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Foreign Doctors Go to Israel to Show Solidarity with Colleagues

November 27, 2003
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In Israel’s hospitals, politics usually stops at the emergency-room door.

But when a group of American, British and Israeli doctors moved through the halls of Schneider Children’s Medical Center recently, swapping stories and visiting patients, the doctors were taking a political stand.

The foreign doctors were in Israel not only to share science with the Israelis, but to show solidarity with their colleagues in the Jewish state and take a stand against attempts abroad to stigmatize Israeli academics and medical professionals.

The four-day International Solidarity Medical Conference, co-sponsored by Hadassah and the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston, brought 100 doctors to hospitals across Israel. Conferences were held on specialties from emergency medicine to oncology.

An increasing number of academics, mostly in Europe, have been calling for a boycott of their Israeli counterparts and Israeli institutions to protest Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. Those behind the calls say the aim is to pressure Israelis to speak out against their government and bring about change.

But Israelis say it is a cynical ploy that unfairly lays collective blame on all Israelis for the policies of a government fighting a war against terrorism that many people abroad don’t fully understand.

At a time when Israeli physicians are both increasingly isolated from their colleagues and working extra hours to care for terrorist casualties, the doctors attending the conference from the United States, Britain and Austria said it was time to stand shoulder to shoulder.

“We wanted to reach out to hospitals on the front lines of terror attacks during the last three years,” said Harvard University’s Ben Sachs, chairman of the obstetrics and gynecology department at Beth Israel-Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, who helped organize the conference.

Sachs praised the Israeli medical system for providing top-quality health care to all while working under terrible strain.

“It is truly an island where people provide high-quality, ethical health care to the entire population,” he said.

At a playroom at Schneider Children’s Medical Center, a state-of the-art pediatric hospital in Israel, the visiting doctors spoke with Arab and Jewish children playing side by side.

The hospital’s trauma center has treated dozens of children seriously wounded in terrorist attacks. One young girl’s life was saved when doctors removed a nail from a suicide bombing that pierced her heart.

Treating children injured in bombings and shootings has taken an emotional toll on the staff and stretched the financial resources of the hospital, said Eliahu Wielunsky, Schneider’s deputy director.

Hospital staff said they were heartened to see their colleagues come from so far away to see how they were coping.

Norman Spack, an endocrinologist at Children’s Hospital Boston and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard, said the de facto boycott of Israeli academics was nothing short of discrimination, and that the mixing of politics and science should not be tolerated.

“I think the answer is to make it public and bring shame on these people,” Spack said. “They have to be called to account.”

Stephen Herman, a pediatrician at the Royal National Orthopedic Hospital on the northern outskirts of London, said that as Israel increasingly becomes an international pariah, he felt a need to reach out to what he called “his extended family.”

“One of the new and sinister developments is academic bias against Israelis,” Herman said. “It’s a veiled sort of anti-Semitism.”

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