Two doctors on opposite sides of the judicial overhaul tearing Israel apart


Avivit Cahn and Keren Olshtain-Pops at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem on Aug. 27. Cahn and Olshtain-Pops work together but disagree about the Israel’s direction under its new far-right government. (Ofir Berman)

JERUSALEM — Avivit Cahn and Keren Olshtain-Pops have worked side-by-side in one of Israel’s most esteemed hospitals for more than a decade.

On morning rounds and in late-night meetings, they have consulted on cases, trained interns, and co-written academic articles.

Now, Cahn, an endocrinologist, and Olshtain-Pops, an infectious-disease specialist, find themselves on opposite sides of a struggle that threatens to tear their country apart — two among millions of Israelis whose personal and professional relationships have been thrown into turmoil by a government campaign to overhaul the judicial system.

“The ethos was always that politics can never cross the threshold of our ER,” said Cahn, in her office at Hadassah Hospital. “But in the past few months all our sacred cows have been slaughtered.”

Hadassah serves Jerusalem’s mixed population of Jews — religious and secular — and Palestinians. It employs a diverse, multilingual staff.

Through wars, waves of terrorism and government collapses, personnel say the hospital has always felt like a refuge — governed by shared values and clinical precision, a world away from Israel’s perpetual tumult.

But in the face of an unprecedented political crisis and explosive street protests, this place of healing has become another front line in the country’s raging culture wars.

Cahn grew up in Sanhedria, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in northern Jerusalem that shunned the modern world. Her father wore a black hat, in accordance with tradition. But he bought the family a TV — a taboo in their closed society — and worked as a doctor.

He also made the rare decision to serve as a medic in the Israeli military, breaking with the community’s expectation that men dedicate their lives to studying the Torah.

Cahn wears a wig, a customary show of modesty, but no longer identifies as ultra-Orthodox. She belongs now to the Religious Zionism movement, the second largest bloc in Israel’s government, which promotes a muscular, unapologetic version of Jewish nationalism.

“I believe that the Jewish nation and the Torah and the land, they all come together,” she said. “Much of the country supports this, and yet there are judges sitting in the court who are not chosen by the nation, who are overturning the will of the nation.”

Olshtain-Pops is a Jerusalemite too, but from the secular side of town. She was raised as the daughter of immigrants from Poland and Romania, “in the shadow of the Holocaust.”

When she was 10 years old, her parents moved the family to the United States, but she counted the days until she could return to Jerusalem, feeling that “home was not just a place we lived in.”

Like Cahn, she believes that Israel is the Jewish homeland.

And yet she has come to feel more and more like a stranger in her own city. When she worked in Shaarei Tzedek, a religiously-run public hospital, she felt like the “token lefty.” And she has watched secular neighborhoods be transformed into religious strongholds, as more ultra-Orthodox families have moved in. Residents have put up roadblocks to prevent cars from driving through on Shabbat. Non-kosher restaurants have shuttered.

Her teenage daughter told her recently that she does not feel comfortable riding the bus or walking in nearby neighborhoods without covering her body.

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Under the current government, the most far-right and religious in Israeli history, Olshtain-Pops fears the country is on the road to theocracy: “There’s a feeling that the progress of the past 20 years will go backwards,” she said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not campaign on judicial restructuring, though it has come to define his sixth term. His ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox coalition partners have already helped him push through a measure weakening the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down government decisions.

Netanyahu and his allies have said that they want to go further, potentially giving themselves the power to appoint sympathetic judges and making it virtually impossible for the Supreme Court to review Knesset legislation.

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Israel’s Supreme Court has long been a polarizing institution — viewed by religious conservatives as a bastion of the secular left, and by the secular left as a guardrail against religious conservatism.

Cahn believes the process is long overdue. The “very extreme, very activist, and very left-wing court” she said, has “been leading a policy that is opposing Israel as a Jewish state.” She cited historical accommodations for African asylum seekers and non-Jewish refugees from Ukraine, who she said threatened to dilute the Jewish nation.

She fears progressives will overturn policies that are dear to the devout — like a ban on public transportation on Shabbat — measures she says lend “substance” to living a Jewish life in Israel.

“The Supreme Court is trying to make Israel less of a Jewish state and more of a state for all its citizens,” Cahn said.

Olshtain-Pops sees the court as vital to upholding the diversity of the Jewish nation — promoting values developed over centuries, when Jews were refugees or persecuted minorities.

