December 17, 2006

The patients don’t seem to care if a Russian Jew or an Arab Muslim occupies the neighboring bed.It’s surprising, and a little morbid, that peaceful and thorough coexistence in Israel takes place where death is often near. Most of the patients in the internal medicine ward where I work are elderly and suffer from chronic diseases. Most of them will be discharged, but they know that their rheumatism, heart disease, cancer or diabetes will never truly end.

As the largest Arab city in Israel, Nazareth has only a minimal Jewish population, and I expected all the patients at Nazareth Hospital to be Arab.

But the hospital also serves the nearby Jewish town of Nazareth Ilit, as I learned during an encounter that seemed, at first, rather unfriendly.

An old woman rang the bell by her bed, and when I arrived, I greeted her with a warm “good morning” in Arabic. She stared at me coldly for a moment and pointed to the bathroom.

I was, admittedly, a little miffed. Was my foreign accent so clear in just two words? Did she not like Americans?

But no, this was not my first encounter with anti-Americanism. The woman was a Russian immigrant from Nazareth Ilit and understood less Arabic than I did.

As my first day wore on, I realized that our patients are Christian Arabs and Muslim Arabs, Jews, immigrants from the former Soviet Union and even Argentineans. But this diversity is not as astounding as the acceptance and goodwill with which the patients and hospital staff live. The hospital witnesses birth and death, disease and recovery, but the most important healing it sustains is that of an entire nation.

The patients at Nazareth Hospital are not classified by their race or native language; there are not separate rooms for Jews and Arabs. Patients go to the chest clinic if they have heart disease, to the dialysis ward when their kidneys fail, to the psychiatric ward if they are mentally ill. Disease renders other classifications secondary. Even the language barrier does not seem so formidable. If a patient speaks Hebrew or Russian, we can communicate with gestures. If she speaks Arabic, she can have a good chuckle at “the English” person speaking Arabic.

The patients don’t seem to care if a Russian Jew or an Arab Muslim occupies the neighboring bed. When ankles are swollen, hair is gray, joints ache and hearing is all but gone, it doesn’t matter who is on the other side of the curtain. The patients in the internal medicine ward have at least one thing in common: their reliance on an American aide nurse who doesn’t speak a word of Hebrew or Russian and who routinely confuses the Arabic phrase for “I need to go to the bathroom” with “I want to take a bath.”

Take for example Dr. K, an Arab doctor and an important administrator at the hospital several years ago. Once, a young Russian woman, friendless and mentally ill, arrived at the emergency room after a drug overdose. No one knew her name or age, and she spoke only Russian. She died shortly after she was admitted to the hospital.

Dr. K refused to let the woman be given a pauper’s burial in an anonymous grave by city officials; he did not want her to be alone during an event of such cultural significance. He arranged for a complete burial procession and interred her in his family’s traditional burial plot.

Easterners tend to form more collective identities than often-individualistic Westerners. Middle Eastern children are raised with an acute consciousness of the history, characteristics, traditions, victories and grievances of their people. Acts of acceptance and coexistence, then, are performed on the part not only of the individual but also of his people. While death is terrifying, those at Nazareth Hospital know that its prospect can spur us toward acts that make peace with the living.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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