Arabs, Israelis come together to solve health problems

JERUSALEM — Rock 'n' roll throbs relentlessly through the walls of a seminar room at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheva. Palestinian and Israeli teens are inside, interpreting words and music. Their class, however, is not solely about music appreciation. Rather, it is an experiment to promote better relations between Palestinians and Israelis.

The program — to improve people-listening skills by developing music-listening skills — was developed by the University's Spitzer department of social work and run jointly with Palestinian social workers. It is one of dozens recently created at Israel's institutions of higher learning to breach the vast barriers that divide Israelis from Palestinians.

"The useful contribution that scientists can make to the abolition of [political strife] has nothing to do with technology," said physicist Freeman Dyson. "The international community of scientists can help by setting examples of practical cooperation that breach language, cultural, and national barriers."

This view has been axiomatic among Israeli scientists and academics throughout the history of the state. Since 1959, doctors and nurses from the Hadassah Medical Organization have quietly conducted medical outreach to dozens of developing nations — loaning them doctors and nurses, and launching and running clinics in remote regions. In Africa alone, Hadassah estimates having restored eyesight to 1 million people.

Likewise, an international master's of public health program taught at Hadassah for 30 years has graduated more than 500 health professionals from 70 countries, the majority of whom have subsequently assumed high-ranking positions in international agencies and public health posts at home.

Plant geneticists from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot are currently helping Kenyan scientists protect their wheat crop from parasites.

At Ben-Gurion University, desert ecologists have created the world's first interdisciplinary master of science program in desert studies to help the globe's billion-plus desert-dwellers wrest a living from their arid home.

Now with the changing geopolitical climate of recent years, Israel's long history of scientific outreach is finally coming home. The rock 'n' roll program for Israeli and Palestinian teens is just one of dozens of joint social, health and agricultural programs now under way.

Water is an immediate regional issue that transcends political barriers. "Years ago when there were basically no contacts with Arab countries, we were already working together with our neighbors at desalination conferences," says Professor Ora Kedem, head of Ben-Gurion University's desalination program.

Two years ago, the West Bank town of Jenin approached biotechnologist and food engineer Professor Haim Mannheim at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa requesting advice on establishing a laboratory to check water and food purity. The Technion team delivered an in-depth feasibility study in June, and is waiting to hear whether they can help further.

The scant respect of microbes and other living organism for international boundaries makes health care another vast area of growing Israeli-Palestinian cooperation. Mosquitoes, a global killer, are being attacked on both sides of Israel's borders by a bacillus that kills without harming the ecosystem. Discovered by Professor Yoel Maraglit of Ben-Gurion University's Biological Pesticides Center, its wide-scale application is now being explored with Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

Another Ben-Gurion University project links its scientists with those in Gaza and the West Bank in a three-year study to make blood screening cheaper and safer. And Ben-Gurion physicians, concerned about the growing gap in health status between Israel and the Palestinians, have proposed a joint consultation clinic directly on one of the borders. Israeli and Palestinian doctors would work together at the clinic as patients access treatment on their own side of the border.

Such dreaming harks back to the establishment of Hadassah's first clinic in Jerusalem in 1913, where Jewish and Arab patients were served equally. Eight-six years later, the vast medical organization has not only built its reputation on the equality of its care, but of its mentoring of caregivers. Senior Palestinian staff are employed in its two Jerusalem hospitals. Moreover, Hadassah runs advanced and specialty courses for Palestinians health professionals, with training in trauma nursing, dental care and neurology recently added to the curriculum.

Says Nurit Wagner, R.N., director of nursing and paramedic procedures at Hadassah: "We believe it's our responsibility as professionals to share knowledge and skills with other caregivers, whoever they are. This is what will build true peace, bonding us far more closely than any number of words — doing things together, sharing what we know, to make life better for the people who live throughout this region and around the world."