Arab doctor saves Jewish soldier hit by Arab bullets. No big deal?

Hadassah’s Prof. Ahmed Eid gets a little irritated when people ask him questions about being an Arab surgeon in Jewish Israel. ‘There’s no drama here,’ he insists. Oh, but there is…

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

On Sunday August 4, a gunman on a motorbike opened fire on an Israeli soldier, Chen Schwartz, near Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus, hitting him twice at close range. Critically injured in what police said was almost certainly a Palestinian terror attack, Schwartz, 19, was rushed to the nearby Hadassah Hospital.

Professor Ahmed Eid, Hadassah’s head of surgery, was called to the operating theater and scrubbed in. “Without going into the specifics, it was clear there was major loss of blood,” Eid recalls in an interview. Eid called for another doctor with particular expertise to come from Hadassah’s other hospital across town at Ein Karem, and she was given a police motorcycle escort when she got stuck in traffic.

Understated about the extraordinary skills of the team that saved Schwartz’s life, Eid says simply: “He had what would have been fatal wounds, and would certainly have died without very careful surgery.”

Today, after another round of surgery once his condition was more stable, Schwartz is gradually recovering. Eid says his condition is moderate. His mother Miri, who joins us towards the end of our conversation in Eid’s office, is full of smiling relief and appreciation for the doctor who saved her son’s life. It all sounds like an uplifting hospital story, a minor positive drama in these largely unhappy times.

But it’s actually a little more than that, because of the identities of the drama’s key players. This isn’t just a story of gunman shoots victim and doctor saves him. This is Arab gunman shoots Jewish soldier and Arab doctor saves him.

Security personnel at the scene where a gunman on a motorcycle opened fire on soldier Chen Schwartz, near Jerusalem's Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus, August 4, 2014. (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Security personnel at the scene where a gunman on a motorcycle opened fire on soldier Chen Schwartz, near Jerusalem’s Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus, August 4, 2014. (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Eid sighs with a mixture of mild irritation and indulgence at the interplay of conflict and surgery and religion. “Yes, an Arab shot him and an Arab saved him,” he says of Schwartz. “There’s an apparent contradiction. But really there isn’t. I was doing my job. That’s what I do.”

No big deal? Well, yes and no.

I had a good brain, and got a lot of support

Ahmed Eid was born 64 years ago in Daburiyya, east of Nazareth in northern Israel. He shows me a photograph of the village, which lies in the shadow of Mount Tabor.

He was one of ten kids, and none of the others had higher education. “But there was nothing stopping them,” he emphasizes. “I had a good brain, and I studied hard, and I got so much support,” he says of the rare educational journey he made.

The village of Daburiyya, where Ahmed Eid grew up (Photo credit: gugganij/Wikipedia)
The village of Daburiyya, where Ahmed Eid grew up (Photo credit: gugganij/Wikipedia)

Young Ahmed did well in his exams, and won a scholarship to a high school in Nazareth run by the municipality. From there, he came to Jerusalem in 1968, and did a degree in math and physics. Wondering what he was going to do with that, “I applied and was accepted for medicine. My father hoped I’d open a clinic in Daburiyya, but I disappointed him and stayed here,” he says with a smile.

“I told my father it would be years before I would earn properly. He said, ‘I’ll sell the house to make sure you can do this.’ He didn’t need to, because I got various scholarships and I worked as a nurse while I was training.”

Eid tells his career story rather like he lives his life: briskly and cheerfully, moving relentlessly forward.

“I worked in surgery — transplants — and I got addicted,” he continues. Hadassah, at the time, had “started to think about doing liver transplants,” he remembers, which no Israeli hospital was performing. So Eid went to the US from 1986 to 1990 to train, studying transplantation surgery at the Mayo Clinic. He points me to the certificate on the wall to the side of his desk which shows that he performed Israel’s first successful liver transplant in 1991. The recipient was a new immigrant from Russia, a boy. “He’s still alive. Unfortunately he lives in New York. We’re still in touch.”

Hadassah Hospital, Mount Scopus (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Hadassah Hospital, Mount Scopus (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

The doctor’s features light up when he discusses transplant surgery, his specialty which saw him rise to run the Hadassah Transplant department for 10 years (until 2008, when he rose still higher to become Hadassah’s head of surgery). “I loved it,” he says with supreme enthusiasm. “Of course there’s always sorrow mixed with the joy, because a donor has died. But you are returning people to life.”

