Helping in Times of Crisis:
In the past few years, a different side of Israel has cropped up in news reports. It's the Israel that flies an entire medical facility (complete with x-rays and an operating room) with more than 200 personnel to earthquake ravaged Nepal. The Israel that quietly brings Syrians injured in the country’s civil war into Israel for treatment. The Israel that builds a field hospital on the Gaza border during Operation Protective Edge to care for Palestinian civilians.
But why does Israel enter into these arenas, which are ostensibly outside of its responsibility and purview. Is Israel responsible for civilians in Syria and victims of disasters in its region and around the world?
As it is written in the Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot 2:16): “Rabbi Tarfon taught: 'It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either.'”
In order to begin the conversation on the ways in which Israel views its responsibility to others, you may want to have your students explore what Judaism teaches about responsibility and helping those in need, using the texts below:
Text #1. Talmud Bavli. Tractate Ta’anit 11a:
When the community is in trouble, a person should not say, "I will go into my house and eat and drink and be at peace with myself."
- What is the value of being part of a larger community?
- Share an instance where your community worked together to help an individual or a cause.
- Think of a time when a larger community came together in the face of tragedy (hurricane, violence etc.). How did the community respond?
Text #2. Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan b. 1838 d.1933). Ahavat Chessed:
The Holy One Blessed be He, created humans in such a way that every man needs help from those around him and it is rarely the case that man can take care of himself alone and he always needs others’ help because this is how God created him, that man is incomplete on his own and each one completes the other, everyone has their own experience.
- Do you agree with the Chofetz Chaim’s assertion that “man is incomplete on his own”? Why or why not?
- Why can’t individuals be entirely self-sufficient?
Text #3. Talmud Bavli. Tractate Shabbat 39a:
All Israel is responsible for the other.
- What do you think is meant by “All Israel?” How about the "other"? How does this differ?
- When is a time that you have taken personal responsibility for someone else?
- Does it limit our sense of responsibility if we are only responsible for Jews?
Text #4. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:
The opposite of good is not evil; the opposite of good is indifference. In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.
- What message is Heschel trying to impart?
- Are you ever indifferent? What do you think are the implications of your indifference for others?
Text #5. A Broader View
The following three quotes come from figures outside of the Jewish tradition but relate to the quotes above.
Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.
– Albert Einstein
The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.
– Mahatma Gandhi
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of "disaster," I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.
– Fred Rogers
Questions to have your students consider:
- How do these quotes add, enhance, or adapt the Jewish quotes above?
- Do these quotes make you think of certain people or types of people? Explain.
On April 25th, 2015, a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal, killing more than 8,000 people and injuring more than 19,000. A day and a half later, Israel’s first humanitarian delegation left for Nepal. The delegation of 260 people included medical personnel, search and rescue experts, and other relief workers.
According to Israeli President Rivlin:
This delegation of 'messenger angels' represents the universal values, in the spirit of our people and our country.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated:
This is the true face of Israel - a country that offers aid over any distance at such moments.
By April 29th, Israel’s makeshift hospital in Nepal was up and running, including two operating rooms, four intensive care rooms, and 80 hospital beds. Staffed by 150 Israelis, it was the largest field hospital ever built by the IDF. In the 11 days it was open, it saw more than 1,600 injured people, performed 85 life-saving surgeries, and delivered 8 babies. (For more information, see this article from Israel21C.)
This article from the Jerusalem Post gives an excellent look into the first days of the Israeli mission in Nepal. The article also includes a four-minute video showing how the field hospital was assembled, and at minute 2:35 includes a speech (with English subtitles) from Col. Dr. Tarif Badar, the Head of the IDF’s Field Hospital.
Some might suggest that Israel’s response was expanded due to the presence of thousands of Israelis trekking through Nepal, particularly in the years immediately after their army service. Yet, its reaction to the disaster in Nepal is no different from its reaction to other natural disasters, including the 1999 earthquake in Turkey, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the 2011 Fukashima disaster in Japan, and the 2012 tsunami in Thailand.
You might want to screen this two-minute CNN report on the Israeli field hospital established in Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake in order to provide context for appreciating Israel’s commitment to providing humanitarian aid.
Questions to consider:
- What reasons might Israel have for deploying so many relief workers to sites of disasters like the earthquake in Nepal?
- How might this affect Israel's reputation in the world?
- Do you think that democratic countries like Israel are more or less apt to help in international crises?
Over the past decade, Israel has been helping severely wounded Syrian children and adults, some of whom are fighters in that country’s civil war. In certain ways, this highlights the extent to which Israel is willing to extend a helping hand:
- Israel plays no direct part in the Syrian civil war.
- Syria is technically still at war with Israel.
- The future of Israel’s Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War (and subsequently annexed) is one of many issues at the heart of the Israeli-Syrian dispute.
One source for more background on the Syrian Civil War is a BBC report entitled Syria: The Story of the Conflict.
Helping "Under the Radar"
During Syria’s bloody civil war, Israel has provided safe passage to hundreds of Syrians who sustained injury in the conflict, bringing them to Ziv Hospital in Safed, where they have received life-saving medical care. For the most part, this has been done “under the radar” – with little fanfare or media attention – for fear that too much publicity might cause the Syrian authorities to prevent civilians from reaching the UN-administered border crossing point in the Golan Heights. Even when media coverage is allowed, it does not identify the Syrians by name or even show their faces, in order to minimize the likelihood that recipients of care will be penalized or punished when they return home to Syria.
The following video – recorded at the Ziv Hospital in Safed – details the treatment that the Syrian civilians and fighters received, along with the reactions from members of the hospital staff. Please note that some of the content may be upsetting to younger viewers, please use discretion when screening it:
While your students may have questions of their own after watching the video, you may also have them consider:
- How might it feel for a Syrian child to receive medical care from Israeli doctors in an Israeli hospital?
- How do you think Israeli doctors and nurses feel about treating patients who come from an enemy country?
- Mohammad, the Free Syrian Army fighter who received a prosthetic leg in Israel, says he is returning home with new ideas about Israel. How do you think his new ideas might be received in Syria?
- Listen to what Avidan Landau, the nurse, and David Fuchs, the manager of the trauma room at Ziv Hospital, say about their work and the potential impact of treating Syrians. What do you think? Could the role played by Ziv Hospital today pave a path to peace between Syria and Israel? Why or why not?
- Why might Israel go to such great lengths to provide medical care to citizens of an enemy country who were wounded in a civil war that has nothing to do with Israel?
- What are your reactions to Israel’s willingness to help people in need who are near and far?
- What may be some of Israel’s motivations for partaking in these activities? What is the role of Jewish and universal values in these decisions?
- How does one’s responsibility for others’ well being shift as they move farther away from one’s inner circle?
- How far does our own responsibility for others extend?