“Our history, as the Jewish nation, is not only about religion in the Orthodox sense,” she said. “It’s also about our humanistic values, which the Supreme Court is attempting to protect.”

In the struggle over the judiciary, both women see a more elemental battle over the character of Israel — pitting the religious against the secular; conservatives against progressives; Ashkenazim, descendants of European Jews, against Mizrachim, who hail from the Middle East.

As the Knesset has worked to advance the overhaul over the past eight months, millions of protesters have flooded the streets, hoisting Israeli flags and standing their ground against water cannons. They have blocked intercity highways and train stations, shuttered malls and the international airport — part of a furious and sustained public groundswell unlike anything in the country’s history.

Nearly every Saturday night for 35 straight weeks, Olshtain-Pops has been among the crowds.

“It’s important we have a presence,” she said at a recent evening demonstration, where several hundred people gathered at the President’s residence in Jerusalem, beating drums and chanting, “the Supreme Court will protect its minorities!”

She was comforted to be among like-minded people. In much of her daily life, she said, “I’m surrounded by right-wingers and religious people.”

Like Cahn, she views herself as belonging to the “sane” side of the divide. They both claim to want compromise. But they also believe, absolutely, that they are right.

“There’ve been disagreements before,” Olshtain-Pops said. “But now there is a feeling that they’re not listening to us. And as it all gets more extreme, we feel less motivated to meet them in the middle.”

On a recent afternoon, the two women took a break from their packed schedules to discuss the topics they had felt looming, but had carefully avoided. Olshtain-Pops, usually reserved, was instantly relaxed by Cahn’s presence, even as they launched into a tense debate.

A recent conference on type 1 diabetes at a publicly funded hospital was meant to be segregated by gender, in deference to the ultra-Orthodox audience, but it was canceled after a public uproar.

Cahn thought the controversy was overblown: “I believe in processes,” she said. “I don’t come to educate anyone.”

Olshtain-Pops was outraged, seeing it as the latest example of religious norms being imposed in public spaces.

“It’s a slippery slope,” she said.

At Hadassah, administrators are scrambling to keep political debate out of clinical WhatsApp groups. Employees have been told not to show up to work wearing political insignia. But the walls of the hospital are no longer a barrier to the turmoil outside.

In December, Orit Strouk, a far-right minister, told Kan public radio that a doctor has the right to refuse treatment to patients if it “violates his religious faith.”

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of the Knesset’s largest political bloc after Netanyahu’s Likud, has described himself as a “proud homophobe.”

Olshtain-Pops treats many HIV patients and members of the LGBTQ+ community and has “no doubt” that they “will be the first to be affected.”

She has worked with lesbian couples who have been refused fertility treatments at some hospitals — the subject of two ongoing class-action discrimination lawsuits — and has had to refer them to other clinics.

“There are still enough places in Israel where they allow it,” she said, though she worries that may not always be the case.

At least two of her patients once belonged to Orthodox religious sects and were forced to undergo “conversion therapy” — a widely discredited practice that aims to “cure” gay and transgender people. It has been banned by the Israel Medical Association, but is promoted by religiously conservative NGOs that were empowered by the Health Ministry this year to provide educational resources to public schools.

Cahn dismisses concerns about discrimination, pointing to Israel’s robust, socialist-based medical system, which provides state-subsidized abortions, fertility treatments, hormone therapy for transgender people, and, as of last year, surrogacy for gay male couples.

She has also treated members of the LGBTQ+ community. Every health care system, she said, makes hard decisions about prioritizing care.

“Funding that goes to a transgender clinic, for example, may not go to a diabetes or oncology clinic. So, what is right and what is wrong?” she said. “That’s the reason we have elections, so every government can bring their own minister, to make the hard decisions.”

Cahn and Olshtain-Pops both describe themselves as formerly apolitical people. But the politics of the moment now feel inescapable, at work and at home.

As they ate their lunches together at Cahn’s desk, which overflowed with patient cases and academic research papers, the women bonded over their children, who were developing their own strong political views.

Cahn told a story about her rebellious 20-year-old daughter, who, over a recent Shabbat meal, “lectured” her mother on the need to acknowledge the fears of many Israelis who say the judicial overhaul will destroy democracy.

Olshtain-Pops howled with laughter as her friend re-created the scene.

“I’ve voted five times, and now they’re talking about ousting Netanyahu?” Cahn asked incredulously, smiling wide as she recounted her response to her daughter.

“So, what, am I supposed to give up on my sovereignty, on my vote? Come on! It’s not serious!”

Olshtain-Pops had stopped laughing.


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