Tel Aviv Diary: Apartheid in the Maternity Room

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Aviva Zigdon from the southern Israeli town of Netivot holds her newborn baby boy in a delivery room at the Saban Birth and Maternity Center in Beersheba on October 30, 2011. In a scandal roiling Israel, women called to ask hospitals whether it would be possible for them to not be placed in rooms with non-Jews. In all but two cases, they were told yes. Ronen Zvulun/reuters

It started on Tuesday morning, April 5, with an investigative report on Israeli radio news. Israeli hospitals were accommodating Jewish mothers who wished to give birth in separate rooms, rooms without any Israeli Arabs.

This was taking place even though it violated the official policy of the Ministry of Health and the officially stated policy of the administrations of each of the hospitals.

The evidence was undeniable. Tapes were recorded of women calling the hospitals in question to ask whether it would be possible for them to not be placed in rooms with non-Jews. In all but two cases, the women were answered in the affirmative.

A public storm ensued. To date, Israeli hospitals have been one of the central institutions known for their integration, where a large number of Arab-Israeli doctors and nurses serve together with their Jewish-Israeli counterparts—and where no one questions the fact that Arab and Jewish Israelis are treated and served equally.

This public controversy might have been a five-minute story had it not been for a Knesset member from the right-wing Bayit Yehudi party. Bezalel Smotrich was unable to contain himself. He tweeted that after giving birth, his wife wanted quiet and did not want to be in a noisy room where Arab parents might hold a hafla (a rowdy party of celebration).

Not to be outdone, his wife gave a radio interview and said she does not want her newborn Jewish infant touched by non-Jewish hands. Then, Smotrich, not wanting to be outdone himself, stated that he does not want his newborn baby to be in the same room with an Arab infant who a few years from now will try to kill his child.

The criticism was fast in coming, mostly directed at Smotrich. The head of his party, Minister of Education Naftali Bennett, immediately issued a Facebook post about how he had spent the Sabbath in Rambam hospital in Haifa (where his father was hospitalized) and how he received wonderful treatment from Jews and Arabs alike. Later in the day, Bennett gave a speech in which he said that all Israelis are the same and need to be treated as such, whether in hospitals, at work, in schools or universities.

From the left of the political spectrum, the attacks on Smotrich were sharp. Knesset member Stav Shafir from the Zionist Camp party said, “Smotrich is the type of person who exists everywhere in the world—i.e., give them a group in which to belong and they will poison it with hate, blindness and racism. All that is important for them in life is maintaining their feeling of superiority.”

While the left was clear in its criticism, as was Bennett, others were more circumspect. Knesset member Oren Hazan went so far as to defend Smotrich by saying Israelis must take into account the fact that they are at war.

Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked, who is dependent on support from fellow Bayit Yehudi members like Smotrich, was careful in her criticism, stating that what Smotrich said should not have been said and does not reflect the views of her party.  

This story takes place against the background of another story, which continues to dominate Israeli media: the soldier who shot a wounded Palestinian attacker after he was on the ground and, in the eyes of most observers, no longer posed a threat to anyone. The army is still investigating, but a military court has refused the military prosecution’s request to keep the accused soldier in jail until the investigation is completed.

It is expected that the soldier will be charged with manslaughter within a week after a pathologist’s investigation determines whether the Palestinian died from the accused Israeli soldier’s gunfire or from earlier wounds.  

What has shocked many observers is that over 50 percent of the public seems to support the actions of the accused soldier. Still, criticism of the army’s chief of staff and the defense minister for publicly condemning the soldier’s actions continues.

Further upsetting many is the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the soldier’s family not to support his actions but to say he “understands what the family is going through.”

While the two stories are related, they are clearly not one and the same. In the case of the soldier, he benefits from the fact that almost every Israeli has been in the army or has a child who has served. As such, there is a natural inclination to defend the soldier, even if his actions are indefensible.

The hospital maternity ward story and Smotrich’s shameful statement touches a different nerve. Most Israelis do not think of themselves as racists and do not think of themselves as living in a racist society. However, when an event like this occurs, it forces every Israeli to take a hard look in the mirror and question where over 100 years of conflict is taking the society.

Almost all Israelis, whether living in the liberal confines of Tel Aviv or areas not quite as liberal, would agree that this week’s events are not taking Israel to the best of places.

Marc Schulman is the editor of Historycentral.com.