The ethics bureau of the Israel Medical Association has issued an official policy paper – to which members are supposed to adhere – stating the exclusion of women is unacceptable.

The IMA was reacting to the fact that some physicians – all IMA members – agreed to lecture along with leading rabbis at Wednesday’s conference on gynecological issues of the Puah Institute for Medicine and Halacha. The annual conference is aimed at the national religious and haredi (ultra- Orthodox) sectors and attended by some 1,000 women and men sitting side by side, separated by cloth dividers. But women speakers are not invited.

The IMA bureau, headed by Hadassah University Medical Center senior neurologist Prof. Avinoam Reches, said the bureau had reached a consensus and stated that no physician may allow women to be excluded based on their gender, whether in giving or receiving medical treatment, medical publications, receipt of prizes, receiving medical positions or appearing at medical conferences. Women must in no way be degraded, it said, stating explicitly that “no physician may participate in any medical or scientific event in which women – either patients or doctors – are excluded.”

Objections were raised to the conference –to be held for the 12th time in the same format as before – after Kadima MK Rachel Adatto, a trained gynecologist, learned that women doctors had not been invited to speak from the dais. In support, eight of the physicians on the schedule – due to alternate with rabbis – canceled their participation on Sunday after identifying with Adatto’s position.

However, Puah – which said it invites women speakers to other events but wanted the Eda Haredit to participate in the annual conference – maintained it had the last-minute agreement of other physicians to speak instead of the boycotters.

It also said that because it always believed in unity of Israel, it deeply regretted the division and argumentation that various organizations are trying to lead in an ugly wave of “exclusion of women.”

“Despite this, we received much encouragement form the public for our standing for our halachic principles... and guarding modesty and giving consideration to the huge number of of participants [that are expected],” the institute said. “In addition to the screaming voices, we also heard sane voices of women... who wanted compromise and conciliation and to hear the best women lecturers in the field.”

As a result, the institute has decided to plan a summer conference for women, with lectures by women. It will be held to mark the anniversary of the death of Puah’s initiator, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, to show that it “appreciates and does not scorn women.” The conference will be held annually, it said.

When the IMA issued its position paper – hinting at but not spelling out sanctions against doctors who violate the rule – the institute consulted its lawyers, but did not say whether the would-be replacements would indeed attend. If they too stayed away, the conference would for the first time have only rabbis as speakers.

Senior doctors, including secular specialists, have long been happy to be connected to Puah because some of those who consult with veteran doctors on fertility and other medical problems choose to pay significant fees through Sharap (private medical services).

The IMA noted that at a public ceremony held last year in Jerusalem under the auspices of Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman (a Gur hassid and United Torah Judaism MK), a senior woman doctor and a nurse who won prizes were not allowed to stand on the stage to receive them. This was later explained by the presence of “leading rabbis” on the stage. The IMA said that a few minutes before the ceremony, the women decided to forgo their receipt of the prizes in person “even though they did not feel comfortable with this demand.” In fact, one of the women pleaded with The Jerusalem Post not to mention the incident.

The ethics bureau said it had received complaints from women’s organizations, Ben- Gurion University President Prof. Rivka Carmi (a pediatrician and geneticist) and the Nurses’ Association ethics bureau over the incident.

The IMA’s ethics bureau said it was induced to take action because of the growing “broad and deep process of religious extremism” in Israeli society and that when it related to doctors and the medical system, it could not remain silent.

Asked to comment, Dr. Nahum Kovalski – a modern Orthodox urologist and deputy director of TEREM, the network of urgent care clinics based in Jerusalem, told the Post that he worried whether the growing exclusion of women could lead to “women physicians being barred from examining and treating men.”

“What would happen if a patient insists that he does not want a female hospital resident in the operating or examination room – or for that matter if a patient insisted they did not want an Arab to touch him?” This has happened in TEREM, he said. “I closed the patient’s chart and told him to leave.”

Kovalski said he was “willing to be flexible on entertainment issues, but if women cannot sing at a ceremony in the Israel Defense Forces, then no one should. And if women doctors cannot deliver a speech at the Puah conference, then no one can deliver one. If haredim want to have a conference inviting only haredi speakers, then I consider that a private matter. But if the conference is open, to all comers both behind and in front of the podium, then it has to be open to women and non- Jews and lesbians and anything else you can think of,” Kovalski said.

Prof. Ephrat Levy-Lahad, a leading medical geneticist at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center who is regularly invited to speak to conferences around the world, told the Post that some years ago, she had been invited to speak at the annual Puah conference, but a few days before the conference, she received a call from the voluntary organization that it “suddenly realized I was a woman and asked for a replacement. I agreed then, because it had not yet become a public issue, and there would have been no use in objecting.

Now, I am happy that the issue has been brought to the forefront – even though I don’t like the confrontational way it has in the current climate.

But that “doesn’t negate the importance of the issue that some things have to fester before they come out. As we know, there is no halachic prohibition to hear a woman speaker. In general, catering to extremist demands just leads to more extremism.”

She said the Puah Institute has since its founding in 1990, at the request of then-chief rabbi Eliyahu – who then stipulated that only male doctors speak at the annual conference so any sector can attend – always “walked the fine line. It made it possible for medicine and Halacha to live together. Now it can take a position that does not exclude women.”

The Health Ministry, which has in the past given Puah subsidies but said it did not this year, didn’t comment.

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