The reality of being a Druze physician in Israel
“The IDF Medic’s Oath is paramount,” says Col. (res.) Dr. Salman Zarka, the director of Safed’s Ziv Medical Center, who lit a torch at this year’s Independence Day official ceremony in Jerusalem. “We have a fundamental obligation to carry out the humanitarian treatment of people who’ve been wounded in the Syrian civil war, despite all the complexities involved. As it is written in Pirkei Avot: ‘In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.’
“When the decision was made to build a military field hospital on Israel’s border with Syria, I was honored to be chosen to lead the mission together with my colleagues from the IDF Medical Corps,” Zarka continues.
Zarka, 55, was born in Peki’in, a multicultural village in the Galilee, the fifth of eight children.
“I grew up in a very poor family,” Zarka describes. “My father could barely read and my mother was illiterate. But they did understand that their children would need to do well in school if they wanted to make a name for themselves in society.
“My father would show me his hands, which were calloused from years of hard manual labor. ‘Your hands will not look like mine,’ he would tell me. But I did help him with his plastering and tiling during my breaks between semesters. I think one of the reasons why he let me help was to let me experience what manual labor is like, which would convince me to study hard and succeed in having a profession.”
Zarka studied medicine at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in the IDF Atuda program.
“My father was very proud of me, but was always asking me, ‘When will you come back to work as a doctor in our village?’ That never did happen, but I do feel like I came full circle when I accepted the position as director of Ziv, since there we did offer health services to people from Peki’in. I hope that my father is currently looking down upon me and feeling proud.
“When I finished my studies, I served as a doctor in the IDF and later was promoted to head of medical services for Northern Command. I was planning to specialize in gynecology at [Haifa’s] Rambam [Medical Center], when someone convinced me to go into hospital administration instead. I had been very excited to work as a clinical doctor, but instead I moved to Jerusalem and completed a master’s degree in health administration. This was very fitting for me since I felt very comfortable working within the IDF.”
Is managing Ziv Medical Center much different from being a medical commander in the army?
“Well, I do sometimes hear people making comments here and there about how my hospital is run with military precision. Order is very important to me, and I believe I must demonstrate this by personal example. But don’t worry, I don’t make all the hospital employees stand at attention each morning.”
Zarka is not an anomaly. There seem to be more and more Druze entering the medical profession. Dr. Tarif Bader, who is Druze, is also a chief medical officer in the IDF.
“We’re similar to the Polish in this respect – we’re always talking about medicine,” says Bader humorously. “I’d love to see even more Druze adapt themselves to the modern age and enter the hi-tech sector, not just medicine.”
When I ask Zarka about the Nation-State Law, his tone drops a level.
“Even if the goals of the law are important for the Jewish state, it seems to me that Israeli leaders missed the mark,” responds Zarka. “I feel just as Israeli as I do Druze. I don’t think the government meant to say to me, ‘You are no longer a first-class citizen.’
“Israelis will never forget that the Druze made a critical decision when they sided with the Jews in 1936 when riots broke out. We felt a deep connection with the Jews as a persecuted minority. I am so proud that Druze leaders approached Ben-Gurion after the War of Independence and requested that Druze children be required by law to serve in the IDF, and not just as volunteers.
“I don’t think that after going through so much together, the law meant to call us second-class citizens.”
Do you feel like a second-class citizen?
“I do feel a little pinch in my heart. I feel my Israeliness very deeply, especially after having served in the IDF for 25 years. I’ve traveled abroad as a representative of the State of Israel to talk about how great our country is. But I’m worried about the younger generation, who might feel more conflicted than I do, and be persuaded by all the BDS propaganda. Both of my sons serve in the IDF – one is in Unit 8200, and the other one is in a cyber unit. They never considered not joining the army. But I’m worried that the next generation might feel conflicted.
“My daughter Yara, who’s 12, began studying at the Hebrew Reali School of Haifa. I want her to have all the same benefits as Druze men do. Druze women on a whole are better educated than Druze men, which many times has led to divorce. The educational system in Druze villages is very good, but I wanted her to learn in the best school possible. I also want her to be as Israeli as possible.”
Will she serve in the IDF?
“Druze women are exempt from serving in the IDF. If Yara decides, when she turns 18, that she wants to enlist, then we will consider the ramifications of such a decision, since Druze marry only within their own community. Druze women carry out national service. I’m concerned that the Nation-State Law will influence these decisions.”
Zarka lives in Usfiya with his wife, Ra’uda, a social worker and family and couples therapist. Ra’uda works in the Defense Ministry’s Bereaved Family Department.
“My wife does incredible, holy work that’s more important than anything I do,” beams Zarka. “I followed her here, which I guess makes me an Ashkenazi Druze, as Maj.-Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen once told me. I feel just as much at home in Usfiya as I did in Peki’in.”
What are your hobbies?
“I’m an amateur carpenter. I also like to read books, play basketball and go running. I’m currently training to compete in a half marathon.”
During Operation Protective Edge in 2014, Zarka served as commander of the IDF’s Medical Services.
“I was in charge of all treatments along the Gaza border,” Zarka recalls. “We received orders to set up a military field hospital at the Erez crossing, but then Hamas issued instructions that anyone who received treatment there would be killed. Nevertheless, some Gazans did approach us for help, and so we ended up treating the enemy, as well.”
What do you wish for?
“My dream is that there will be peace.
“I felt like maybe this dream was beginning to come true when we started treating Syrians. These people had been taught by the Assad regime that Israelis were like Satan, but their image of us changed while they were being treated. After a few days, they would begin to smile, say ‘Good morning’ in Hebrew. More than once I heard someone say, ‘You are more humane than our people are.’
“My hope is that the seeds of hope that we’ve planted will one day bloom and reach out to us in peace. Maybe one of the children we treated will grow up to be president of Syria, and will remember our humanity.”
Were you surprised to be picked to light a torch on Independence Day?
“Totally. I was not expecting that at all,” admits Zarka, obviously a man of deeds who’s not used to being praised. “I didn’t even know my name had been suggested when I received the call from Minister [Miri] Regev.
“I was so thrilled to get to say the words, ‘And to the glory of the State of Israel,’ to represent my country, and to participate as a proud member of the Druze people.”
COL. (RES.) DR. SALMAN ZARKA, director of Ziv Medical Center in Safed.