five children and seven grandchildren.
“My wife made a record for starting medical school in Jerusalem without any children and finishing with four sons, including twins,” he relates. Their daughter, Miri, was born in 1974 and teaches political science and bioethics at BGU. In addition to Isaac, the Bentwich children include physical educator Daniel; clinical psychotherapist David; and Jonathan, a psychologist who developed NeuroAD, a medical device for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and depression.
Bentwich is not only active professionally but also physically, biking every day to the sea and partaking of the many cultural offerings that living in Tel Aviv allows him to enjoy.