Brig.-Gen. Tarif Bader is the surgeon general of the Israel Defence Forces. He made history when he became the first Druze to occupy the office. The CJN spoke with him in Toronto recently, when he came to accept the Dr. Arnold M. Noyek visiting professorship from the Canadian International Scientific Exchange Program (CISEPO).
What do you do as surgeon general?
In Israel, the surgeon general is responsible for all the medical corps. That includes the training, the education, giving the treatment. Also in the battlefield, preparing for emergencies. That means treating soldiers and preparing all the facilities for wartime or emergency situations.
When did you become surgeon general?
Almost two years ago. Before that, I was the deputy surgeon general for two years. I went from being a physician in one of the battalions in the infantry, and then I was head of the northern medical command. That means I was responsible for the medical corps in the northern part of Israel.
What are some big events you have overseen?
When I was the head of the northern medical command, near the end of this period was the conflict in Gaza. I have to be sure that the medical troops are well-prepared for situations like that. Since it ended, we have been trying to understand what lessons we can learn from this conflict, and trying to improve what we are doing.
Over the last couple of years, we have been dealing with treatment on the battlefield. What we are trying to do is to shorten the time between the injury and the arrival of the first responder. We believe that the shorter the period in which we start treatment, the more chance we have of saving lives. Our aim is to save as many battlefield casualties as possible. We have a vision of eliminating preventable deaths. That means that in every case in which we can save lives, we are doing our best to save them.
Is that just for soldiers, or anyone who is injured?
In Israel, we have a wonderful collaboration between the civilian system and the military system. We do not have military hospitals, so we rely on civilian hospitals for tertiary treatment. Also, troops or medical personnel, regardless of if they are military or civilian, treat whoever needs assistance. That means our military physicians treat soldiers, but if there is, for example, a road accident and one of the casualties is a citizen, they treat the citizen.
When they are serving in Judea and Samaria, for example, they can find themselves treating, at the same road accident, a soldier, an Israeli citizen and a Palestinian citizen. So this is one of the things that we are teaching our troops – that saving lives has no borders. It doesn’t matter if they are Israeli or Palestinian, citizen or military. We are saving lives, all of them.
I think this is one of the reasons that we are taking part in humanitarian missions all over the world. It doesn’t matter if they are from Haiti, from Nepal, from Japan, wherever. We are there to save lives. That’s the reason that we have had this wonderful project for treating the Syrians for almost five years, that we have treated almost 5,000 Syrians who were injured during the civil war.
Can you tell me more about international disaster relief?
In the medical oath, one of the sentences is to extend a helping hand to everybody – to friend, to foe, to soldiers, to citizens. We teach our teams not only to understand this sentence, but to act according to this sentence. The State of Israel was established in 1948 and its first humanitarian mission was in 1953, to Greece. That’s only five years after its establishment. Since then, there have been more than 15 humanitarian missions all over the world – to Japan, Philippines, Haiti, Nepal, Mexico, Turkey, Rwanda, all over the world. Whenever there is a disaster requiring international help, we are ready to take part in it.
We are almost always the first on the scene. In Haiti, we set up our field hospital 89 hours after the earthquake. We were the first to be at Port-au-Prince. In Nepal, we set up our field hospital 82 hours after the earthquake. It’s about 15 hours of direct flight from Israel to Kathmandu, so I think this is amazing. We are so prepared for that.
It’s amazing that even though we are a small country with limited resources, we can go from Israel to wherever there is a need for us. It’s saving lives, and saving lives has no borders. This is what we believe, that everywhere that we can go and save lives, it’s our duty to do that. I was lucky to command the medical delegation to Nepal in 2015. During about 11 or 12 days, we treated more than 1,600 Nepalese people who were injured and worked with the local community, local hospitals and had a wonderful collaboration with one of the local military hospitals in Nepal – all with the aim of saving lives.
We’ve treated almost 5,000 Syrians over almost five years of that humanitarian mission. It’s Israel’s biggest humanitarian mission ever. I think this is important because, for the first time, it’s on a hostile border. The State of Israel deciding to treat these Syrians is not obvious. They believe we are the worst enemy they have ever had. But they decide not to die on their own land. They go to the West to seek treatment for themselves, for their children. Almost one-third of them are children. That means our teams treated more than 1,500 Syrian children. And we use the same equipment, the same personnel to treat our soldiers and to treat the Syrians. The same treatment, the same personnel, for saving the lives of human beings.
Has there been a Druze surgeon general before? What does it mean to you?
I wasn’t elected as surgeon general because I am Druze, of course. I was a physician of a battalion, brigade, of a division, of a northern command, etc. That means I completed all the missions I had to before reaching this position. Yes, it’s a point of satisfaction. I’m very proud that I belong to the Druze society in Israel and I’m very proud that a Druze officer, a Druze physician, is holding this position for the first time. I think it’s not only important for me. I think for the young Druze in Israel, it’s very important that they can look at me and see that nothing is impossible. They can go to the military, they can join the special units and they can reach whatever they want.
Are there any ways in which accessibility for Druze people in the IDF could be improved?
I think we’re on a good track. There are no units in the military that are closed to Druze people. A couple of years ago, no Druze soldiers went to the pilot corps, for example. But we have Druze pilots now. We have Druze in special units. So the borders are totally destroyed between what the Druze can do in the military.
It’s not a matter of allowing them to reach a high level, it’s that, in order to be able to reach the position of surgeon general, for example, they have to be the head of the northern medical command first. My nephew is a major. He is also a physician. He cannot be the next surgeon general because he has to go up and reach all the positions. But if he continues in the military and goes from major-general to lieutenant-colonel and then to colonel, etc., in a couple of years from now, he could be another surgeon general. But in order to be that, you have to climb the stairs according to what you are supposed to.
There is no Druze chief of staff because there are not yet enough Druze major-generals who can be chief of staff. So it’s probably a matter of time, that’s it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity