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Top doctor panned for voicing fear of ‘Arab womb,’ floating fines for Bedouin births

Health minister condemns Gideon Sahar, the head of cardiothoracic surgery at Soroka hospital, for his remarks at parlor meeting with Jewish Home leader Shaked

View of the Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba, on August 5, 2021. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)
View of the Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba, on August 5, 2021. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

A department head at Soroka Medical Center faced backlash Monday after expressing concern over high Bedouin birthrates at a parlor meeting hosted by Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked the previous evening in the southern town of Omer.

“The multiplying population, the most problematic population, is a sort of paradox, an oxymoron. We understand that the birthrate overwhelms us; the Arab womb, on the other hand, we encourage it with stipends for the children,” said Prof. Gideon Sahar, head of cardiothoracic surgery at Soroka Medical Center.

Sahar went on to suggest that Bedouin families should face a fine after giving birth to a fifth child. Shaked responded by saying such a policy “won’t work.”

“The best thing is for them to simply undergo Westernization, to strengthen the Bedouin woman,” she said. “The more she studies and works, the more she will live a Western life, and in that life, there are fewer children.”

Sahar’s comments reflect a long-held concern by some Jewish Israelis that the Arab population will increase enough to deprive the State of Israel of its Jewish majority. Some studies suggest that Jews are already a minority in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel.

According to a report by the Israel Democracy Institute, as of 2019, the overall fertility rate of Arab women in Israel is 2.98 children per woman, compared to  5.26 among Bedouin women in the Negev. Among Jewish women, the rate is 3.09 children per woman.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz took to Twitter to condemn Sahar, and said that his remarks “do not represent what is happening in the health system.”

“There is no area in which cooperation between Arabs and Jews is stronger. Everyone that comes to a hospital or clinic sees this immediately in the joint work of the staff and the equal treatment of every patient,” Horowitz wrote.

The Association of Arab Physicians in the Negev demanded that Sahar be “fired immediately.”

“Anyone who sees the Arab womb as a threat should not be a member of the health care system, and definitely can’t take care of the hearts of Arabs,” the group said in a letter.

Jafar Farah, chairman of the Mossawa rights group, said he was shocked by Sahar’s “racist” remarks and suggestions.

“It’s scary to think what he would be capable of doing when he makes decisions to save the life of an Arab in the operating theater.”

In response to the backlash, Sahar apologized and emphasized that he had worked with both Jews and Arabs throughout his career, and counted Arabs among his friends.

“I’m very sorry if my remarks were misunderstood and I apologize if someone out of all the citizens of Israel was hurt by them,” he said.

Soroka Medical Center responded: “Prof. Sahar’s comments were made at a private event that is unconnected to his work and to his profession. In a conversation with him by management, Prof. Sahar apologized for his remarks.”

Shaked’s Jewish Home party is polling far below the 3.25% electoral threshold and is therefore unlikely to pick up any seats at the upcoming November 1 elections. However, she has refused to back out of the race.

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