The Technion: Israel’s best medicine

Students of the medical school are some of the country’s best and brightest citizens, be they Christian Arab, Muslim or Jew – serving as a model of coexistence.

Medical students of the Technion with Dr. Zaher Azzam (center), vice dean for academic affairs, meet with Dr. Qanta Ahmed. (photo credit: QANTA AHMED)
Medical students of the Technion with Dr. Zaher Azzam (center), vice dean for academic affairs, meet with Dr. Qanta Ahmed.
(photo credit: QANTA AHMED)
It is afternoon in Haifa as I enter the seminar room. Waiting for me are Israel’s lesser known investments in her future – not security barriers or Iron Domes, but people. Today, I am meeting undergraduates of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology’s medical school, one of the country’s leading universities that also ranks within the top 100 universities globally.
The students sit in silent attention.
I sense they have been waiting some time, but rather than being impatient, there is already an intense curiosity exchanged between us. The faces studying me are diverse, reserved, but bright with intelligence. As each greets me, I know right away some are Muslim (with several veiled in hijabs), but of the others I am not sure.
Assuming the students reflect the diversity of the Technion – which is home to students from all backgrounds in Israel, including Jews, Christian Arabs and Muslims – I imagine others are Jewish or Christian.
I seat myself next to Prof. Zaher Azzam, a Christian Arab and vice dean of the Technion Medical School. Azzam has selected his best and most promising students to help me understand their experiences in learning there.
He leans forward as he begins to speak, his soft voice magnifying his charisma. Azzam is a cardiologist and internist; when not treating Israeli patients or training Israel’s future physicians, he collaborates with colleagues at the pulmonary and critical care department of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, his alma mater from his fellowship days. Across the 10 time zones from here to Chicago, they work together in the pursuit of advanced research at his Technion lab – a testament to the powerful networks he has built with his international colleagues. Indeed, at an early stage in his career, Azzam understood – as did I – the power medicine can wield in forging relationships across distances, divides and politics.
Where did the almost 30 years go since I was in their place? I think to myself as I look at the young faces across the table. Their youthful intensity gazes back with the earnest interest students so generously show their prospective teachers. The group is predominantly female, some fully made up in hues complementing their jewel-colored hijabs, some modestly sneaking glances at me from the austere, ascetic visages reminiscent of the women I had known in Riyadh – sedate veils, unmade-up faces, ungroomed brows – the marker of more spartan Islamic observation. And still others look just like me.
Winning a place to study medicine at the Technion is a competitive business, as the selection process for candidates is intense – only 25 percent of those who apply are accepted.. Even after acceptance graduation isn’t a guarantee, as classes are rigorously evaluated and each year several candidates, unable to meet the standards, are eliminated.
The Technion’s medical students are even more unique, not only because of their academic abilities but also due to the rare proximity and engagement their training provides in relation to the science of technology. After all, the Technion is a science and technology university, among the most preeminent of its kind internationally, and medical students here must take mandatory technology classes in conjunction with their academic medicine. Very few medical schools in the world are thus affiliated, and the education these future physicians receive is therefore very elite.
Among these students, a select few – an uber elite within an elite – will be placed in the MD/PhD program. One of these candidates is with us at the seminar, but he is too modest to explain his achievement.
Beaming with pride, Azzam gladly outlines it for him: In the entire State of Israel, population 8.1 million, there are only 11 MD/PhD positions, effectively rendering an MD/PhD a one-in-a-million Israeli. Of these 11, no fewer than seven are Technion students. That’s the kind of place Technion is, where being one in a million puts you in lockstep with half a dozen colleagues.
Our bashful colleague is therefore one of Technion’s seven such undergraduates. That he is also an Israeli Muslim, one of 20% of Israel’s population, makes him a minority member of an extraordinary elite. Being a minority member and a Technion undergraduate is nothing unusual, the students quickly explain, even though everyone clearly recognizes their fellow student’s extraordinary achievement. Seeing my puzzlement, the vice dean explains further.
“At the medical school there are 130 students in each class, of whom 50 are Arab,” Dr. Azzam begins. “So Israeli Arabs are more represented here in the Technion than the national demographic would predict,” adds one of the students.
Dr. Azzam explains why: “One thing is our location.
We are here in the North of Israel, where much of the Arab population is concentrated. Haifa is very multiethnic, multireligious and very diverse.
The Technion therefore reflects the environment around it. And also, because the Technion itself is a fertile ground for diversity... ”
“... That’s how we learn,” pipes up one student, going on to note that when the students are learning, the classes are broken into smaller groups, as in all medical schools, and the doctors-in-training grapple with a new discipline together.
The Technion, I learn, makes it a policy that no group is homogeneously Jewish or Arab but deliberately multicultural. I am amazed, remembering my own British medical school days where we were divided on the first day of enrollment alphabetically, to remain in our phonetically demarcated groups until graduation five years later.
“But what difference does this make to your learning?’ I ask. The veiled Muslim woman, who until now had been very quiet, responds at once. “In my high school, we had a program on coexistence. But the best coexistence is to know the other… To do that, one needs to live real life, not something learned in a program or a series of lectures. It’s when we face the same difficulties together that we build coexistence, day by day, without any program.
