Condition Critical: Life and Death in Israel/Palestine

By Alice Rothchild. Just World Books, 2017. 283 pages. $19.99/paperback; $9.99/eBook.

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In Steve Feldman’s book Compartments, the well-known dermatologist chronicles how well-trained medical doctors in his profession can’t “think outside the box” they were trained in, often maintaining incorrect ideas and practices even when presented with clear evidence to the contrary. He then uses that critique to examine the Israel–Palestine situation from the perspective of his own Orthodox Jewish upbringing and his subsequent encounter with facts that countered the narrative with which he was raised.

In a similar way, Harvard professor and physician Alice Rothchild shares in Condition Critical how her own traditional American Jewish upbringing and early understanding of Israel–Palestine was challenged by learning about Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. “I found I had to re-examine the meaning of my own Jewishness in light of the uncomfortable consequences of Zionism, and I started to grapple with my own personal responsibility as a Jew and a U.S. citizen,” she writes in her preface.

Rather than retreat into a comfortable compartment and proclaim, “Don’t confuse me with the facts; my mind is already made up,” Rothchild began in 2003 to organize annual delegations to the region. This first-hand experience led to her first book, Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience. A second book examined the buildup to the 2014 Gaza war. Condition Critical is an edited anthology of her blog posts from trips between 2013 and 2015. It is an unflinching depiction of the “competing narratives” of the situation; the devastating impact violence and military occupation have on human health; and a stark analysis of, in the author’s words, “the consequences of the deeply engrained Israeli policies that advantage Jews greatly over their Palestinian neighbors.”

Eight chapters cover Israel’s plan to “judaize” occupied territories, the history of the hundreds of “disappeared” Palestinian villages with the creation of the modern state of Israel, “beautiful resistance” to the occupation, restrictions on normal Palestinian life, medical issues and torture, the grim realities of Gaza, and even sex and sexuality in the region. Rothchild introduces the reader not only to these harsh realities, but also to the courageous Israeli and Palestinian organizations and individuals working for a just peace. Added insight is given through her observations as a physician who is trained to recognize the pathologies that underlie symptoms. She makes the connection not only between the debilitating impact on people’s health of the trauma of war and oppression, but also how too often we treat the symptoms rather than the root cause. That is important to recognize, whether one is talking about a doctor–patient relationship or how lives lived in deprivation of human rights may result in destructive behaviors.

As with Ben Ehrenreich’s The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine (a book I reviewed in the Jan. 2017 issue of FJ), Rothchild’s observations match my own experience. We witnessed many of the same events while in Israel–Palestine during the years covered in her book. In his own praise for Condition Critical, Ehrenreich says, “Rothchild writes with extraordinary moral clarity and a sharp eye for the injustices, absurdities, and cruel historical ironies that define Palestinian life on both sides of the Green Line.”

During one of my wife’s and my annual service-learning trips to Israel and Palestine, a Jewish college student who had been in Israel many times but hadn’t visited the Palestinian territories joined our group. She ventured into the West Bank with us after spending time with relatives on an Israeli kibbutz. Following our two and a half weeks working and traveling throughout the region, she said to us, “All my life I have been told by family, teachers, and rabbis I deeply love and respect that this area was empty before our ancestors came here and ‘made the desert bloom.’ That’s not true, is it?” We acknowledged that this narrative is “fact” for many, but that, indeed, she could no longer hold onto it after being exposed to the truth of the matter. “I know that now; and now I have to figure out a way to share that truth with my community,” she responded.

It is in that same spirit that Alice Rothchild shares her book. She feels a responsibility both as a Jew and a scientist to share the harsh realities of what she knows to be true. The facts may be hard for some to take, but the excellent writing and keen observation help the medicine go down.

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