Reflections from a medical mission to Israel

Toronto Doctors Medical Mission to Israel

Drs. Ted Rosenberg, Cynthia Lazar, and I were among a group of seventeen health care professionals who recently returned from a five-day mission to Israel organized by Doctors Against Racism and Antisemitism (DARA). All the participants were graduates and/or current Faculty members of the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine. We met leaders of healthcare facilities and NGOs, and ordinary Israelis, soldiers and civilians personally affected by the Israel-Hamas war.

The three of us hoped to share our observations from our trip with the general Canadian public, but our submission was rejected by three major newspapers. Our aim was to provide our fellow citizens with our perspective of the fallout from the atrocities of October 7, 2023 that triggered the tragic war, without minimizing the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Gaza. Sadly, recollection of this massacre has receded from global consciousness concurrent with increasingly widespread belligerent and disruptive protests calling to support Hamas “freedom fighters” in their struggle to liberate Palestine “from the River to the Sea”.

Hamas terrorists invaded Israel on Oct 7th with the sole aim of slaughtering and kidnapping Jews. The ferocity and glee with which they did so, and their determination to repeat it, left Israelis numb with grief and insecurity, a nation struggling with PTSD. We observed Israelis still shocked and traumatized, and yet dedicated to supporting one another even when their government falls short.

We visited Magen David Adom, the national ambulance and blood transfusion service. There we met Ronit, a triage dispatcher who fielded frantic calls coming from besieged communities on Oct 7th. She related her harrowing telephone conversation with a paramedic in one of the villages, begging her to send more support. This paramedic, short on supplies and suffering with gunshot wounds, was providing first aid to wounded civilians in a dental clinic. Ronit’s eyes lowered and her voice broke when she described telling her colleague that the roads were still dangerous, resources were exhausted, and that they would not be able to send help soon. Anguished and helpless, dispatchers could provide only advice and comfort to the trapped and wounded. She played a recorded conversation with Guy, a young man dying of gunshot wounds, who they connected to his father, so that he could express his love and gratitude to his parents and say goodbye as he drew his last breaths.  We heard a recording of a dispatcher calming and advising a nine-year-old boy who was hiding in a safe room after witnessing the murder and abduction of his family members.

Healthcare has long been considered a bridge to peace. We met Dr. Ora Paltiel, a hematologist and epidemiologist at Jerusalem’s Hadassah hospital, who spoke about her sense of duty and her concern for the fate of her cancer patients from the West Bank whose access to care in Jerusalem was compromised by the conflict. Among the Kibbutz residents murdered on October 7th were peace activists who routinely drove children from Gaza to medical appointments in Israel. This is not a nation committed to genocide.

We learned that up to half of the medical professionals in Israel are Muslim, Christians, and Druze.   These dedicated professionals shared with us the complexities of their identities: how they are at once repulsed by Hamas’ crimes and hateful ideology, and simultaneously anxious over the safety of civilians trapped in Gaza, some of whom are relatives. The head of occupational therapy at Hadassah Mount Scopus Hospital in Jerusalem, an Israeli-Arab citizen, proudly showed us the brand-new state-of-the-art rehabilitation facility, where she treats wounded civilians and soldiers. This is not the picture of Apartheid.

Physicians at Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva recounted for us how, on October 7th, they worked at lightning speed to stabilize horrifically wounded patients, including both victims and perpetrators, who arrived at a rate of one every 40 seconds.

Near newly renamed Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, we met Rebeccah, who helped launch the grassroots Hostages and Missing Families Forum NGO. This organization provides advocacy, support, shelter, meals, and counselling to bereaved and traumatized families of hostages.

We sat with members of those hostage families as they shared their grief and fear for their loved ones still languishing and abused in Gaza’s tunnels. They bemoaned the massive security failure of their government on October 7th. We heard no cries for revenge at Hostages Square; only lamentation, sadness, and gratitude for our support at a time when they felt the world has abandoned them.

Throughout our journey in Israel, we observed a complex, nuanced reality that is in stark contrast to activist press narratives and shallow social media soundbites. We left with a clear understanding of why Israel, rife with internal divisions and surrounded by hostile neighbors bent on its destruction, was rated in a recent UN survey as the fifth happiest country in the world. Divided by ideology, politics, and religion, its people are nevertheless united by a fierce love of life and community. Ultimately these values, together with courage and determination, will overcome the hatred and cynicism which obstruct peace.

We understand and join with Muslims around the world who express concern and sympathy for their co-religionists in Gaza. But it is intolerable when that sympathy is expressed, as it often is in rallies and on campuses, as support for Hamas, a murderous terrorist organization whose goal is to establish a repressive theocratic caliphate, and who have vowed to repeat their attempted genocidal assaults if given the chance. As healthcare professionals we are bound by the duty to recognize the humanity of all persons. We challenge people of goodwill who are truly concerned about peace to reject oversimplified, demonizing narratives and slogans. Instead, recognize the legitimacy of all people in the region and their right to lives of freedom, security, peace, and stability.

About the Author
Jerome Teitel is a Professor of Medicine at the University of Toronto, and a Hematologist engaged in clinical care and research of hemophilia and other bleeding disorders, based at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto.
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