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Top brain specialist says he left Israel because ‘it is becoming undemocratic’

One of Israel’s leading brain specialists has said he decided to leave the country earlier this year due to what he said were the deep societal divisions caused by the current “extremist” government’s actions, which he contends are beyond repair — while adding that more senior doctors have contacted him, interested in following in his steps.

Zion Zibly, who previously served as the head of the neurological department at Tel Hashomer Hospital, relocated two months ago to the United States, where he has taken up a position at the Yale School of Medicine in Connecticut.

In an interview Monday with the Kan public broadcaster, Zibly said he was concerned about letting his children grow up in an Israel he said is becoming increasingly undemocratic. His remarks came as thousands of doctors have reportedly expressed interest in relocating abroad due to the government’s efforts to curtail the judiciary.

Zibly said he had previously received several offers to relocate abroad but always turned them down. However, when the dean of the Medical Faculty at Yale approached him earlier this year, his will to stay in his country had sufficiently diminished for him to take the offer.

His concerns, he said, are over “everything that is happening judicially and so forth, and in society and the economy.”

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“I can’t have my daughters living in a place like that,” Zibly said of Israel. “They grew up in a country with Jewish democratic values and it is becoming undemocratic and [more] Jewish — not in the direction of my Jewishness, but in a manner in which they dictate to me what being Jewish is.”

Several thousand doctors pack into Jerusalem’s International Convention Center for an Israel Medical Association-organized rally protesting the government’s judicial overhaul plans. July 23, 2023. (Renee Ghert-Zand/Times of Israel)

“You look at the Knesset in general and you see the people who were chosen for parliament and you say: ‘Just a moment, what are they representing?’ They are representing only extremism and hate and undemocratic values and you don’t want to be in such a place.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition includes his right-wing Likud party, two ultra-Orthodox parties and the far-right Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit parties.

“It is not just tied to the overhaul,” Zibly said. “I see the tear that there is [in society], and it is a tear — you can’t call it anything else — that in my opinion, won’t be healed.”

Asked if he would still have left the country if the current government was not in power, he responded: “No, I don’t think so. I would not take all my things and uproot the family from a place that they love to be in a place where I don’t know if they will like to be.”

Zibly has not set a deadline for when he will come back, admitting that his emigration could be permanent. Kan did not specify when the offer from Yale was made or when Zibly decided to accept it.

He said he has many friends — “more than 10” — in senior Israeli medical positions who have contacted him asking for assistance in leaving the country as well, and noted that each department manager that leaves is a blow to the entire department.

He added that there are specialists whom he sent to the US to get further experience but who now refuse to come back.

An anti-overhaul protest in Tel Aviv on July 29, 2023. (Yair Palti)

Health Minister Moshe Arbel expressed his concern Tuesday over the phenomenon of doctors seeking to exit the country, admitting at a health conference that he was “deeply troubled by these feelings of citizens who do not see Israel as a home.”

“I am not willing to give up any of them,” he said, adding that doctors are “partners in the success of the Israeli health system, and I do not belittle anyone who does not see Israel as a home.”

Arbel called for the Knesset’s summer recess to be used for dialogue between coalition and opposition parties to reach an agreement on the judicial overhaul.

“At the end of the day, we are brotherly people. We don’t have the privilege of being torn apart,” he said.

Previous talks earlier this year, hosted by President Isaac Herzog, failed to produce an agreement, and Opposition Leader Yair Lapid has demanded an 18-month freeze in overhaul legislation as a precondition for renewing them. The coalition has dismissed that demand.

The country’s largest doctors union was to hold a special meeting Tuesday about the subject of relocation, the Ynet news site reported.

A WhatsApp group for doctors seeking advice for relocating overseas was opened after the Knesset last week passed a law to limit court oversight of the government and has so far attracted some 3,000 physicians.

Some have begun to receive lucrative offers to move to the UAE, Channel 12 reported Monday.

Health Minister Moshe Arbel seen during a meeting of his Shas faction at the Knesset, Jerusalem, on July 10, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Last week, the Health Ministry’s director-general, Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, held an emergency meeting with doctors, urging them to not “give up” on Israel’s public health system.

The Israel Medical Association staged a single-day strike last week, leaving public health facilities with skeleton staffing in response to the passage of the law that ended courts’ ability to strike down cabinet and ministerial decisions based on their “reasonableness.” A labor court ordered the healthcare industry back to work later in the day.

Public health workers have warned that the government’s judicial overhaul proposals will have negative consequences on their profession.

In addition to the turmoil over the government’s judicial policies, the international Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has warned that Israel is facing an impending shortage of doctors.

The organization in June warned of doctor shortages as early as 2025, pointing out that Israel does not have a proper system in place to manage manpower in the medical profession. The report also called on Israel to increase the number of medical students and accredit an additional new medical school.

While the government and its supporters say the judicial overhaul is needed to rein in what they see as an overreaching court system, opponents say the plan will shackle the courts’ ability to act as a check and balance against the Knesset, dangerously eroding Israel’s democratic character. There have been months of mass protests against the overhaul plan.