For those who read my latest Jewish Chronicle column, (Friday 22nd December) and thought it didn't make sense, it didn't. Bits of it were left out, meaning it ended, in the paper, with an example of communal non-cooperation, rather than a plea for co-operation. Here's how it should have read:
These things render one impotent: cancer, and war in Israel.
The mystery surrounding the increasing cancer all around us is this: women in Japan have a low incidence of breast cancer, but move them to Ohio, and within two generations their breast cancer risk is among the highest on the planet. This statistic is brandished an awful lot in breast cancer circles, but it remains shrouded, a piece of information that we’re hearing, but not getting.
Nobody knows the reason, you see. Nobody knows why Japanese men, for example, have the highest proportion of smokers per population but don’t have the highest rates of lung cancer (reserved, once again, for us in the West.)
Here is another set of statistics. Breast cancer now accounts for 30% of all cancers in both Israeli and Palestinian women. But the incidence of breast cancer is significantly greater among all Israeli women – in Israel the rate is 95 in 100,000 Jewish women and 46 in 100,000 Arab women (2000 statistics) – than among Palestinian women. In the Palestinian authority, the rate is 15.2 in 100,000 (1999 statistics). Some of this can be accounted for by less advanced diagnosis techniques, and slower reporting, but not all of it.
Even amongst Jewish women in Israel, there are differences; those of Western origin have a higher rate of breast cancer than those from Moroccan or Yemeni families (the Yemenite have the lowest risk of all). Women in Jordan and Egypt have less breast cancer than those in Israel. But there is another phenomenon showing up in Palestinian and Arab women from other Middle Eastern countries outside Israel – they are getting breast cancer younger, and it seems to be a more aggressive strain.
Tokyo to Tennessee is one thing, but when these kind of differences show up in populations as close to each other as Ramallah and Jerusalem, you have to ask how hard can it be to work out what the populations are doing differently? Apparently, it’s pretty hard, because nobody has done it yet.
Why not? Cancer drugs reap profits; work out what’s causing cancer, and maybe those expensive drugs won’t be needed, so what financial benefit is there in that? This is enough to make cancer specialists, daily confronting the limitations of their treatments, despair. As for the rest of us? We’re the pawns. What can the small person caught up in this big medical business do?
In November, a six-year project of co-operation between Palestinians and Israelis, called Project Cope, came to an end. It is a project which survived the violence.
There were meetings of Israeli and Palestinian breast cancer patients, and of medical staff. The Palestinian women came from places like Beit Hanina, Abu Dis, Beit Jala. There were 21 Israelis compared to 16 Palestinians, but a greater proportion of Palestinian women came to more meetings. They came even if they had to cross roadblocks, even if they were going straight from the meetings to the funeral of a victim of Arab-Israeli violence. This, the powerless can do: they can talk to each other, bypass those whose interest is in keeping us sick, or at war.
The Israeli-Palestinian public health magazine, Bridges, sums up our impotence in the face of violence and how it coincides with health issues. “Not surprisingly,” the editors write, “the dead, the physically and mentally wounded, the disabled, the bereaved, and the destruction of health facilities fall under the responsibility of the health sector, which,” and here comes the wry comment, “…is never consulted when wars are declared.”
Are women, are mothers, more impotent than men somehow? How is there war anywhere in the world, when it is so impossible to think of letting your son step out the front door to go to war?
We, the powerless, think up impotent small steps towards a bigger peace; in Project Cope-speak it’s called, “people to people co-operation”. Like this one for example. The children tell me the following tale. If you step on the bus outside Hendon Library (in North-West London, but you know, Hendon is but the larger world refracted into its tiniest splinters) at about 4.15 any school afternoon you can witness the following scene – and I have.
The schoolchildren, all from Jewish schools, are divided into tribal lines. The JFS children occupy the top deck, at the back. Hasmonean takes the middle ground, and the Menora children are huddled at the front. These children do not mix. There is something deeply horrifying in this. And something we should ask ourselves during this season of Limmud, which half the community attends, and half do not. Where did our children learn such bizarre cross-communal behaviour?
There is incurable cancer, there is war in Israel, children, but this you can do, for us, the impotent adults who worry: make friends on the bus.
Dina Rabinovitch’s book, Take Off Your Party Dress, will be published by Simon and Schuster.
JC editor David Rowan has been kind and understanding, and also offered me coffee in recompense: I've said 32 courses in Washington DC won't compensate, but I shall report back. What I'm thinking is here's another good way to get a major organisation to donate to the CTRT appeal. This is also what I'm thinking about Simon and Schuster, who are, so far, taking my blogs about them in bracingly good part. But I haven't asked them for the big donation yet....I will keep you posted.