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Meet the Jewish Doctor navigating the interplay of health and politics in Palestine and Israel for a brighter tomorrow

December 17, 2023 at 9:30 am

Photo by Dr. Norbert Goldfield, founder of the non-profit organisation, Healing Across the Divides.

“Health, as we all know it, is political but the word politics is never used,” according to Dr Norbert Goldfield, the Jewish founder of the non-profit organisation, Healing Across the Divides (HATD), based in Northampton, US.

In Palestine, this interplay between health and politics has led to catastrophic consequences. First responders, including volunteers, doctors, nurses, municipal workers and more, often put their lives at risk while providing help.

Moreover, tensions in the Occupied West Bank have escalated significantly since 7 October, particularly in Jenin, Nablus and the South Hebron Hills region, in Area C of the Occupied West Bank, which has suffered almost daily Israeli military raids affecting health structures and obstructed medical response to the emergency.

Countless testimonies from first responders on the ground over the years have documented Israel’s deliberate practices in targeting first responders that show no signs of stopping. The World Health Organisation confirmed, last month, that more than 170 Israeli attacks were launched on healthcare facilities in the Occupied West Bank alone since 7 October.

“Areas in Palestine that have disturbed me personally the most, which we’ve previously funded and likely to again towards initiatives on mental health and drama therapy, is in the South Hebron Hills, which is an extreme flash point. And, in fact, right now they are very often settler attacks on Palestinians,” said Dr Goldfield.

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“But what’s amazing is that the leaders of the groups there, at least until now, as there have been a lot of settler attacks since 7 October, the leaders of these groups that we have worked with are amazing and they have not given up. They work closely with the population on the initiatives that we’re funding.”

Established in 2004, the Healing Across the Divides organisation has since been on a mission to measurably improve the health of marginalised Israelis and Palestinians through community-based interventions.

Dr Goldfield has been directly engaged in various capacities in the conflict since 1980, recognising the interconnectedness of health and politics.

Dr. Norbert Goldfield, founder of the non-profit organisation, Healing Across the Divides.

Dr. Norbert Goldfield, founder of the non-profit organisation, Healing Across the Divides.

The organisation, therefore, operates with a clear theory of change: by funding and providing technical and managerial advice to community-based groups in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, they aim to enhance the capacity of these groups. Through this support, the dream is to empower leaders within these communities to not only address health disparities but also potentially become tomorrow’s political leaders.

“This is my personal dream. Some of the leaders of these groups taking charge of the community-based health interventions are just truly amazing and will make great political leaders,” said Dr Goldfield.

Guided by a diverse Board comprising Arab Americans, Jewish Americans and others interested in the conflict, HATD has made significant strides over its almost two-decade existence, he added. “We have measurably improved the health of over a quarter of a million people. And that’s our main focus.”

The organisation’s emphasis on community-based interventions sets it apart. Dr Goldfield clarified that HATD does not work with hospitals; instead, they collaborate with grassroots initiatives, ensuring a direct impact on the communities they serve. This approach allows them to address specific health challenges faced by marginalised populations, including mental health issues and drama therapy.

His rationale for embracing the path of health aid is grounded in three pillars. First and foremost, he explained that his expertise as a health professional equips him with a unique lens to address the multifaceted challenges.

Second, recognising the inherently political nature of health, he aims to focus on the essence of well-being. And lastly, he said, “Everyone wants to be healthy. There’s nobody and no patient I’ve met who isn’t trying to maximise their well-being and lead healthy lives.”

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In the wake of the recent escalation of violence and challenges posed by the conflict, HATD staff faces new obstacles.

One of the areas where the organisation has made a significant impact is in the Occupied West Bank city of Jenin. During the recent raids on Jenin, the Israeli army has repeatedly besieged the hospitals in the city and prevented medical teams from moving outside; however, Dr Goldfield remains hopeful, noting that emergency fundraising efforts have enabled them to provide essential services, particularly in the realm of mental health, for affected communities.

He said, “We are funding an effort in Jenin, in the Northern West Bank, which is under regular attack by the Israeli army. Due to this, the mental health services that HATD groups are providing have become even more important.”

Photo by Dr. Norbert Goldfield, founder of the non-profit organisation, Healing Across the Divides.

Photo by Dr. Norbert Goldfield, founder of the non-profit organisation, Healing Across the Divides.

“I should also point out that, on the Israeli side, 20 per cent of the population in Israel is Palestinian, and so, we fund a fair number of Palestinian initiatives in Israel.”

Reflecting on the effectiveness of interventions, Dr Goldfield acknowledges that not all initiatives succeed, but the majority result in measurable improvements in health. One standout initiative involves funding groups to implement the chronic disease self-management programme developed at Stanford University. This program empowers individuals to manage their chronic conditions, fostering positive effects not only on individuals, but also on their families and communities.

Another initiative Dr Goldfield explained was tackling obesity among Palestinian women. He said, “There was a HATD group at Nablus which came up with the idea of working on issues of obesity among Palestinian women, to work with them and, at the same time, look at a percentage of those individuals who might be overweight because of psychological or even physical abuse.”

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Moreover, Dr Goldfield addressed the limitations in providing direct support to Gaza due to funding constraints but shed light on an emergency fundraising campaign initiated after the 7 October attacks. The increased donations have been directed towards three critical purposes – emergency mental health services for staff, mental health support for grantees and the potential for new initiatives, exemplified by the recently approved diabetes intervention.

Photo by Dr. Norbert Goldfield, founder of the non-profit organisation, Healing Across the Divides.

Photo by Dr. Norbert Goldfield, founder of the non-profit organisation, Healing Across the Divides.

He also highlights the active encouragement for individuals to write letters to their representatives, advocating not only for a ceasefire but a lasting and just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We have actively been encouraging people to write letters to their representatives to advocate for a ceasefire, the freeing of hostages and an equitable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he explained, “There is so much healing that will be required and we have so much funding coming through for that.”

Healing Across Divides is not merely a healthcare initiative – it is a testament to the human spirit and the belief that, through community-based interventions, a healthier and more harmonious future can be shaped for both Israelis and Palestinians.

As Dr Norbert Goldfield aptly puts it: the dream may not be realised in his lifetime, but the leaders emerging from these communities may pave the way for a brighter tomorrow.

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