In a rally organized by the Israel Medical Association, thousands of Israeli doctors arrived in Jerusalem late Sunday morning from all over the country to protest Monday’s scheduled Knesset vote on the government’s effort to limit the oversight powers of the judiciary. The physicians, along with some other members of the professional healthcare community, marched from the Chords Bridge at the capital’s entrance to a rally at the International Convention Center.
Wearing red vests with “Doctor” printed on the back and waving Israeli and IMA flags, they packed into the ICC’s largest auditorium, loudly shouting slogans like “There is no healthcare without democracy!” and “Justice, equality, and mutual responsibility!”
By way of chants and speeches, the physicians clearly expressed their desire for the government to immediately stop its attempts to rush through its judicial overhaul bill and instead engage in discussions with the coalition and its supporters to reach a broad consensus.
Sunday’s march and rally followed a two-hour “warning strike” in the healthcare system on July 19 called by the IMA. Amid vocal calls by many for a wider strike, IMA chair Prof. Zion Hagay announced that the IMA secretariat will begin deliberations as soon as Sunday evening whether to take such action.
Hagay said that in the meantime, the IMA has declared a labor dispute that will position it to strike should it decide to do so. He also declared that should the “reasonableness” bill pass, the IMA would appeal immediately to the Supreme Court.
“The IMA is the only labor organization to take action against the government’s plans to remove the reasonableness test,” Hagay said.
The bill expected to pass on Monday or Tuesday would remove the courts’ ability to strike down politicians’ decisions based on their being “unreasonable.”
Hagay was adamant that patients were not harmed by the attendance in Jerusalem of 3,000 or more healthcare officials, and he thanked colleagues who were keeping things running smoothly in the country’s hospitals and community clinics.
A gynecologist in scrubs told The Times of Israel that he had not taken any time off work to come to the protest.
“I put in hours earlier than usual this morning and will return to my job as soon as I get back to the center of the country,” he said.
Dr. Yona Kitay, a liver specialist and head of one of the internal medicine departments at Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba, held up her phone when asked how she counters accusations that she is ignoring her patients’ needs as she protests.
“I’m running my department from my phone. I left good people in charge and everything is going fine,” she insisted.
The gynecologist, who declined to give his name, said that he has been “living at protests” for the last months and that he disagrees with those who say that physicians and other healthcare professionals should not take time away from their patients to make their views heard.
“In a democracy, I have the right to protest and express my opinion. My job is to heal people. It’s the political leaders’ job to lead. I would like our leaders to put the country before themselves,” he said.
As a physician, he said he was concerned about his patients’ rights and how they would be affected by the legislation.
“My patients would potentially not have access to abortions if the health minister decides against it — and we and the women would have no recourse to the court to reverse it,” he said.
Three scrub-clad female third-year medical students from Sheba Medical Center — all immigrants from English-speaking countries — expressed their concern about the impact the removal of the reasonableness test would have not only on their patients, but also on them as eventual physicians.
All three, who asked to remain anonymous, noted that, as women, they were particularly sensitive to how insufficient separation of powers and lack of judicial review can hurt women and minorities.
“If religion comes into play, there could be restrictions put on the training of women doctors. There could be quotas, or limitations on what kind of medicine a woman can practice,” one student said.
“It is really scary not knowing what will happen, but I showed up today because I want to be on the right side of history. And as a religious woman, I feel my presence is important to show that we are united,” another shared.
Dr. Arin Hajj Yahia, a family doctor and endocrinologist, said she was protesting against what she views as an impending dictatorship.
“The changes the government wants to push through will hurt me two-fold as an Arab doctor,” she said.
Hila Peled and Naama Livne made their way to the capital from the Galilee on Sunday morning. Peled is the head social worker at the mental health and psychiatric service at Ziv Medical Center in Safed, and Livne is an art therapist there. Both women said they were very scared for their patients.
“With this judicial reform, there will be no brakes on what a health minister orders to be done,” Peled said.
“This will hurt the mentally ill, who are among the weakest populations. They cannot defend themselves, and no one will be able to defend them if there is no way to legally appeal decisions about their treatment,” Livne added.
“We are in as much of a state of anxiety and trauma about this as our patients right now,” she added.
In a speech before the thousands gathered, Prof. Rivka Carmi, a pediatrician and geneticist and a former president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, gave many examples of how the removal of reasonableness would negatively affect the patients and healthcare system.
“What’s the distance between [Settlements and National Missions Minister] Orit Strook saying that a doctor has the right to choose what kind of patient they are willing to treat, and the passage of a bill to that effect by members of a coalition that agree with this?” she asked.
“And what’s the difference between [Finance Minister Bezalel] Smotrich saying that [Jewish and Arab] women should not give birth side by side and the passage of a relevant law? And why not other departments of a hospital?” Carmi said.
As the audience punctuated Carmi’s speech with shouts of “Shame!” directed at the government, she also spoke about the detrimental impact on Israel’s med tech and biotech sectors as a result of Israel’s recent political turmoil. She spoke of international investment money for Israeli research drying up, and of Israeli doctors and researchers she knows personally who have decided to either leave Israel or stay in Europe or the US, where they have been doing postdocs.
The IMA emphasizes that it is a pluralistic, apolitical organization. But thousands of Israeli healthcare workers appear to have decided that now is not the time to keep one’s opinions to oneself.
“We won’t let the racism and hate of this government ruin the excellent medical system we have built. There will be equal healthcare for all. We aren’t going anywhere,” said BGU fifth-year medical student Inbal Mendler.
As Kitay joined with the other physicians at the beginning of the march, she said there was no choice other than to speak out.
“We are at the edge of a disaster and we are trying to change it,” she said.
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