Prisoner of Hope

Despite a discouraging reality, an American Jewish physician is using health care to help heal the Israel-Palestinian divide.

by Andrea Glick

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Talk about wearing several hats. In Massachusetts, where he lives, Norbert Goldfield is a doctor at a low-income medical clinic, a leading expert on restructuring health-care systems, and in his spare time, the president of Congregation B’nai Israel, a Conservative congregation in Northampton.

In addition, every few months Goldfield heads to Israel and the West Bank, where he dons perhaps his most fascinating hat, as executive director of Healing Across the Divides, a nonprofit he founded in 2004. The group provides grants and technical assistance to community organizations working to improve healthcare for underserved people – whether ultra-Orthodox Jewish women in Jerusalem who need early breast cancer detection, Arabs in Northern Israel with little access to health care, or Palestinians in the West Bank suffering from high rates of diabetes.

The decision to cross the region’s tense ethnic and territorial boundaries is no accident. Though Healing Across the Divides (HATD) stays away from political action, the group works on both sides of the Green Line and hopes that a byproduct of its work will be to “build peace through health” among Palestinians and Jews.

The concept of peace building through health involves empowering community-based groups to improve people’s well-being, and in turn, strengthening those communities and their leaders. Eventually, it is hoped, the various groups will form alliances and work together. And the ultimate goal, summed up by one researcher in the field, is to create “an environment that increases people’s investment in peace and can reduce, if not relieve, tensions that contribute to conflict.”

It’s complicated stuff, written in the language of international health and peace studies. In practice, though, it means that Goldfield is deeply enmeshed with Israel, its people and its most intractable political and social problems.


Why would a busy physician and health-policy expert seek out this kind of tsuris? “The bottom line,” says Goldfield, “is that I’m one of the diminishing number of American Jews who feel we must be engaged in some manner with Israel.” The country is central to his Jewish identity, he explains, even though he admits struggling to understand Israel’s exact meaning for his Judaism. He struggles, as well, with how the country has dealt with the Palestinian issue.

In a talk he gave last summer at his synagogue, Goldfield explored the meaning of the Hebrew word va’etchanan (“and I pleaded”), used to describe Moses’s beseeching God to let him see the land of Israel. Some commentators, Goldfield notes, say we learn about Moses’ desperate pleading in order to teach us never to lose hope “that our deepest hopes may yet be answered.”

For all his own hopefulness, Goldfield says he’s pessimistic about the chance for a two-state solution. Yet almost immediately he adds that he supports Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to restart the peace process and knows from conversations with him that Kerry “gets” the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

The budget of Healing Across the Divides is small – about $250,000 per year. Nonetheless it makes a real impact. Beit Natan, a women’s cancer support center, has used HATD grants to increase the number of female clinicians trained in breast exams – an important advance, since ultra-Orthodox women normally won’t opt for a breast exam if it’s from a male practitioner. In the West Bank, the Palestine Medical Relief Society has used HATD funding for a community health worker to teach diabetics, of whom there are many, how to better control their disease, and for lab tests to monitor their progress.


HATD also partners with outside groups to boost its impact. A partnership with the Cleveland Jewish Federation, for instance, is spending $900,000 over three years on grass-roots efforts to empower and improve the health of marginalized women, including Israeli Arabs. (The federation does not fund HATD’s work in the West Bank.)

But Goldfield’s group does not require cooperation between Jewish community groups and those serving Palestinians in the West Bank. That, he says, needs to come from the groups themselves, at a time of their choosing. Cooperation does occur however between Israeli Jewish and Israeli Arab groups. Still, says Goldfield, right now peace building through health cannot be his organization’s overarching focus, merely a “hoped-for byproduct.”

Ultimately, Goldfield has faith that working with community organizations will yield results. “At the end of the day, my dream – and I operate at the level of dreams – is that the leaders of these community-based groups will be tomorrow’s political leaders – and resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”