Barbara Sofer

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Speaking Engagements

The Human Spirit: When the doctor won’t treat Jews


Aug 8, 2014

We’re all frustrated that certain stories never make it to world media. But in this case I understand. I’ve also been in the position of not exposing patients from Gaza to eager reporters, lest they face retribution when they go home.

Perhaps it’s because I spend a lot of time serving as a liaison to the foreign press at Hadassah University Medical Center that I was so upset about the account of the doctor in Belgium who refused to care for a Jewish patient.

The story, reported in this paper, goes like this: One night last week, at around 11 p.m., a man named Hershy Taffel phoned the emergency hotline in Flanders, the Flemish region of Belgium, for help. His grandmother, Bertha Klein, 90, was in terrible pain. “I’m not coming,” answered the doctor, and hung up on him. When the shocked Taffel called back, the doctor answered thus: “Send her to Gaza for a few hours, then she’ll get rid of the pain.”

The story broke in Joods Actueel, the local Dutch Jewish monthly. And it turns out that this wasn’t the only anti- Jewish incident of the week in Belgium.

In Antwerp, home of the country’s largest Jewish community, a store owner refused to sell clothing to a Jewish customer, “or any other Jews.” In a cafe near Liege, a sign in Turkish and French said dogs were allowed, but not Jews and Zionists.

In Israel, modern medical care has always been non-discriminatory, even on the worst days. One of those was April 13, 1948, when a clearly marked medical convoy of men and women were massacred on the approximately three-kilometer journey from downtown Jerusalem to Mount Scopus. Seventy- eight men and women were murdered, including the director-general of Hadassah, Chaim Yassky, for whom Soroka University Medical Center in Beersheba was first named.

Even on that day, equal treatment was given to the Jewish and Arab patients, half a kilometer away at the decade- old Hadassah Hospital.

Members of foreign delegations and the foreign press often assume I’m propagandizing when I describe the degree of integration at Hadassah University Medical Center. I wait for that pleasant moment when they are surprised to realize I’m not exaggerating about our everyday Israeli reality – where Jews and Arabs share the same waiting rooms, and hospital rooms, and even order the same Belgian hot chocolate in mall cafes. They observe Jewish and Arab doctors (some of them Palestinian), nurses and technicians hovering over the same patients, exchanging ideas, and on their breaks sharing their black-humor jokes.

In the pediatric oncology department, you can guess the ethnic background of the children by the way mothers tie their head scarves. Actually, the reporters have to ask me about it. In our city, where so many women wear equivalents of what we used to call wimples, they can’t tell who is who.

A stunned young European journalist once tapped me on the shoulder as I walked through the clinics of the Mount Scopus campus. “I don’t understand,” he said. “There’s a soldier sharing a bench with an Arab and one of those Jews with the…” He made swirling motions with his fingers indicating sidelocks. “How can this be?” I told him I hadn’t ordered these people from Central Casting – that’s how Israeli hospitals look.

While visiting wounded patients recently, I ran into Dr. David Rekhtman, a pediatrician in uniform. He was visiting one of the soldiers from his fighting unit whom he’d treated in the field. On his day leave, he’d also managed to do a shift at the Mount Scopus pediatric ER, which he runs when he’s not serving in the army.

It’s one of those places where parents show up with sick kids at 11 p.m. and get treatment, no matter their nationality or religious.

Throughout Operation Protective Edge, the doctors and nurses in the IDF field hospital on the Golan Heights have continued treating their Syrian patients. And the field hospital at the Erez crossing to Gaza has treated Palestinian patients. The choppers that bring wounded soldiers also bring Palestinian kids to Israeli hospitals.

The IDF doesn’t publicize this much, because their lifesaving might actually endanger the families of those they are trying to save.

Talk about a paradox; we’re all frustrated that certain stories never make it to world media. But in this case I understand.

I’ve also been in the position of not exposing patients from Gaza to eager reporters, lest they face retribution when they go home.

BERTHA KLEIN lives in a Jewish neighborhood of Antwerp. The doctor who answered the emergency line admitted that he refused to treat her and that he subsequently advised her to go to Gaza. But he denies knowing she was Jewish. I wonder if he really advises all of his potential patients to go to Gaza for treatment.

Please note that Mrs. Klein isn’t an Israeli. Nor did the doctor check out her political stance vis–à–vis Israel, her views on boycotts, settlements and checkpoints. A Jew is a Jew – Jewish boycott supporters be advised.

The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center suggested that the Belgian National Order of Physicians expel the doctor, whose behavior was “so redolent of Nazi collaboration in wartime Belgium, when the Hippocratic Oath was being betrayed by so many doctors across Europe who served the Nazi barbarism.”

Belgium has a mixed history in relation to Jews. While it is true there were collaborators who helped the Germans expel 25,000 Jews, almost all of whom were murdered, strong resistance to persecution of Jews also existed.

Many Jews were hidden by Catholic clergy and laypersons. The Jewish Defense Committee, composed totally of Christians, attacked a rail convoy to Auschwitz in 1943 and rescued some of the prisoners.

The Hippocratic Oath, which requires swearing by Apollo, Asclepius, Hygeia and Panacea, isn’t a panacea or as ubiquitous as you might think.

In Israel, it’s been replaced by the monotheistic Code of Maimonides, named for the medieval Jewish scholar and physician. In US medical colleges, most doctors swear to uphold the (I kid you not) Lasagna Oath, a deity-free version named for a former dean at Tufts University named Louis Lasagna, an Italian American, who crafted it in 1964.

Belgium has a National Order of Physicians medical code requiring doctors to treat all patients – no matter their social situation, nationality, convictions, reputation or the sentiments he may hold towards them, and provide urgent assistance to any patient in immediate danger.

The incident has indeed become the subject of a criminal investigation for discrimination and a Belgian medical ethics committee review. The anti- Jewish sign in the cafe was removed by the police. I don’t know what happened in the clothing store. Belgium certainly doesn’t condone these incidents.

But like other European countries, Belgium has a non-integrated, growing Muslim population, and long-gestating anti-Semitism among both extreme leftists and extreme rightists.

Indeed, on May 24, an attack at the Brussels Jewish Museum left four dead.

The accused is Mehdi Nemmouche who, like thousands of other young foreigners, had traveled to Syria.

Bertha Klein turns out to have had a fractured rib. Very painful indeed. Not much to do about it, though, except to consider making aliya. 




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