Many members of our Jewish community travel to Israel. Some go to connect with their Jewish roots or to study and others go as tourists. With the Jewish Community of Louisville’s Partnership2Gether connections, Louisvillians often visit the Western Galilee and Israelis come here to participate in medical, cultural and educational exchanges.
When Dr. Ian Mutchnick went late last year, he had a different agenda. In fact, Israel was not his final destination. The Palestinian city of Ramallah was. His goal: provide medical services to children who otherwise would not have received it.
One of three pediatric neurosurgeons to make the trip, he was joined by Dr. Alex Zouros from Loma Linda, CA, and Dr. Samer el Baaba from St Louis. The group also included a plastic surgeon, pediatric anesthesiologist and two nurse practitioners. One of the nurses is a Palestinian who grew up in Jordan, but whose family originally came from Jaffa.
In Ramallah, Dr. Mutchnick said, “We did a day of clinic, in which we saw about 25 people, and then we did five days of surgery in which we treated about 15 children.” The group dealt with a wide variety of problems including hydrocephalus (too much water on the brain), craniofacial and congenital spinal issues.
“I was interested in doing mission work,” he said, and “I became curious about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I know very little about the Palestinian side, having grown up Jewish.”
Dr. Mutchnick shared one observation. “What I thought I knew is different than what I saw there. For instance, what I thought I knew was that Palestinians who protest the Israeli presence in the West Bank are all treated as martyrs. That’s not case.
“We took care of a 17-year-old male who suffered an injury to his left hand from a rubber bullet fired by a member of the IDF,” he continued. “He comes to our ER and he’s sitting in pre-op and no one’s talking to this guy. No one’s waving the Palestinian flag or giving him a high five.”
Then Asma Taha, the Palestinian nurse practitioner with the visiting group, “goes over and starts giving him a tongue lashing about how dare he go and throw rocks and worry his mom,” Dr. Mutchnick reported. “His mom’s there and she says, yeah, let him have it. He won’t listen to me.”
Even the operating room staff showed disdain for the young man and the orthopedic surgeon who was treating him thought he was a fool. “That was kind of eye, opening because it’s not what we see,” Dr. Mutchnick said.
“There were several deaths while I was there that came straight from the conflict. One farmer was killed by settlers, and he was treated very much as a martyr,” he observed, “so I’m not saying martyrdom doesn’t exist.”
Originally from Ann Arbor, MI, Dr. Mutchnick explained that he is “interested in the neuroscience of human existence, which is part of what motivated me to do this.”
He also has a longstanding affinity for Israel. When he completed his pediatric neurosurgical fellowship, he explored the option of making aliyah and establishing his practice in Israel. The Israeli head of pediatric surgeons, Shlomo Constantini, told him, “There are too many of us here, so you can come and be a pediatric neurosurgeon here, but you will be a junior faculty member and do the things no one else wants to do for 20 years in the hope that when I retire you could have my spot, but there will be 10 others who want the same thing. It didn’t sound very appealing.
“Israel is one of few places on earth that has too many pediatric neurosurgeons,” he noted, “but right across the border is a place where neurosurgical care is inadequate. The diseases we saw were much further along their natural history than anything I would see here. And the resources that they could bring to bear on the issue were substandard compared to what Israel has and certainly compared to what we have in the western world.”
“I think a lot about this conflict,” he added, “because I think there ought to be a way out of this that doesn’t involve killing each other that leaves most people better off.
“I hope to do this kind of trip again and I hope next time to actually go to Gaza,” he concluded. “Although the West Bank and Gaza are linked by history and ethno-religious similarity, they are different places.”
Dr. Mutchnick’s wife, Stephanie, is president of Jewish Family & Career Services. They have two children, Gabe, 14, and Mimi, 9.