Happy New Year: ABA Vice-President's Report

- Frank J. Leavitt, Ph.D.
Chairman, The Centre for International Bioethics
Faculty of Health Sciences, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva, Israel


Email: yeruham@bgumail.bgu.ac.il

Vice-President for Asian Ethnic Minorities, Asian Bioethics Association

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 14 (2004), 4-5.

On the 31st of December, 1999, the health education team of our Centre for Asian and International Bioethics began to arrive in the Palar River Delta, Tamil-Nadu. We were about to begin our Mother and Child Health Education Project for Dalit ("untouchable") mothers in medically deprived villages. I rode, together with Eszter Kismodi, a Hungarian Nurse and Lawyer now with WHO in Geneva, and with Raya Gal, a nurse in our Faculty of Health Sciences' Bedouin Mobile Unit. An American volunteer named Megan accompanied us. On our way down to the Delta Centre in Kadalur, our car passed a hotel in Mamallapuram, which advertised a millennium party. Eszter, who knows how to bring life and joy everywhere, decided that we would go on down to the Delta Centre, drop off our bags, and return to Mamallapuram for the party.

I hesitated. The so-called millennium isn't exactly two thousand years after the birth of Jesus, and even if it were we Jews don't believe in Jesus anyway. We have our own New Year's Holiday (Rosh Hashanah) in Israel when, we believe, God decides how the coming year will be for the entire world, Jew and non-Jew, humans, animals and plants. And Rosh Hashanah is in the autumn, not the winter. The first of January, like the 25th of December, is for most Israelis just a regular working day. So I saw no point in a millennium party.

But Eszter is not to be refused, so I went. I was amazed to find what a great time I had. I am a very bad dancer, but I even won a prize for dancing. Mamallapuram is a tourist town, and I was most impressed by the collegiality among people from all over the world. Most memorable were two Afghan shopkeepers, brothers I think, we joined the party and spent a lot of time dancing with our group. They, as Muslims from a country which has a reputation for extreme actions, and I as an Israeli Jew, might have been expected to be enemies. But we enjoyed the time together as human beings, just as often happens between Jews and Muslims at home.

This experience got me to thinking that there really is a point to the 1st of January, as an international holiday expressing solidarity for all human beings. We different countries and cultures of the world have our own holidays, usually on a nationalistic or religious basis. But there is nothing nationalistic or religious about the 1st of January. So there is nothing in it which anybody can object to for national or religious reasons. Its very lack of content leaves it open for us to fill it with whatever we think right. So it is an ideal international holiday for all human beings to celebrate, forgetting our differences for at least one night.

So I wish a Happy New Year to all. There is also a custom in some countries of making resolutions at the beginning of January. I recently proposed a resolution to the Board of the Asian Bioethics Association. We vice-presidents on the Board are associated with various constituencies, either geographic or ethnic. So I proposed that each of us submit an annual report of bioethics in our constituencies. Here is mine.

As Vice-President for Asian Ethnic and Religious Minorities one of my constituencies is of course the Jews, of which I am one myself. You can see our minority status by looking at a map and seeing the tiny almost invisible piece of land which the Jewish State, Israel, takes up among the vast Muslim majority of West Asia and North Africa. We have five million people in Israel, (a million fewer than we lost in the holocaust), and only about eighty percent of these are Jewish, almost all of the rest being Muslim. A report in any detail about Jewish bioethics would take too much space. I'll just remark that while Jewish Medical Ethics has traditionally been based on Halacha (Jewish Law), there has been more attention in recent years to Jewish philosophy, Jewish mysticism (kabala) and Maimonides' medical writings.

Another Asian minority group are the Dalit, the so-called "untouchables". These people are said to be the indigenous inhabitants of India, the Dravidians, from before the Aryan invasion. There are ruins of Dravidian temples in Mamallapuram. The State of Tamil-Nadu has a Ministry of Avidravidar (original Dravidian) Affairs, devoted to helping the interests of these people, but work which even a devoted government ministry can is only a drop in the ocean when compared to the great need.. The Dalit are distinguished from "caste Hindus" in that they are not really members of a caste but are considered to be beneath the castes. For centuries they were not allowed to have normal professions but could do only the most menial of work. There seems to be less discrimination nowadays in some of the cities, but I have seen villages where they must take water from a separate well and their children have to study in the school playground while the caste Hindu children study inside the schoolhouse. The Dalit Liberation Education Trust built a centre, the Delta Centre, in the Palar River Delta village of Kadalur. At this centre is now a nursing school, dedicated to teaching nursing to Dalit girls from the villages, as well as a catering school where Dalit boys learn waiting and other restaurant and hotel profession. These advances are only a drop in the bucket, however, and it is to be hoped that more will be done. It should also be said that although the lower castes are usually perceived as the victims, and the Brahmins as the oppressors, the Brahmins are also a minority in India and recent reverse-discrimination laws (such as priority to lower castes in university admissions) have put them on the defensive.

A third Asian minority are the Israeli Bedouin. The Bedouin are Middle Eastern, formerly nomadic tribe people, herdsmen, who settled in Israel. They are Muslims, but they are considered to be a separate group from the Arabs. They are thus a minority both with respect to the Middle East's Arab majority and with respect to the Jewish majority within Israel. In our teaching hospital, Soroka University Medical Centre which is the second largest hospital in Israel with 2000 beds, Bedouin make up the majority of patients both in the Maternity Ward and in the Newborn Baby Ward. Our Faculty of Health Sciences many years ago set itself a goal of improving the health of the Bedouin. Besides our work in village clinics, and the Bedouin Mobile Health Unit, we have been encouraging outstanding Bedouin high school graduates to study medicine, nursing and other health professions in our Faculty. For many of the girls, especially, education has been a struggle because of prejudices within their culture against any education for girls. But one of our Bedouin nurses has now finished her Master's degree in epidemiology and is planning to leave soon for England for PhD studies. When she was a student in fourth year nursing, she did a study of the practice of female circumcision among the Bedouin, interviewing Bedouin women at bus stations. Last year, two other Muslim girls did a study of consanguineous marriage customs among the Bedouin. These customs contribute to a serious problem of congenital deafness in some of the tribes in the Negev region. But any attempt at intervention, such as encouraging marriage outside the tribe, raises bioethical questions of cross-cultural intervention.

I hope I have succeeded in explaining at least a little of the bioethical issues among Asian Ethnic Minorities. This work has only been a drop in a sea of need, not only need among the Jews, Dalit and Bedouin of Asia, but also need among the many minorities whom I have not mentioned. There are the Druze in Israel, the Christian minority in South Lebanon, the Kurds in Iraq and elsewhere, the tribes in India who speak languages unique to themselves, and so many more.

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