By Avigayil Kadesh
A young Arab woman in Jericho was bitten on her foot by a poisonous viper in 2008. When the local clinic was unable to treat her, an Israeli ambulance jeep drove the woman almost two hours through the Jordan Valley to Emek Medical Center, where the anti-venom serum was available. She was already unconscious at that point, but her life was saved in the nick of time.
This is just one of many such stories that Larry Rich relates to an ever-widening audience, with the goal of demonstrating how Israel’s medical establishment serves as a paradigm for coexisting cultures in conflict.
“For years, I have considered Emek Medical Center and the human reality here as a shining example of sanity in a world going mad - literally a beacon of light and hope for anybody who cares to focus on something sane,” says Rich, the Detroit-born director of development and international public relations at the hospital.
Rich is a grassroots diplomat for Israel, speaking to multiethnic audiences in Europe and North America about everyday inspiring scenes at Israel’s hospitals that never make the news.
Many of these stories are recorded in his 2005 book, Voices from Armageddon, which relates how Arab and Jewish medical staff at Emek routinely treats “the other.”
“Jewish-Arab cooperation may be seen in every hospital from Eilat to Nahariya,” stresses Rich. “What is special about Emek is its unique 50-50 ratio. In the northeast, we are the primary healthcare provider for a population of 500,000, equally divided between Arabs and Jews. In no other place in Israel does this symbolic ratio exist.”
Saving lives in Armageddon
Emek Medical Center is situated in Afula, a Jezreel Valley municipality near Megiddo, the fabled site of the future Armageddon and a geographically strategic area that has seen many famous battles during the last 4,000 years.
The medical center’s professional staff mirrors the national ratio: 20 percent overall is Arab, and 20% of the heads of medical departments are Arab Muslims or Christians, Druse or Circassians.
Throughout the years, the medical staff has actively pursued international opportunities to share its expertise, as do many other Israeli hospitals.
In 2012 alone, the head of Emek’s intensive care unit traveled with two nurses, on behalf of the Foreign Ministry, to the Mulago Hospital in Kampala, Uganda, to open a new trauma center and train the local medical staff. The director of Emek’s Pediatric Gastroenterology Clinic lectured at the European Society of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition’s summer course in Madrid. And Prof. Hava Tabenkin, Emek’s chief of family medicine and chair of the National Council of Women’s Health, spearheaded a Family Medicine Fellowship program with Providence, Rhode Island’s Miriam Hospital and Memorial Hospital.
Arrif and Mohammed
In 1997, Rich was taken to Emek after suffering a heart attack. “When I woke up in the cardiac intensive care at Emek Medical Center, I saw Arab and Jewish physicians working together to save me. I had been in the country 25 years, but I still had stereotypes in my mind about Arabs. I never made the academic/professional connection,” he says.
Within two years, he had left his industrial job and created an office to market the hospital to overseas donors. Over the past 13 years, he has written up and shared the many experiences he and staffers witness at the facility – from a Jewish surgeon operating on a wounded Arab terrorist during the intifada to an Arab nurse assuring a wary mother that the Jewish hospital was indeed a safe place for her child sick with cancer.
“Today in Emek, I was leading a group of visitors from England on a tour of our School for Hospitalized Children,” he wrote in one email to supporters. “I introduced the group to Arrif and his fifteen-year-old-son, Mohammed. They come from Gaza. They have been ‘living’ in Emek for 10 months as young Mohammed is being treated for severe facial cancer. Arrif speaks fluent Hebrew and I conducted a simultaneously translated Q&A session between him and the British visitors …
“Q. How do you feel here, among the Jews of Israel?
“A. Perfectly normal and at ease. Grateful – so very grateful.
“Q. What does your family back in Gaza say about Mohammed’s treatment here?
“A. They are amazed and they send their sincere gratitude. They cannot believe what has and is being done for Mohammed and me.
Arrif, from Gaza, with his son Mohammed who is being treated at Emek
Time for a positive message
Rich, who has a gift for public speaking with his radio-announcer voice, has long told of these episodes to international visitors to the medical center and on his fundraising trips abroad.
“After people heard the stories of the reality of what takes place here in Emek, they always asked why I am not speaking for Israel and only for the hospital,” he relates. The Foreign Ministry agreed, registering him as an official speaker in 2007.
Last year, Rich was invited to address an audience at Trinity College in Ireland, arranged through the parents of Emek’s director of ophthalmology Dr. Daniel Briscoe, an Irish Jew. The Israeli embassy in Dublin paid for his accommodations and the Dublin Jewish community covered his transportation costs.
“I created a lecture about Israel seen through the prism of a medical institution. I decided to present positive realities of human cooperation that take place daily and hourly here, not only in the hospital but in the immediate region,” says Rich. “I stayed away from terror, war and anything negative in our part of the world. It was time for a positive message.”
More than 50 Christians and Jews turned out, along with Israeli Ambassador Boaz Modai, to hear what Rich had to say. Later, he was interviewed on Irish national radio station RTE.
Intense curiosity among listeners
Based on the positive reactions to his appearances in Dublin, Rich was recruited by Noam Katz, the Minister of Public Diplomacy at Israel's Embassy in Washington to give several lectures while he was in the United States on hospital business in April 2012.
“His office put together an itinerary for me to speak for four days in Washington, which I gladly accepted,” says Rich. “They intentionally arranged some challenging audiences because they were curious to see the impact of my talk.”
Larry Rich, left, with Noam Katz of Israel's Embassy in Washington
Rich was also invited by the Jewish Federation of Detroit to speak before a delegation of Arab leaders representing nearly a million Arabs in this region, which has the highest concentration of Muslims in the United States.
“These people came up to me afterward and said they had never heard such a message coming out of Israel,” Rich reports. “They wanted to hear more about this cooperation at ground level. They want me to speak in their communities.”
The ethnically mixed prep school Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island hosted Rich, as did the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island, several groups in Connecticut, and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
In Washington, he spoke to Georgetown University medical students and faculty, and a large organization of hospital owners. He found “intense curiosity” on the part of individuals and Jewish communities to hear his perspective.
Human behavior at its best
“I started each of my lectures by saying, ‘Let’s get something clear from the start: I am not a politician or a general in the army. I am just a guy from the street come to open a small window for you to peek in and visit Israel,’ and then I started telling real-life stories of cooperation, education and life-saving on a professional, patient and family level,” Rich says.
He finishes his presentations by stressing that he cannot dictate what anyone chooses to believe, but hopes to shift their focus.
“Every person has the choice to focus on positive examples or to focus on hate and divisiveness, and that is what you will perpetuate,” Rich says.
His final lecture was before leaders and members of a left-wing Israel advocacy organization.
“At the end of the lecture, someone asked if the stories I had told were the exception. I said, ‘These stories are the norm. They go on in Israel all across the spectrum, every hour of every day, north to south - except that is not what you’re hearing in the news.’
“I explained humbly that all of these stories are not the answer to the problem in the Middle East, but an example of human behavior at its best, of people making conscious decisions to live and work together. This is something people are hungry to hear, not about blame or excuses.”