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Racism hurts: 2 nurses — 1 Ethiopian, 1 American, both Israelis

When you're a nurse in Israel and your patient doesn't want you near her because of your religion or your dark skin
Ethiopian Israelis and supporters protest following the death of 19-year-old Ethiopian, Solomon Tekah who was shot and killed few days ago in Kiryat Haim by an off-duty police officer, in Tel Aviv, July 2, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In the wake of yesterday’s nationwide protests against the fatal shooting of Ethiopian-Israeli teenager Solomon Teka z”l by an off-duty cop, Ethiopian-Israeli midwife Teri Tassama appeared on Israel Channel 12’s morning news.

Tassama, who works at Ichilov Medical Center in Tel Aviv, had posted on Facebook that on the night of the protests, she cried with every new mother she assisted: “The new mothers cried for the lives they brought into the world and I cried for those [11 Ethiopian-Israeli] lives taken for no reason.”

She recalled a woman who stood up from labor when she entered the room to scream to the other nurses, “I don’t want this kushit [the Hebrew n-word].” Tassama noted that she carries the feelings of “humiliation and hurt” that followed this incident to this day.

Her comments roused my own punched-in-the-gut flush-faced memories of an incident in a Tipat Halav maternal-child health clinic in which I worked in the Arab-Israeli town of Abu Gosh. As on every Holocaust Remembrance Day, I had scheduled my prenatal appointments to follow the two-minute siren to permit me to remember in dignity the Blessed Memories of the loved ones I never met, four grandparents, one adolescent uncle, a toddler aunt and a younger uncle. As I stood in silence with tears streaming down my face, a woman screamed, banging on the locked door with her fist.

I opened the door at 11:02, and she nearly fell into my office towering over my desk and screeching, “I had an 11 a.m. appointment. Why did you make me wait?”

“No, I said,” knees trembling under my desk, while sliding my appointment book toward her,

“You had an 11:15 appointment. Here it is.”

“No one was in your room at 11.”

“But there was a siren.”

“We don’t have to wait for your [insert choice Arabic curse words] siren! They should have killed you all.”

Tessama told anchor Nesli Barda that in the 14 years she had been a midwife at Ichilov, a blatantly racial slur and refusal of her services had taken place only once and that she refused to serve that mother only because she believed that her presence would be detrimental to the mother’s labor. She said that most of her patients treated with her respect, but that she had been subjected to more subtle forms of racism – questions like, “How long have you been a midwife? Where did you study?” etc.

I too – shall we say – showed the pregnant woman the door, advising her that she was “never again welcome in my office.”

The dozen or so women in the waiting room screamed at her to shut up, as she threatened to write a letter demanding my resignation to my superiors at the Health Ministry. They offered me water and time to compose myself, and each and every one of them apologized to me for her behavior, as I admitted them into my office in turn until the end of my shift. On the following morning, several community leaders arrived on my doorstep to issue a formal apology on behalf of the town and tell me they would be writing letters supporting me to the Health Ministry.

But I too heard blatant and subtly racist comments in my career in the Arab-Israeli sector. I was frequently asked in an astonished tone, “You speak Arabic?” — to which I always replied, “No, I speak Yiddish to the Bedouins.”

And once in a crowded elevator in the winter in Soroka Hospital — when the not unpleasant scent of citrus campfires clung to my clothes and those of my Bedouin driver — someone commented, “There’s a stinking Arab in the elevator.” When we got to our floor, I promptly turned around and shrieked at everyone in the elevator, “No, it’s a stinking Jew!”

But I watched Teri Tassama tremble this morning when she described the incident with the mother who called her the k-word and I still cry when I remember the Holocaust Remembrance Day siren in Abu Gosh. I wish I could tell you that I can now shake the feeling that I somehow did something wrong and the feeling that I am somewhat “lesser than” because I am a child of survivors. And I doubt that Teri Tassama can ever shake her “humiliation and hurt.”

She said this morning, “They think we’re stupid. No. We’re simply patient and tolerant. We came from a cultured place.”

I can’t tell you how many times I — who came to Israel from the US — have said the same words.

Racism hurts.

About the Author
Varda Spiegel was Nurse-Director of the Bedouin Mobile Unit of the Negev, later serving as Maternal-Child Health Director for the Ministry of Health Jerusalem District. I am a grandmother, mother, and beachbum.
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