A Wartime Mission to Israel: An Opportunity for Understanding, Collaboration, and Peace

Februrary 2024 | Nir Hoftman, MD, and Patricia Nwajuaku, MD, MPH

In mid-February 2024, we had the unique privilege of embarking on an academic wartime learning mission to Israel. This project was conceptualized, developed, and organized by Nir Hoftman, MD. Our group included 27 diverse scholars, including physicians, psychologists, DEI experts, social activists, scientists, and professors of law and other humanities and social science fields. The major goals of the mission included the following: (1) tangible exposure to the scope of social and economic impact caused by this conflict; (2) understanding the challenges of delivering medical care during a wartime crisis; (3) understanding the challenges facing diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds in the university setting during this conflict; (4) understanding Israel’s approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the setting of persistent ethnic conflict.

Our itinerary included visits to the destroyed communities surrounding the Gaza strip, a special meeting with hostage families, a meeting with the President of Israel in Jerusalem, and visits to premier universities and hospitals throughout the country.

The war that erupted on October 7, 2023, caught Israel by surprise, and organizations such as hospitals were not immediately prepared for the impact. Medical departments, including Anesthesiology, suddenly found themselves in crisis. A substantial portion of their students, trainees, faculty, and staff were emergently drafted into military reserve duty, disrupting academic pursuits and delivery of clinical care. The civilian sector was left with severe manpower shortages in the face of heightened clinical demand due to increased numbers of trauma patients—both soldiers and civilians. Volunteers from all over the world came to help fill these deficiencies, while trainees stepped in and carried the burden.

Of note, a substantial number of the medical staff in Israeli hospitals is comprised of Arab doctors and nurses. This would seem to be an area of potential conflict, yet all the facilities we visited reported a sense of mission during the crisis. Jews, Muslims, and Christians; Israelis and Arabs, all worked together to save the lives of soldiers and civilians, including Palestinian casualties. This dedication to healing and successful cooperation between different social groups was presented as a blueprint for a better future.

We also had the opportunity to tour the underground “Bunker Hospital” At Rambam Medical Center in Haifa. Avraham (Avi) Weissman, MD, Medical Director of Rambam Hospital and Chief of Anesthesiology, led our group through an in-depth tour of the medical campus, including the underground facility. A cardiac anesthesiologist by training, Dr. Weismann trained at UCLA and works in our department every summer.

During the current crisis and for the first time, the emergency facility at Rambam was activated. What serves as an underground parking lot during peacetime was quickly and sophisticatedly converted into a 2000-bed fully functioning bunker hospital meant to absorb four regional hospitals underground. This facility boasts an ER, OR, dialysis center, and other vital functions that allow for robust and comprehensive medical delivery, while being fully protected from both conventional and unconventional military threats. A command center with high-tech sensors and surveillance allows the facility to function securely while hostilities rage above ground.

Finally, we visited three of the top universities in Israel: Tel Aviv University, Technion (Israel’s MIT), and Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Several of our group members, including Patricia Nwajuaku, MD, MPH, focused their attention on the methods employed on campus to “keep the peace” between Israeli and Arab/Palestinian students. We also utilized working groups to allow for targeted information exchange. One such working group was that which focused on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) policies at these institutions, both before and during the war.

We learned that despite the raging conflict, Israeli and Arab/Palestinian students refrained from any open violence or protests. While freedom of speech was protected, faculty and students were encouraged to “take a deep breath,” thus promoting open dialogue between the groups with deeply opposing views. There was the potential for degeneration into active hostilities if the situation was not approached in a reasonable manner. With rare exception, this strategy proved to be a great success, and can perhaps serve as a model for American universities, where the current conflict has led to extreme hostility and aggravated displays of ethnic and religious hate on many campuses.

Finally, we met with Dr. Mona Khoury, Vice President of the Hebrew University and Director of Strategy and Diversity on campus. Dr. Khoury is the first Arab Professor at the University to reach such a leadership position. In this meeting, we endeavored to compare and contrast Israel’s DEI system to that of the United States. Dr. Khoury highlighted that in Israel and more specifically, at institutions such as Hebrew University, they direct efforts towards underrepresented minorities at an earlier stage of their education in order to give them a better chance for successful admission to the universities. While affirmative action is not practiced, minority groups such as Arabs, Ethiopian (Black) Jews, and ultraorthodox Jews have grown significantly in their student body representation, thanks in part to these programs.

Each minority group faces its own challenges. For instance, Arabs have an independent education system that results in deficiencies in the Hebrew language. This significant omission exponentially increases the difficulty in reaching university-level study for Arab students. Ultra-orthodox Jews also have a separate educational system that lacks the science and social science curriculum due to its focus on religious studies. Ethiopian Jews may lack the self-confidence and knowledge of the breadth of resources available to aid in applying to university, as they are often the first in their family to do so.

By bridging these gaps early and in a targeted manner, these universities have been able to double the number of underrepresented minority students via implementation of focused and strategic programmatic development. As debate rages in the US over whether DEI practices mitigate or contribute to discrimination of any racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic groups, we hope that continued meetings with diversity experts both in the US and other countries such as Israel can help American universities meet the challenge and find a common path based on civility, mutual respect and appreciation, equality of opportunity, and a commitment to the good of the whole.