All too often, when our news media talk about Israel, it is in the context of stories about war, terrorism and violent threats. Does anyone truly suppose that the Jewish people returned to our homeland after 2,000 years of exile for such a tenuous reality? Sadly, the media narrative often obscures Israel’s technological and cultural offerings that are her true gift to the world. Last week, the world got to see the real Israel. When the World Health Organization (WHO), for the first time ever, held a conference for its European members in Tel Aviv, participants had a chance to learn from the deeply humane nation, with its Jewish values, which puts a premium on human life and improving the world—just as one would expect from the world’s only Jewish state.
From Sept. 12-14, the 72nd WHO Regional Committee for Europe took place in Israel, which had never hosted the event before. The conference was attended by representatives of 53 nations in the WHO’s European region. The conference was reported to “feature deliberations on a joint plan for improving health in Europe and include sessions on public health, health crises and improving regional cooperation on health.” Perhaps most importantly, the sidelines of the event provided an excellent opportunity for Israel to sign bilateral cooperation deals on health with a number of countries: Germany, Croatia, Cyprus and Kazakhstan.
The conference provided a key opportunity to address critical international public health issues. Attendees worked on developing a WHO framework for attaining wellbeing and sustainable development, “anticipating extensive consultations at the global level commencing October 2022.” A progress report was presented on “the recommendations made by the Pan-European Commission on Health and Sustainable Development,” which critically “drew lessons from the ways in which authorities in countries worldwide responded to the coronavirus disease” to recommend regional improvements to the resiliency of health and social care systems in times of crisis. Consensus was achieved on four policy areas in this domain: One Health—a comprehensive framework linking human, animal, and ecosystem health; recommending the establishment of a Pan-European Network of Disease Control; investing in health; and ensuring equity in access to medicine in times of emergency. Taken together, these recommendations would go a long way toward preparing the region for the next major health crisis.
Simultaneously, the participants worked on a strategy for better collaboration between the WHO Regional Office for Europe and the regional member states. Noting such challenges as COVID-19, the humanitarian situations in Ukraine and Syria and the wide disparity in health infrastructures and outcomes across the European region, the members decided on flexible new objectives for collaboration, to leverage resources from all levels of WHO and to be agreed upon individually with each member state. It was proposed that the “WHO/Europe main office in Copenhagen, Denmark, and its three technical and three enabling divisions… provide Region-wide support to Member States,” combined with geographically dispersed resources at the subregional and country levels. A draft resolution adopted urged the Regional Director of the WHO/Europe to implement the strategy, undertake analyses where new structures are under consideration, closely engage member states on a voluntary basis and report regularly on the implementation of the strategy.
What a profound moment for Israel to demonstrate its real values to the world. Long before the State of Israel became a world leader in treating against COVID-19, Israel has been a world-renowned force in public health, with no fewer than four Israeli hospitals named among “World’s Best Smart Hospitals” by Newsweek in 2021. In 2020, a team from Deloitte’s U.S. practice traveled to Israel and determined that Israel represents “the future of health,” noting, “Israel’s largely public health system has relatively low member churn, relatively low health care expenses per capita, and a high degree of IT interoperability—something the U.S. and other countries are striving to achieve…. Add Israel’s entrepreneurial culture and forward-thinking health care leaders into the mix and the result is a powerful time-machine that allowed U.S. colleagues to see where their health system might be five or 10 years from now.”
But beyond Israel’s competency in the field, it is an ethical leader. Israeli hospitals often treat Palestinian patients with exceptional care, and Israel and the Palestinian Authority, despite strained relations, have cooperated in lifesaving areas such as sharing blood services. The Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF’s) Code of Ethics, Ruach Tzahal—which is taught to all IDF servicemembers as part of basic training—provides as a fundamental value that “the IDF serviceman will, above all, preserve human life, in the recognition of its supreme value and will place himself or others at risk solely to the extent required to carry out his mission. The sanctity of life in the eyes of the IDF servicemen will find expression in all of their actions.” Israeli medical corps team members have a long history of caring for wounded adversaries; one IDF medic who served in the 1967 Six-Day War recalled, “Caring for these enemy prisoners of war humanized our adversary to me, and I felt inner satisfaction that I could still honor the sanctity of the human life, a value with which I had been raised.” Israeli researchers have also conducted studies on the emotional impact on medical professionals of caring for enemies as patients—including Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorists—to provide insight into countering systemic bias and providing even better care in these exceptional circumstances.
Ultimately, Israel’s medical and ethical leadership are rooted in the basic values of the Jewish people and our faith. Despite the many commandments of our religion, Judaism enshrines the value of Pikuach Nefesh—literally “watching over a soul”—and enshrines the value that the preservation of human life overrides almost every other religious rule. Called on to be a “Light Unto the Nations,” the modern Jewish state prioritizes improving the length and quality of life of its citizens—and anyone else under its care, including wounded enemies. Tel Aviv’s first ever hosting of the WHO regional summit shows that the world has recognized how much Israel has to offer in these fields and that European nations in particular, have resolved to cooperate more closely with Israel moving forward. Everyone stands to benefit from Israel’s increased regional inclusion in the field because human life is an international value as well as a Jewish one.