Driving up the mountainous road to Mt. Bental, I feel the temperature drop and the wind pick up as we reach the 3,800-foot peak where an abandoned Israeli army outpost, complete with bombed-out bunkers, sits. Anyone willing to ascend this mountain will be treated to a better understanding of Israeli history as well as breathtaking views. To the north, lies snow-capped Mt. Hermon. To the east, the Kunetra Valley, or Valley of Tears, the site of bloodiest tank battle during the Yom Kippur War of 1973 where Israel, vastly outnumbered by Syrian tanks, succeeded in blocking Syrian advances but suffered numerous casualties.
We are so close to the Syrian border that I can see and hear cars driving on Syrian roads, with Damascas just 60 miles away. Because this site was considered a “front row seat” to Syria’s civil war, I am stunned by the utter peace. As the sun sinks behind the distant mountains, only the wind whispers in my ear. Was I expecting to hear gunfire or see refugees fleeing from the horrific atrocities that have plagued their daily life for the past six years?
There is a total disconnect between this bucolic scene and the knowledge that just miles away, more than 470,000 Syrians, mostly civilians, have been ruthlessly killed by their own government in what is perhaps the greatest humanitarian crisis of our times.
What may be one of the best kept secrets about the Syrian civil war, however, is how the Israel Defense Forces, together with Israeli healthcare professionals and hospitals, have provided medical treatment to thousands of wounded and suffering Syrians who were denied or unable to obtain medical care in Syria.
More than 4,000 Syrians who have sought help at the Israeli-Syrian border have been admitted, with careful military security checks, directly to civilian hospitals in northern Israel. These men, women and children who have suffered combat-related injuries as well as horrendous neglect from lack of food, water, hygiene, and medicine, are treated as any other civilian patient in hospitals located in Naharia, Haifa, Safed, and Tiberius.
Israel’s willingness to save Syrian lives serves as testimony to the values of the country as well as the Jewish religion that informs it. How many countries can you name that will admit citizens of a neighboring “enemy state” and provide the best medical care and doctors available, free of charge? Israel not only offers top rate medical treatment but takes extreme precautions in protecting the identity of Syrian patients to ensure their safety upon return to Syria. The ultimate irony: Syrians who are given life-saving medical attention in Israel may lose their lives back in Syria if it is discovered that they were treated in Israel.
I wonder how Israeli medical professionals are able to do it. How can they detach from the psychological burden, anxiety and perhaps even fear of treating a person who may harbor a desire to kill them or destroy their country should the opportunity arise? How does a doctor or caregiver check that complicated dynamic at the door while engaging in such a profound humanitarian objective as saving a life?
The answer, I believe, is two-fold: the first being a medical response and the second, a uniquely Jewish one.
The medical obligation to honor and preserve human life is an ethical command of the highest sort articulated in the Western Hippocratic directive as “First, do no harm.” And in Maimonides’ Oath for Physicians, written by the 12th century rabbi/physician, the doctor asks for the strength, wisdom and opportunity to act in God’s service and states: “May I never see in the patient anything but a fellow creature in pain.”
So an Israeli doctor enters the room of every patient, regardless of politics, religion or culture, with a single imperative: to preserve life.
And what of the Jewish values that guide this effort? Jewish tradition and sacred texts offer a rich trove of ideas and directives regarding social responsibility, ethics, and justice, ranging from the exhortations of the Prophets to the detailed legal analyses of the Talmud. A fundamental teaching within Judaism is that pikuach nefesh, or the preservation of human life, overrides virtually all other religious considerations. It is of such high order that we are permitted to suspend Shabbat observance in order to save a life.
A second, more contemporary Jewish notion that informs this effort is that of tikkun olam, the act of repairing our world. As Jews, we look for ways to engage in social justice, to reinforce our identity and find meaning through acts that benefit and contribute to the world and the welfare of Jews and non-Jews alike. When Israel takes in Syrian civilians and provides medical help, it is a manifestation of tikkun olam.
I am proud of these efforts by Israel because they benefit all involved. And through these humanitarian acts that preserve Syrian life and connect real people on a deeply human level, Israel has the opportunity to heal more than just patients.
Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an author, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney who lives in Tucson. Her columns in the AJP have won awards from the American Jewish Press Association, the Arizona Newspapers Association and the Arizona Press Club for excellence in commentary. Visit her website at amyhirshberglederman.com.