Putting his heart into it

It took a cardiac arrest to open up Larry Rich’s eyes to how the Emek Medical Center in Afula is helping Israelis and Arabs work together for the common good of humanity

At the Emek Medical Center, Jewish and Arab staffers and patients interact daily. (photo credit: Courtesy)
At the Emek Medical Center, Jewish and Arab staffers and patients interact daily.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
One day in 1997, factory manager Larry Rich woke up in cardiac intensive care at Emek Medical Center in Afula. He had suffered a heart attack and was surprised to see Arab and Jewish physicians working together to save him.
Even though he had been living in Israel for 25 years at the time, this sight profoundly affected the course of his life.
The Detroit native joined the medical center as director of development and international public relations two years after his recovery, and soon started sharing the scenes of coexistence he witnessed daily.
The title of his 2005 book, Voices from Armageddon, reflects the fact that Afula is near Megiddo, where armies have fought for the last 4,000 years and Christians expect the ultimate battle of Armageddon to take place.
The region has seen plenty of strife in our times, too, but tensions inside the hospital are rare.
“For years, I have considered Emek Medical Center and the human reality here as a shining example of sanity in a world going mad – literally a beacon of light and hope,” says Rich.
Recently he has started hosting Taglit- Birthright groups at the hospital.
One participant from Florida commented afterward that although “a majority of Israeli and Jewish history surrounds conflict, battles and war, Emek showed us how Israelis and Arabs work together for the common good of humanity.
My favorite picture was one where they zoomed in on a surgery, featuring an Arab and an Israeli surgeon. In the photo, you could not tell the difference as to which hand was which. Simply because it didn’t matter – they are two people who took an oath to save lives.”
Rich always stresses that this sort of cooperation occurs in every Israeli hospital from Eilat to Nahariya.
“What is special about Emek is its unique 50-50 ratio. In the northeast, we are the primary healthcare provider for a population of 500,000, equally divided between Arabs and Jews. In no other place in Israel does this symbolic ratio exist.”
As an official Foreign Ministry speaker since 2007, Rich has dedicated his radio-announcer voice to the mission of presenting a positive picture of Israeli society seldom conveyed by world media.
“I start each of my lectures by saying, ‘Let’s get something clear from the start: I am not a politician or a general in the army. I am just a guy from the street come to open a small window for you to peek in and visit Israel from eye level.’ Then, I start telling real-life stories of cooperation, education and lifesaving,” he says.
One of his favorite stories is about a young Arab woman in Jericho who was bitten by a poisonous viper in 2008 and could not be treated at the local clinic.
An IDF ambulance drove her and her panicky mother almost three hours through the Jordan Valley to Emek Medical Center, where anti-venom serum saved her life.
And there’s the story about Prof.
Stavit Allon-Shalev, head of Emek’s Genetics Institute. She started a community education, screening and testing campaign 18 years ago in the surrounding Muslim Arab villages to address the alarming number of abnormal babies born of consanguineous marriages.
“We slowly gained their trust, and a few years ago, a local imam issued a fatwa in Arabic that if, as a result of testing from Emek, a Muslim woman is found to be carrying a genetically affected fetus, she may abort within 120 days of conception,” says Rich. “Through our intervention, the ratio of genetically affected fetuses has dropped dramatically in the past 10 years.”
RICH IS not content to preach to the choir of Israel-supporters around the world. He regularly faces hostile audiences and hecklers on campuses and other venues.
Last year, during an eight-day, privately funded lecture tour across Scotland arranged by St. Andrews in Focus magazine editor Flora Selwyn and the Scottish Friends of Israel, he became the first Israeli ever to be invited to speak officially in the Scottish Parliament.
But he had to sneak in a side door under police protection to avoid demonstrators.
Even once inside, he was heckled throughout his presentation.
“Scotland has a well-funded pro-Palestinian lobby – mainly university kids paid to shout down anybody representing Israel. During my talk, there were well-organized hecklers who interrupted me, and they were taken out by force.
The anti-Israel lobby followed me from place to place, and the most difficult venue was the University of Dundee, the hub of this lobby,” he recalls.
“I spoke in a magnificent lecture hall, where I saw the troublemakers and pointed them out to the police. They asked me if they should remove them before the talk. I said, ‘I don’t think that would be wise; it would be a provocation.’ I went ahead with my talk, and the police tried to make sure nobody got out of line. When they started shouting abuse and lies about Israel, I simply came back at them with true stories they won’t hear on CNN and the BBC. I refuse to get drawn into political confrontations or religious arguments or blaming.”
Afterward, many Dundee students approached him. “Some shook my hand, and some admitted quietly that they had heard some things they were not aware of. I invited them to come to Israel and see for themselves how real people in every corner of the country are making an effort to get along despite the conflict and the differences. It’s far from perfect, but what I’m talking about is a hell of a lot better than anything else on the table.”
