Thursday, March 25, 2010

Hospitals, Graves, and Ethics

Hospitals and graves. That doesn’t really sound like an exciting subject. But it is the hottest issue in Israel right now. At least that is what one resident who lives there told me.

The issue centers on the construction of a hospital emergency room at Barzilai Hosptial in the city Ahskelon. Ashkelon is within range of Hamas rocket fire and has been hit in the past. Fortifed (against rocket attacks) emergency rooms are badly needed in this area. So a project was begun to construct such a facility in ways that make the most sense medically. and would facilitate saving the most lives. The site was found and two years ago construction began.

The problem is that some ancient gravesites were found during the initial excavation.

There is much discussion about in Jewish Law surrounding the desecration of Jewish graves . Although there are kabalistic issues with it too, it mainly centers on something called Nivul HaMes – desecrating a dead body.

Disinterment of human remains risks disturbing the body to the point of desecration. When dealing with an entire cemetery - especially one that is ancient - the risk of desecration multiplies exponentially. So unless there are compelling reason to do so, they are to be left alone when discovered. But this Halacha does not apply to the graves and bodies of idol worshippers. Those bodies may be transferred and buried elsewhere.

So what does one do when discovering a cemetery underneath the area of a needed emergency room? That answer came quickly from the Charedi rabbinic leadership. Do not touch them. Move the ER to another area.

The problem with that is that it will make that ER less efficient – which could cost lives. The planners determined that the original location would be the most ideal. This is besides the massive additional expense of waiting and relocating.

But let us leave expense out of this. The fact that changing the location might cost lives should certainly be a circumstance where carefully and respectfully disinterring and relocating those bodies is warranted. Additionally - except for the Charedi Poskim - the consensus seems to be that these are the graves of non Jewish idol worshippers. The Israeli Chief Rabbinate has already permitted these bodies to be exhumed and relocated.

But Rabbi Yaakov Litzman won’t allow it. He is the Charedi deputy health minister under Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government. His decision is being supported by the prime minister who decded to follow his predecessor Ehud Olmert who also supported the Charedi position here. Litzman has threatened to resign if the location is not changed.

Doctors involved with the situation are appalled. From the San Francisco Chronicle:

The Health Ministry director resigned Monday and doctors are protesting. The decision is expected to delay construction by a year and cost about $10 million.

I can understand the politics of the situation. The Israeli Knesset which is a parliamentary system requires a ruling majority to stay in power. Since they rarely if ever get enough votes for their own party to be the majority -a coalition is put together via other parties who join with them.

Joining a coalition does not come cheap. Smaller parties invited to join are bought off with money (for their causes), positions in the cabinet, and in the case of the religious parties – additional promises about Halachic matters.

So if it takes delaying construction of a medical facility by relocating it to a medically less desirable location – well that’s a small price to pay for power. Besides - they can claim Halacha is on their side. After all Rabbi Litzman is Rav Elayshiv’s man in the Keneset. Who better to follow than that?!

Here is my problem. What about the ethics? How in good conscience can a needed medical facility be toyed with like this? Yes, desecration of graves is a serious issue, but there is a medical necessity here. Pikucach Nefesh is involved. People who need it aren’t getting it. And relocating it will cost lives. That is the consensus of doctors. And all but the Charedi rabbinic leadership say that these graves aren’t even Jewish! From the Jerusalem Post:

State Control Committee chairman Yoel Hasson (Kadima) said in his committee session that the emergency department fortified against Gazan rockets must be built in the fastest and least expensive way possible. In addition, it must be ensured that the distance between it and the main building is not unnecessarily long. In any case, the solution must be decided by professionals, Hasson said.

For years, there was no money for the project, according to the Treasury, which eventually agreed to supplement a private donation from the US. But the discovery of the skeletons – pagan, according to the Antiquities Authority, and not Jewish, as Litzman claims – put the project on hold.

There is something terribly wrong when doing the right thing becomes subject to the politcs of power.