The Late-Blooming Vision of Henrietta Szold

The Late-Blooming Vision of Henrietta Szold

E. Chowers: Henrietta Szold’s Vision

A hundred years ago, on the Jewish holiday of Purim in 1912, a group of women founded the Hadassah Chapter of the Daughters of Zion at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan. Soon thereafter, this group began its medical endeavors in Palestine by sending two nurses to Jerusalem, which at the time was still under Ottoman rule. Today, the heart of the Hadassah Medical Organization remains in Jerusalem, and it includes two hospitals and related institutions that employ more than 5,000 men and women. Moreover, last week the organization began celebrating its centennial by opening a new hospital tower, an immense building with state-of-art technology that solidifies the organization’s place as arguably the leading medical center in the Middle East. But as I learned recently, the story here is not merely one of professional success but of human achievement in adverse political conditions. At a time when peace in the Middle East seems more distant than ever—and the Palestinian and Israeli governments appear happy in their immobility—places in civil society such as Hadassah exemplify a flourishing coexistence among Jews and Arabs.

The leader of Hadassah in its early years, Henrietta Szold, was a Jewish American who immigrated to Palestine at the age of sixty. Her Zionism fused the moral teachings of Judaism with American liberalism; in her view, justice took priority over one’s private or group interests, and the notion of equal rights was the foundation of social life. In this spirit, Szold and her colleagues shaped Hadassah into a medical institution where treatment was provided without consideration of race, nationality, religion, or the color of one’s skin.

Szold gradually became an esteemed leader among Zionists in Palestine, but she was also a vocal critic of the mainstream. As the Jewish-Arab conflict escalated, she watched with concern as Jews and Arabs alike developed an ardent nationalism, a sense of victimhood, and hatred toward the other community. During the turbulence of the late 1930s, she wrote that “all the insistence one reads in the editorials that the riots and murders and spoliations only strengthen our [Jews’] determination not to allow ourselves to be dislodged, is disquieting from an ethical point of view. Is there no Arab side to the problem? Is it not our business to see the Arab side too, and think out the necessary adjustments?”

In the early 1940s, Szold joined Yehuda Magnes, the chancellor of Hebrew University, and the philosopher Martin Buber to form the Ihud Party, which supported a binational state. The party, which was willing to limit Jewish immigration to this binational state despite the fact that the extermination of European Jews was taking place, remained marginal in Palestine but gained some support in the United States (as well as the condemnation of many members of the Zionist Organization of America). New York Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger, for example, gave the party considerable coverage.

During and since Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, Hadassah’s identification with Israeli society deepened. On April 13, 1948 Arabs from nearby villages attacked a convoy to the hospital at Mount Scopus, East Jerusalem, killing seventy-nine people (mostly Jewish nurses and doctors). The beautiful building—designed by Erich Mendelsohn and inaugurated in 1939—stretched out horizontally, integrated into its surroundings, and included three domes in its entrance that paid homage to the domes of the hospital’s Muslim neighbors. But soon after the attack, it had to be evacuated. The new Hadassah hospital in Ein Kerem, West Jerusalem, included no such cross-cultural references; instead, it was mainly known for the stained windows in its synagogue, which presented Jewish Biblical themes and were painted by Marc Chagall in honor of Hadassah’s Golden Anniversary in 1962.

I have known the new building my entire life. My father worked there as an internist, my mother as a laboratory technician. As a child, I spent the Six Day War of 1967 in the hospital’s huge underground shelter, roaming the labyrinthine corridors and playing hide-and-seek with the children of my parents’ coworkers. In that era, one saw very few non-Jewish workers and only a handful of Arab patients. But in the last few decades and following that war, Hadassah had undergone a transformation—one in line with its founding vision.

Jerusalem is not one city but three. Arabs, secular Jews, and orthodox Jews move in secluded communities throughout their life cycles. They don’t study or serve in the army together, and they seldom work in the same place or intermarry. In the vicinity of Jerusalem are two other estranged communities, Jewish settlers and Palestinians from the West Bank. At Hadassah, however, all are lying side by side, gingerly getting to know one another; here, the type of disease determines one’s neighbor, not one’s identity. The fragility of the body helps establish bonds not likely to be formed otherwise.

The same diversity exists in the makeup of the staff. Arab doctors, janitors, nurses, and laboratory technicians compose about 20 percent of Hadassah’s workers in the medical center. This percentage corresponds roughly to the share of Arabs in the general Israeli population. (In comparison, only 9.5 percent of workers in the government-controlled part of the health system are Arab, even though it is the government sector with the highest rate of Arab workers.) What does it mean for an Arab to work in a Zionist-Jewish organization? This is not something often publicly discussed. Yet the phenomenon evinces a growing breakdown of the link between one’s national-religious identity and one’s place in the hierarchy of the hospital.

I found this reality so unusual and hopeful (my daughter was hospitalized at the time, so it was nice to have reasons for optimism) and therefore wanted to learn how it came about and how the human diversity works in practice. I spoke with Professor Shlomo Mor-Yosef, until recently the director general of Hadassah Medical Center. “Today it is easy” to preserve good working relationships and professional ethics in the hospital, he said. Things were different during the Second Intifada, when more than thirty Hadassah workers had an immediate family member killed in the terror. During that period, he explained, the nationally mixed medical team had to care for all patients—Arabs and Jews—including the mostly Jewish civilians injured by explosions. They even cared for some of the terrorists. Hadassah was able to overcome these difficult times, insists Mor-Yosef, because it “is a humanitarian organization that does not ask anyone where he came from and what he did before he crossed the doorstep of the ER.” He sees both this ethic and the exceptional diversity of the staff as stemming in part from “the spirit of Hadassah, which began with Henrietta Szold and has continued through the generations, especially the liberalism of the organization toward minorities and women.”

Hadassah’s new hospital tower is the third in its history. The tower, also located in Ein Kerem, will introduce new hospitalization standards and focus on the comfort of the individual patient. I can see the building from my window as I write these lines, and I find myself unsure about its architectonic message. The building does not seem to allude to any identity or tradition and could have been built anywhere in the world (it is being praised, especially, for its healing gardens and for the scenery accessible to the patients from their windows). Perhaps this is fitting for a place that increasingly celebrates the neutrality that medicine and its aims can offer.

Peace is a matter for international agreements between governments. Yet the rapid and total collapse of the Oslo Accords after the failed Camp David talks in 2000 teaches us that the foundations of peace between Jews and Arabs must be the bonds among and cooperation between ordinary people. This is particularly important to recognize as the two-state option seems increasingly improbable and some begin to look for new ideas, including those that existed in Szold’s days, such as a binational state, federation, or confederation.

Whatever the solution may be, history has proved that Szold was right in insisting that goodwill depends on the quality of everyday interactions among people. The art of peace requires that, in addition to our roles as citizens, we have a plethora of spheres and sites in which political and religious identities take the backseat. There people can embrace other personas: patients, doctors, coworkers—or simply, neighbors.

Eyal Chowers is a senior lecturer in the political science department of Tel-Aviv University. His most recent book is The Political Philosophy of Zionism: Trading Jewish Words for a Hebraic Land (Cambridge, 2012).

Photo of Hadassah University Hospital in Mount Scopus in 1930s, Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

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