Common Ground in a Jerusalem Emergency Room


We had an unexpected visit to the emergency room of Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus Thursday night, after our Palestinian coworker Yousef was startled by unfamiliar chest pain.

As we entered the security door a slapping, pushing, shouting brawl broke out when a young Arab man wanting to see his sick friend tried to push past the Russian Jewish security guard. I leaned over and muttered to Yousef “It’s tohu vevohu in here,” using the words “without form and void” from Genesis which are commonly used in Israel to indicate chaos.

I expected a long, frustrating wait and thought about leaving. But first a nurse and then a doctor made a point of inquiring about us and promising prompt attention. We sat on plastic chairs with a small group of East Jerusalem Arabs and an elderly Iranian Jew calling out in Farsi to his wife sitting opposite. The friend of the young Arab man was coughing and moaning loudly on the other side of a sheet hanging behind us.

Yousef and I talked about the history of where we were sitting. A convoy of Jewish doctors and nurses were ambushed and massacred on their way to the hospital in April 1948. As is not uncommon in private conversation with Arabs, Yousef blamed his own people: “They’re always causing the trouble.”

“Well listen,” I replied. “This was just a week after Deir Yassin [the unprovoked assault on a nearby Arab village by Jewish militias which left many civilians dead]. Ayin tachat ayin, an eye for an eye.”

But now, as often happens in Israel, the hospital was a place that brings people together. When I returned for Yousef in the morning, I noticed two elderly Jewish women on the other side of the room were sitting up in their beds and smiling in our direction. Soon one came across and asked to use our phone to call her husband.

She asked about our backgrounds, and I told her Yousef was a Muslim and I was a Christian, but that we had a shared faith in the Messiah of Israel.

“Don’t talk to me about the Messiah of Israel,” she replied. Only three members of her family had survived the Holocaust, and one of them just happened to be in the Gush Etzion settlement when it was overrun and the inhabitants killed scarcely a month after the Mount Scopus massacre.

“Well listen,” I started again. “If you’ll allow me to say so, the Jewish people have paid a great price in order to bring the knowledge of God to all the peoples of the world. People hate you because they don’t want God involved in their lives. We’re indebted to you.”

No, she was personally kind but didn’t want to accept any positive words. Just like Yousef she had an embittered view of her own people and their history. How often what is really going on in people’s hearts is just the opposite of what our stereotypes would lead us to expect.