And nothing, says Eid, beats that.

Harmony amid the Israeli maelstrom

In a country riven by internal Jewish-Muslim tensions, a predominantly Jewish country still rejected by so many other Muslim states in this region, it would seem that Ahmed Eid has followed a path determinedly oblivious to the rifts and the extremism, refusing to be distracted by intolerance and hatred.

Prof. Ahmed Eid Photo credit: Courtesy Hadassah)
Prof. Ahmed Eid Photo credit: Courtesy Hadassah)

He says he grew up “in an atmosphere of interaction, of living together.” With whom? Well, for a start, kids his age on Kibbutz Ein Dor, a few minutes away from Daburiyya. “I spent time there, and they spent time with us.” He didn’t serve in the army, he says, “because I wasn’t called. My son did national service though,” he says, and argues that most Israeli Arabs would want to do so if the right voluntary frameworks were available.

He grew up in a home “with a little religion. My father prayed. I’m a Muslim by heritage,” he says, “but like 90 percent of Israeli Arabs, I’m not religious.”

Ninety percent of Israeli Arabs aren’t religious? “Absolutely,” he says.

“I feel part of this state, and I get irritated with those who doubt it,” he says, though his tone remains mild. “I am Israeli and I don’t need to prove it. It’s presented as a dilemma: We’re Arabs, how do we feel? My loyalty to the state is in no doubt. It’s a little annoying to have to talk about it.”

But I press him anyway, notably in the context of this month’s surgery on Chen Schwartz. “Eighty percent of my patients [in the department of surgery] are Jewish,” he points out.

He may not want to talk about it but, I posit, his life and his work are an inspiration for better relations.

‘I am Israeli and I don’t need to prove it… My loyalty to the state is in no doubt. It’s a little annoying to have to talk about it’

Eid relents, and ventures just a few steps into the conflict zone. Jews and Arabs, “we live together,” he says. “An Arab shoots. An Arab saves. This needs to inspire the decision-makers: Guys, reach a solution already. It’s not working right now. Take extra measures to find a solution.”

Then he quickly retreats. He says “I’m not good at politics and I’ve never dealt with it.”

But he must have opinions. “Of course, I have my opinions, as everyone does.”

Which are?

“You live and let live.”

Others say: kill and be killed.

“Most of the problems can be solved through discussion. People are indoctrinated. It’s an abuse of religion. They kidnapped and killed three kids,” he says of the June abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank, allegedly by a Hamas cell. “They take a kid and kill him,” he says of the alleged revenge killing by Jews of a Palestinian teenager in Jerusalem. He shakes his head in sorrow. “My brothers and sisters feel the same about Israel. Most Israeli Arabs feel the same. Hanin Zoabi shouts a lot, but most Israeli Arabs want to be in the country in a partnership.”

So why does the Israeli Arab community elect extremists like Zoabi — an MK from the Balad party who espouses positions relentlessly hostile to Israel — to the Knesset?

“I don’t know. Most people [in the Israeli Arab community] want a quiet life. The situation of Israeli Arabs isn’t that good, economically. There are injustices. The Jews will tell you that. But there’s no uprising. People want to live. They don’t want trouble.”

I ask Eid how rare he is — a vaguely worded question that might refer to his professional success or his insistent optimism and tolerance. He winds up answering both parts. “I was an early professor, but there are many more today. It’s not rare. I am a product of Israel. We feel a humanity and an obligation to the state. No hesitation. I thank the country for enabling me to get to this situation. Yes, I worked hard, but I didn’t flourish in a vacuum. I don’t take it for granted.”

At this point Miriam Schwartz, Chen’s mother, comes in. She sits down next to me, facing Eid, and she too insists “there’s just no story” in the fact that the doctor who saved her Jewish soldier son from Arab gunshot wounds is an Arab. “I was born in Acre, a mixed city,” she says. “There are religious extremists at home and overseas, but most people want to live and raise their kids in quiet and peace.” At Hadassah, she notes, “lots of Palestinians are treated.”

Says Eid: “This hospital is a microcosm of Jewish Arab interaction. Fifty percent of our patients are Arabs.”

But, he says again, “there’s no drama here. The leaders should come here and learn from it.”

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