Growing up during the 1970s in Israel, we didn’t watch “The Brady Bunch”or “Gilligan’s Island.” The closest thing to comedy on Friday afternoons before the Sabbath were Egyptians films picked up by our rabbit-ears TV antennas. The grainy black-and-white films were set mostly in Cairo, in mansions along the waters of the Nile, far from the poor masses. A typical storyline included diplomats, hysterical housemaids, a rich wife who hosted lavish dinners, and her Doktor husband who had a penchant for belly dancers half his age. Often, a young woman, lusting after the doctor’s attention, would fake her illness, fall into his arms and say, “Ya Doktor, Ya Doktor!” We laughed plenty.
Comedy aside, the medical profession is serious business in the Arab world. It’s a symbol of status and success. It’s no different among the Arabs who call Israel their home. They number 1.5 million, 20% of the total population. In recent years the number of Arab doctors has grown. To some Jewish Israelis, this is alarming.
There’s a shortage of doctors in Israel. The pay is low and the hours are long. After graduating, some Jewish doctors pack up their stethoscope and their white coat and practice medicine in the U.S. and in Europe. Universities in Israel warn of a brain drain. This creates a vaccum into which Arabs wish to enter.
It’s tough getting into medical school. One needs very high SAT-equivalent scores. Recently two new wrinkles were added to the admission process: personal interview and age requirement.
The purpose of the personal interview is to learn more about the applicant, his or her view of the world, and the reasons for wanting to become a doctor. It involves simulated games, role-playing and morality questions. Arabs don’t like the interview. They contend that they live in parallel universes, Israeli and Arab. They run their own affairs, their own lives, and when it’s time to apply for medical school, they’re at a disadvantage. “We don’t understand fully the nuances of Israeli society and are therefore considered outsiders. This leads to our disqualification.” It’s hard to accept this line of thinking. Walk in any city in Israel and you’ll encounter Arabs who are most familiar with Israeli politics, culture, music, media, sports, and more. Voicemail greetings at any public office, whether it’s a post office, hospital or a Social Security office has prompts in Hebrew and Arabic. Road signs are in both languages. Most TV shows carry both language subtitles. They know Israel inside out. What they question is whether the interviewer at the university knows about their world. The Arab villages in the Galilee are far more foreign to Jews living in Tel Aviv than their physical distance.
Assuming they pass the interview, there’s another hurdle, according to the Arabs. They must be at least 20 years of age to apply. On the face of it, it sounds reasonable. To the Arabs this smells of discrimination. Arabs don’t serve in the Israeli military (Druze and Bedouins are the exception). Arabs are free to study right after high school, at 18. Jews can’t. They serve in the military for 3 years. Jews can’t apply until they’re 21. Arabs content they’re held back for no fault of their own. The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, Haifa University, Ben Gurion university — they all draw the line at age 20. “In order to study medicine, the applicant must exhibit emotional maturity and possess life experiences. They must be ripe to take on 7 years of study. They’re too young at 18. It’s purely an academic decision.”
This opens a can of worms. The Arabs argue how can a Jewish soldier at 18 exhibit maturity in the army, handle firearms, combat. Are they not too young? They complain that minimum age requirement forces them to warm the bench for 2 years until they reach age 20, or change their major, or get a job and never return to the university, or go study abroad. According to one report there are 5000 Arab-Israelis studying in Jordan. Others study in Poland. Some choose not to return to Israel. Yet with all these so-called limitations, their numbers in universities are impressive. About 20% of all medical students are Arab. It’s a testament to their determination. Many pharmacists in drug stores are Arab, as are physical therapists. Nowadays you can ask in an Arab town: “Is there a Doktor in the house?” and come away with “yes.”
They’re a minority in a Jewish state, yet Israel affords them more opportunities and privileges than any minority can dream of having in an Arab country, say, in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia….
A case in point: I’m at a busy outpatient clinic in Afula, some 16 kilometers (10 miles) from our home. Arab doctors and support staff walk the hallways in great numbers. It’s eight in the morning and I’m hungry. I’ve been on liquids-only diet for 36 hours as part of getting prepped for a colonoscopy procedure. I step into a hospital gown with an opening in the back. What great fun awaits me.
It’s show time but I’m in no great rush. The help is mostly Arab. Doctor Nassim Bashara, an Arab, reviews my vitals and directs me to the gurney. His nurse, an Arab, sets the IV in my arm. They speak Arabic between them, switch to Hebrew with as much ease as the dials on their equipment. Before I doze off, Doktor Nassim advises me of what’s about to happen. I want to ask him if he witnesses or feels discrimination. But with a tube up my ass, I know the timing is all wrong. One false move and he could shift the gears in reverse.
This would lead me to shout a line from the Egyptian films: “Help, help, Ya Doktor, Ya Doktor!”