Prof. Michael Silbermann
Michael Silbermann was born on January 19, 1935, in the old quarter of the Arab city of Acre, which at the time was in Palestine. Acre is a 4,000-year-old Phoenician city on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. The city came under the rule of many of the dominant cultures in the Middle East, including the Greek, Roman, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish. The crusaders conquered the city but later surrendered it to Sultan Saladin in 1291, and in the 16th century it became the capital of the Ottomans. The Turkish governor of Southern Syria ruled the area until the end of the First World War. In 1918, Acre became the capital city of the northern part of Palestine under the British Mandate, which ended in 1948 with the establishment of the State of Israel that year.
Silbermann’s parents emigrated from their native Germany to Palestine in 1934, right after the National Socialist (Nazi) Party took over the government in Germany. Without knowing a single word of Arabic or Hebrew, they decided to settle in Acre. His father, a dental surgeon and graduate of several celebrated universities in Germany (Breslau, Heidelberg and Munich), opened a clinic and began treating Arab patients. Despite rudimentary living conditions – water in the old quarter of Acre was supplied by a Roman aqueduct built 1,800 years previously, which functioned sporadically – the two young immigrants from Germany were content, developed close relationships with the local population, and were highly regarded.
Several months after Michael’s birth, Arab-Jewish riots broke out in Palestine. One night, when Michael was 10 months old, the pharmacist in Acre, a good friend of Silbermann's father, came by to warn the family to flee at once, as the local mob was bent on slaughtering them. By midnight, his father had managed to pack up their personal belongings and, squeezed into a scooter, the young family headed to a neighboring settlement, Nahariya, which was newly established by Jews who fled from Nazi Germany. However, Nahariya was also threatened by rioters, and the family wandered again to a new home in the Haifa Bay area. Before long, the Second World War broke out and women with small children were evacuated from the area due to constant German bombing of the oil refineries in the harbor and large British military camps in the Haifa Bay area. However, the German High Command declared Jerusalem a holy city and guaranteed that it would not be bombed. Thus, in 1940, Michael, his mother, and his 3-year old brother were resettled in Jerusalem.
The Second World War shattered his remaining family in Europe. Those who were lucky escaped to the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union, but his grandmother (his father's mother) perished in the Treblinka concentration camp in Poland, as did most of the rest of his family in Europe. As a child in Palestine, he was deeply affected by the news coming from Europe during the wartime, and often found refuge by praying and crying in the synagogue, asking the question, “Where are you God?” Repeated mourning gatherings, with people sitting on the floor of the synagogue, wearing sack cloth, pouring ashes on their head, and crying out (old Jewish mourning rituals), had an enormous impact on the soul of a child 7-8 years old.
Struggling for coexistence
With the end of World War II, a military struggle began between Jewish underground organizations and the British forces in Palestine, eventually leading to the war of independence and the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948. This was an especially cruel conflict, as by then, many of Michael’s close friends at school volunteered to go to the army; many never returned. One of the most traumatic days during the war the news of 43 friends and acquaintances killed in a convoy on the way to help an isolated Jewish settlement not far from Acre. This period of uninterrupted military hostilities was painful and depressing, yet no-one complained, as there was a strong will and a determination to continue life in the hope of a possible future settlement between the parties involved.
Not surprisingly, the events of his childhood had an impact on his emotional development. He was a sensitive child. During family dinners at home, the events were discussed daily. His parents expressed their ultimate conviction that in order to enable Arabs and Jews to live in coexistence in the new state of Israel, along with the Arab people in the neighboring countries, a rapport had to be developed to bridge the gaps that developed over hundreds of years between these peoples.
When he was 15, his high school literature teacher asked each student in the class to write an essay describing the future of the new country – Israel – in view of the ongoing hostilities between Israel and the Palestinian organizations in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. This was two years after armistice agreements between Israel and its neighboring countries had been signed. In his essay, Michael stated that the only reasonable solution to the conflict would be through talks between the Israelis and the Arab parties. Two years later, still in high school, he played an active role in jointly organizing, with the American Friends Services Committee (AFSC), the first Jewish-Arab work-camp in a religious Jewish village (Kfar Hadassim) in Israel. It was an opportunity for Israeli Arabs to spend a week together with their Jewish colleagues, an experience that turned out to be an enormous success. This positive experience led him to organize, again with the aid of the AFSC, a workshop in Abu-Gosh, an Arab village near Jerusalem. It was also the first time since the end of WW II that a German student participated in a Jewish-Arab event of this kind in Israel.
These experiences, which took place only a few years after the 1948 Israeli-Arab war and WW II, further encouraged him in his belief that co-existence is possible, and can become feasible if people from both sides really believe in it. His parents’ home was always open to people who felt isolated and forgotten, be they British soldiers stationed in Palestine prior to the El-Alamein battle in the Western Desert (Libya), orphaned Jewish children who arrived in Palestine as illegal immigrants from Romania, evacuated children from Jewish kibbutzim during the 1948 war, and older Arab people who did not flee their homes during the 1948 Jewish-Arab War. It was always obvious that all would find an open door at his home at any time.
Building a medical school
Following his military service in the Israel Defense Forces, Michael moved to Jerusalem to study dental medicine in the Hebrew University- Hadassah Faculty of Dentistry (1955-1961). During that time he represented Israel at an international work-camp held on the island of Cephalonia in Greece which was badly destroyed by earthquakes earlier that year. The work-camp was organized by the Civil Service International in Switzerland, bringing together people from the Middle East who strongly believed in understanding among peoples despite ongoing political conflicts. Thereafter, he continued on to the Italian village of Affile, not far from Rome, where young people from all over the world came to assist local people in improving the condition of the poor and underprivileged. That effort was organized by UNESCO, bringing Michael once again in contact with peace-seeking young people.
Following his studies in Jerusalem, he moved to Boston, USA, for specialty training in maxillo-facial surgery at Boston City Hospital. Completing a PhD at Tufts University, Boston, he returned to his home town in Israel to help build a new medical school at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.
After serving for 20 years as chair of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology in the Technion Medical School, and 10 years as director of the Laboratory for Musculoskeletal Research, he was elected dean of the Medical School. Upon completing his tenure in the dean's office, he was appointed Chief Scientist of the Israel Ministry of Health in Jerusalem, starting January 1993. In September of that year, the Oslo Peace Accord was signed in the White House. Three months later, the first Israeli delegation was formed, through the Organization of Physicians without Borders, to visit Palestinian medical professionals in Cairo, Egypt. Dr. Fathi Arafat, at the time head of the Palestinian Red Crescent, hosted the delegation at his home, which facilitated a fruitful dialogue between the two parties and eventually led to the birth of the Middle Eastern Cancer Consortium (MECC).
An ideology of compassion
A basic ideology of compassion and love for people emerged somehow during a complex childhood overshadowed by danger and war, yielding a deep sense of helping others regardless of their background, which at times can be very different from one’s own. This belief penetrated Silbermann's DNA at an early age and has remained with him ever since. His work with MECC provided him with the opportunity he was dreaming of during his entire life, and he thanks God for blessing him with the opportunity to implement his health diplomacy aspirations. He was not surprised to discover that many hundreds of people throughout the Middle East (from North Africa, through the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf region, up to Central Asia) share his profound belief in better cross-border communication, thereby alleviating suffering from cancer and, concomitantly, promoting better understanding, tolerance and mutual respect between nations in conflict.