Zahi Said was driving to the medical clinic he runs in the Israeli city of Haifa when his phone rang — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to see him.
The four time premier had just watched the Arab doctor on television, discussing how the government needed to reach out to Arab Israelis about the dangers of coronavirus, and he wanted some advice.
Mr Said, who also advises one of Israel’s largest healthcare providers on Arab issues, turned his car round and drove straight to Mr Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem. Since then, Mr Said has been on national television almost daily, taking questions from Arabic speakers, busting myths and begging people to stay home to help break the chain of new infections.
But when he was asked if the Arab community in Israel could expect to receive equal access to coronavirus care as the Jewish majority, Mr Said gave a diplomatic answer.
“We know it’s not a secret that the resources in this country are not equally distributed, but I have to look at the glass as half-full,” he told the Financial Times. “At least when I go meet Netanyahu, at least he is listening to us.”
Since Mr Netanyahu first came to power in 1996 he has denigrated Arab politicians as supporters of terrorism, stripped Arabic of its status as an official language and last year passed a law that gave Jews alone the right to self-determination in the state of Israel. Now, in the battle against Covid-19, Mr Netanyahu needs their help.
Arabs make up only a fifth of Israel’s population, but represent half the country’s pharmacists, a quarter of its nurses and just under a fifth of its doctors, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Some of the nation’s largest hospitals have Arab doctors heading major departments, and the country’s leading virologist is Arab.
Arabs are disproportionately represented in the medical community because attaining professional qualifications has been one way to push back against political marginalisation, Arab doctors said. Many trained in Jordan after the two countries signed a peace deal in 1994 and Israel’s Arab community continues to hold medical workers in high regard.
“The Polish [Jewish] mother used to want her son to be a doctor, but now she wants him to get a tech job,” Mr Said joked. “The Arab mother still wants her children to be in medicine.”
In Kafra Qara, an Arab town south of Haifa with so many medical professionals that residents call it the city of doctors, Jameel Mohsen was more critical.
“As an Arab, other jobs are closed off to us, so we became doctors,” he said, peeling off layers of protective equipment after setting up a Covid-19 ward at the Hillel Yeffe Medical Center, where he is head of infectious diseases.
Israel’s dependence on its Arab doctors has come at a time when the outbreak is developing quickest in the country’s Jewish ultraorthodox communities. In contrast, despite claims from Mr Netanyahu and his rightwing political allies that Arabs were ignoring health directives, none of the Arab majority cities, even the densely populated neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem, have had major outbreaks.
But for Osama Tanous, a fiery 34-year-old paediatrician who cites the Indian leftist Arundhati Roy as an inspiration and quotes the 19th century German pathologist Rudolf Virchow in his analysis, the sudden elevation of Arab doctors to national saviours will not usher in new equality for Arab communities. Instead, he said, it will be used to justify continued prejudice.
“Israel has a way of celebrating good Arab doctors, while discriminating against all other Arabs, so that doctors become the ambassadors of this beautiful Israeli system of coexistence,” he said, referring to a flurry of recent articles in Israeli newspapers praising Arab medics. “It makes it appear that now that you have Arab doctors saving Jewish lives, and helping Israel at a time of national crisis, therefore it is time to stop being racist against them — this is a very slippery and dangerous notion.”
The work of Arab medics so far has certainly not brought their communities any immediate benefits, said Hani Daoud, the head of a pharmacist’s association that represents almost 300 pharmacies in Israel’s predominantly Arab north.
His colleagues were the first defenders against the virus as people rushed to pharmacies to stock up on medicine, masks and hand sanitiser. “The government didn’t make any precautions for us — we had to face the panic on our own,” he said, pointing to the inadequate face masks that his staff wore in the first few weeks.
At the century-old Ziv Medical Center, Jalal Tarabeia, the head of infection controls and a consultant for the ministry of health, said the pace of work has been so frantic that he and his Arab colleagues have not had time to ponder the politics of the situation.
“We are very proud to be on the frontline — leave politics far away, we just want to save lives,” he said.
For Mr Tanous, the paediatrician, interactions between Arabs and Israelis are always political. “It’s just another level of us having to prove ourselves,” he said. “Prove that we can get into medical school, prove that we can be a part of this national effort to fight the epidemic, just so that we can be granted equality by our occupiers.”
The Financial Times is making key coronavirus coverage free to read to help everyone stay informed. Find the latest here.