A lecture tour in Ireland in 2011 brought him to Trinity College, not long after Irish activists had been detained in Israel for their participation in the Mavi Marmara flotilla to Gaza.
Nervous college officials decided not to publicize the lecture. A mixed audience of about 50 Christians and Jews turned out, along with Israeli Ambassador to Ireland Boaz Modai. Later, Rich was interviewed on Irish national radio.
“Larry has a nice way of speaking at eye level and giving a lot of examples from his everyday life at the hospital,” said Modai. “It has a different impact than we diplomats usually have. The small audience at Trinity College enjoyed hearing about Israel from a different perspective, and based on that successful experience, I made contacts for Larry in the US.”
Noam Katz, minister of public diplomacy at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, picked up the ball from Modai and scheduled a few lectures for Rich in Washington while he was in the United States on hospital business in April 2012.
On the agenda were several groups critical of Israeli policy, including the Jewish lobbying organization J Street and a delegation of Arab leaders in Detroit.
Rich addressed an ethnically diverse prep school in Rhode Island, undergraduates at the University of Michigan, and Georgetown University medical students and faculty, among others.
“At the end of the J Street lecture, someone asked if the stories I had told were the exception. I said, ‘These stories are the norm. What you hear on the news and what is presented by the media is the exception.’ At the Detroit lecture, Arab community leaders came up to me afterward and said they had never heard such a message coming out of Israel. They wanted to hear more about this cooperation at ground level.
They want me to speak in their communities.”
Last May, he was invited to give the keynote address at the Israel Independence Day celebration of the Jewish communities in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“Since then, I made contact with Birthright, and they sent two pilot groups of about 50 people each, first teenagers and then young adults from 21 to 28, to meet with me at the hospital.
I showed them my PowerPoint presentation with examples of Jews and Arabs coexisting, and explained that this is a way to combat BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] propaganda and lies. Next month, another five groups are scheduled to hear me talk.”
RICHARD MANN, marketing assistant for Taglit-Birthright Israel, says Rich’s talks “are part of Taglit-Birthright Israel’s overall educational approach to the complex geopolitical reality in Israel and the Middle East. Our project aims to address this issue as it deserves to be addressed, namely as a well-contextualized and multidimensional narrative that is far more nuanced and diverse than the too-often one-dimensional ‘conflict’ portrayed in the foreign media.”
He adds that “whereas we do not hesitate to address the sensitive and controversial issues associated with the geopolitical reality on the ground, we also aim to demonstrate that the equation ‘Jew + Arab’ doesn’t necessarily equal ‘conflict!’ There are myriad examples wherein Israeli institutions harness their professional mandate to promote coexistence; there are plenty of platforms wherein Jews and Arabs join hands and harness a shared vision in order to advance their communities; and there are surely examples wherein Israel offers humanitarian aid and treats individuals from areas that are officially at war with Israel.”
He points out that Taglit-Birthright exposes participants to other clusters of coexistence, such as the joint Arab-Jewish Juha’s Guesthouse in the Mediterranean Arab village of Jisr e-Zarka; Huriya Palace, a mud-lodge hostel in the Negev Beduin village of Lakiya; joint initiatives in Umm el-Fahm in the Galilee; and a Jewish-Palestinian dialogue group in Gush Etzion.
Emek Medical Center, Mann continues, “exemplifies in its vision and daily operations coexistence through the medical sphere, and demonstrates how a hospital can become a social agent for coexistence and cooperation.”
Rich always shows visitors a photograph in the administrative offices depicting four Jordanian physicians at the end of their 18-month fellowship at Emek in intensive care and cardiology.
“These are our neighbors, learning in an Israeli hospital, going back to save their own people. Did you hear about that on Fox News? Of course not.”
He also likes to share the story about Gazan resident Arrif and his teenage son, Muhammad, who stayed at the medical center for 10 months as Muhammad was treated for cancer. Arrif told Rich that he felt “perfectly normal and at ease” at the hospital, and that he felt ashamed when missiles were fired from Gaza into Israeli cities.
“I am not telling anybody what to think, and I’m not presenting my stories as a solution to the problem,” Rich says.
“I just remind people that they have a choice. If you choose to focus on hatred and blame and bloodshed, then you will create more of that. If you choose to focus on the sanity and the good examples – of which there are many – of Jews and Arabs getting along, then you have the opportunity to perpetuate that and create more sanity.
“I don’t make a lot of noise,” he continues.
“Bombs are louder than the handshakes and the hugs I am talking about. But if we pay attention to those handshakes and hugs, we have an opportunity to change the entire perspective of this conflict.”