“For instance, today after I finish this seminar with you, I am glad to say I am leaving to attend the wedding party of my Jewish friend, one of my colleagues at the Technion,” she says, looking at me with true pride, eager to continue. “We can build strong relationships if we go through things together, if things are not going well and you just need a hug or if you are celebrating things together, or can encourage each other to keep going.”
I can see how the Technion had helped them build new worlds, not just of medicine, science and technology but real-world diversity, which spill over from ward rounds to wedding parties. This is the Israel these students had built with their own efforts, their own energies.
Speaking for the first time, the MD/PhD candidate clarifies how this could be helpful to patients. Often, a clinical instructor might ask a medical student to help in a situation in which an Arab or sometimes Russian immigrant patient is not familiar with Hebrew.
Sorting through their diverse ranks, the students often volunteer whoever is best-suited to enable the patient to communicate their troubles.
Some days, this might translate into a Jewish student soothing the anxieties of a worried older Jewish lady who has never encountered an Arab before, explains one of the hijab- clad Muslim students. Other times, this might mean colleagues turn to the Muslims or Christian Arabs amid their ranks for similar soothing of an old Arab grandmother.
I can’t help smiling. At the earliest stages of their career, these young students are learning a cultural competency that I had only stumbled upon late in my career, and without any formal training. It touches me to see how excited they are about their own diversity and engagement with one another.
This is the Israel I have come to see. This is the Israel the world needs to know more about, hear more from and dare I say, learn from. And it is precisely this Israel the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement would have you boycott. These are the Israelis from whom they ask they you divest; these are the Israelis whom the BDS would deny their favorite cultural performances.
These are the Israelis and their institutions that BDS would have excluded from our academic spaces, our international conferences, the editorial boards of our academic journals, our professional societies and academic governing bodies.
That BDS would deny the world the unique and complex experience of the Jewish state’s extraordinary intellectuals, and the knowledge and insight they generate, is counter in every way to the efforts anyone around the world is pursuing in coexistence, mediation and conflict resolution.
Every student speaking to me, both in the forum that had been arranged in the seminar room (I later discover there are, in fact, all Israeli-Arab undergraduates) as well as off the record, is opposed to the academic boycott of Israel when I pose the question directly.
Each student underlines how harmful it would be to their development, their future training and their aspirations, which the Technion very much inculcates, as a means to build international reputations and the foundation for serious academic careers.
Each student confirms that academic boycott would in no way benefit them as Christian Arabs, Muslims or Israelis.
But it is the remarks Azzam makes which touch me most deeply. As he listens to his students reflecting these mature and complex views at such an early stage in their development, I see that his students clearly reflect his deeply held ideals: that medicine and science be apolitical spaces free of politics, to be shared with all regardless of ethnicity, nationality, religious identity or political ideology.
As we all listen, I can sense Azzam is on the edge of sharing an insight. When the students finally pause, he is moved to discuss his personal beliefs.
“I didn’t intend to disclose my personal circumstances,” he begins shyly, “but my late wife was a mediator and studied conflict resolution and mediation at Tel Aviv University. She was a doctoral candidate but unfortunately, she fell ill and though her doctoral thesis was in preparation to be submitted, she wasn’t able to complete her research. Her doctoral proposal was about the use of medicine as a trust subject, to build bridges between Arabs and Jews. Of course, she didn’t get to complete the work...” he says, trailing off sadly.
Looking around the room, his students are as moved as I. For a time, we have no words and in the shared silence that follows, we feel not only Azzam’s loss deeply, but our own.
It is exactly this spirit – bridges between Muslims, Christians and Jews – that I can feel reflected in the daily work of the Technion. As surely as missiles and mortars, the Iron Dome rocket defense system, the armaments and the intelligence which will serve Israel in the next combat situation – anticipated in a new war with Hezbollah – Israel, through the members of the Technion Faculty of Medicine, is deeply invested in the Muslim, Christian and Jewish hearts, minds and souls of its future. It is the Technion students who still occupy my thoughts these months later.
As we witness the spiraling sectarianism ablaze in the region surrounding Israel, the Technion reminds us that academic engagement is the best medicine of all. Academic freedom for all is a powerful tool in the peace armamentarium, an instrument without deterrent – which is exactly why it finds itself within the crosshairs of a mean-spirited, paltry movement for boycott.
The pursuit of advanced medical knowledge and training made accessible to the brightest of Israel’s citizens – be they Christian Arab, Muslim, Druse or Jew – and their collaborative energies, shared with everyone who has need for them, is the Technion’s core philosophy.
Israel’s Technion builds Israel’s future, one intellect at a time. And Israel prizes this coexistence so highly, she is willing and more than ready to once again go to any length, including combat, to secure it.
Qanta Ahmed, M.D., is Associate Professor of Medicine, State University of New York, and Honorary Professor Glasgow Caledonian University, School of Public Health. She is currently a Ford Foundation Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project. You can follow her on Twitter at @MissDiagnosis.