Why Are Israeli Jews Amazed Arabs Enlisted to Help at Mount Meron?

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Israeli rescue teams carry a body bag into an ambulance at the scene of a stampede.

The Arabs in the north of Israel expressed shock and enlisted to assist the injured and the rescue services at Mount Meron. That was the essence of the radio report, I believe on Kan’s Reshet Bet channel, that I happened to hear.

The reporter sounded emotional, and it seemed as if he wanted to prove something. Arab drivers offered their help, Arabs were called on to donate blood, and Arab MKs Ahmad Tibi, Mansour Abbas and Ayman Odeh used social media to ask for help. Perhaps this was out of solidarity with a religious community harmed during a religious ritual, the reporter said, in an effort to explain the phenomenon. But during other disasters, too, he continued, Arabs enlisted to help. It happened during the Carmel Forest fire, and I think he mentioned another disaster in the north in which Palestinians who are Israeli citizens turned out to assist.

My first thought was that the report and the commentary that accompanied it were offensive. Why should Palestinians who live in the area not help the rescue efforts (assuming they don’t faint at the sight of blood or cries of pain), especially if they are employees or owners of private ambulance or bus companies? Why wouldn’t they be upset by the difficult sights, like anyone else? Are Palestinians not human beings who could also imagine in horror the slippery ramp, the unbearable crowding in the narrow passage, and the cries of “I’m suffocating?” It couldn’t be that the reporter was amazed by this phenomenon, as if it were unexpected and unnatural.

But then I thought to myself: This broadcaster knows his Jewish listeners. He knows how deep and alienating the regime of separation between Jews and Arabs is, and how ignorant the average Israeli Jew is regarding the Palestinians who are Israeli citizens, not just those who live in the areas occupied in 1967. He is aware of the hateful stereotypes of Palestinians (on both sides of the Green Line) that are cultivated in Jewish society. And he performed a pedagogical act without declaring it as such; he used the obvious to try to remove at least a drop of the racism that’s present in the minds of his listeners.

A different analysis from the report is also possible. Perhaps it was just the opposite? Perhaps the report was essentially a commentary about us, the Jews? Perhaps the public amazement at Palestinians’ willingness to help Jews during a disaster reflected an inherent assumption: That if Palestinian Israeli citizens were the ones suffering from some disaster, their Jewish neighbors wouldn’t have come to their aid as speedily and naturally, and would have left the work to the establishment rescue forces. A person is amazed by something that they apparently would have difficulty doing. Or perhaps the rabbi forbids it (as in, one doesn’t desecrate Shabbat to save an Arab/Gentile).

The key words used by the reporter in describing the willingness of Galilee Arabs to help were that this disaster was “non-political.” But we’ve long ago learned that disasters generally have a political dimension and background of balances of power, budget cuts and senior officials’ irrelevant considerations. In the case of the disaster at Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai’s tomb this year, it was officials’ calculated decision not to refuse the demands by the ultra-Orthodox, even if the coronavirus pandemic and basic safety rules required otherwise, because of this community’s power in the Knesset and the strength of these ministers’ connections.

In the context of Arabs in Israel, “political” is everything connected to Israeli control over the Palestinians between the river and the sea, and how the Palestinians cope with this domination, which discriminates, dispossesses and expels. For more than 70 years this domination has created and continues to create disasters, by default, for the Palestinian population between the river and the sea. Disaster after disaster, many so-called individual catastrophes that accumulate into mass ones, tragedies that involve more casualties and victims than there were on Mount Meron.

Every Palestinian family, on whatever side of the Green Line and in the diaspora, has experienced the disasters and tragedies brought about by “politics” — that is, Israeli domination. Speak to those Palestinians who seem to be the most successful and established – lawyers, doctors, directors, actors, businesspeople – every one of them has a stratum of memories and contemporary experiences of loss, pain, and serious harm. The layers of the present and the past have a pattern. Many are its perpetrators; the masses are its victims.

It’s human to pay attention to a tragedy when it’s a unique one-time event, has many casualties and differs from what we’re accustomed to. The process of getting used to the disasters of others, especially those that accumulate gradually and repeat themselves and happen at a distance, is also a human reflex. It’s no surprise that the perpetrator of the catastrophe will ignore it, the way Israeli Jews ignore those catastrophes they have caused and continue to cause the Palestinians, which is why they seek to turn things around and blame the victims. It’s part of our mechanism of our control and profit.

And thus, alienation from Palestinian disasters, which are derived from our policies and the privileges they grant us, the Jews, have become part of our character. A trait that explains why it makes news that Palestinian residents of the Galilee did the obvious and offered help to the victims of the Lag Ba’omer celebration.