Many of the doctors who work at St Josephs, a small hospital next to the Ambassador Hotel and the first to be created on the Jordanian side in 1948, also work at Shaarei Tzedek. Indeed many trained there, or at Hadassah. I asked the consultant who showed me round about the relationships: ‘Yes,’ he assured me, they were professional and warm, with shared concerns for the wellbeing of all the patients. And did any of the Jewish staff also work in the Palestinian Hospitals? No, he thought; but there were many Arab doctors, nurses and above all auxiliary staff and workers, as well as very many Palestinian and Arab patients at the big hospitals in West Jerusalem.
Yet during the war, I was told, tens of people from Gaza, mostly children but certainly all of them young, were sent from the Erez crossing where Israel had built a field hospital, to St Josephs and to El Mokassed. They had terrible injuries, burns, limbs that needed amputation. The consultant described what the hospital had looked like during those weeks, full of patients, their families in every corner, the huge laundry machine working non-stop. ‘How did you feed them all?’ someone enquired. ‘Local people were amazing: “I’ll bring twenty meals, it’s on me”; “I’ll bring thirty meals tonight”. I had witnessed the same generosity and deep concern in hospitals in Beer Sheva and Tel Aviv where wounded soldiers were brought.
Even in those days, it was explained to me, the doctors would go across the city to do their work at Shaarei Tzedek where, of course, they encountered great support for Israel’s response to Hamas. And did the doctors on each ‘side’ see each other’s wounded then? No, he didn’t think so. It’s not surprising: both groups had their deep concerns, for their own safety and that of those they loved, for relatives in the areas where rockets and bombs were falling, for the wounded and bereaved, for the future, for the sick people on their own wards requiring their compassionate attention.
Yet, with a part of myself I thought ‘What a pity’. What would it mean if we really did see each other’s wounds? Would it multiply compassion in the world? Make us more reluctant to inflict hurts on groups of people among whom there were now faces and names we knew? Or would it simply tax our hearts unbearably and leave us feeling even more powerless?
How little we know about one another. Waiting outside the synagogue one morning at half past six, about the only time I’ve ever got there that early, I watched the cleaning teams arrive. We smiled at one another. ‘Where did you travel from?’ I asked a couple of them. ‘The other side of London’. ‘How did you get here?’ ‘By bus’. ‘So when did you have to get up?’ ‘About four’.
What do we know about the lives of other people, with whom we cross paths but virtually never relate? I wonder if God really wants it that way.