If all goes as planned, an Israeli delegation of Jewish and Arab youth movement leaders will head to the Greek island of Lesbos next week to help establish educational and social programs there for young Syrian refugees.
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Teaming up in the effort will be two youth movements – Zionist-socialist Hashomer Hatzair and the Arab Ajyal group – who have a long history of cooperation, though never in something quite like this.
“It’s kind of strange when you think about it,” says Yair Leibel, a 28-year-old group leader and educator at Hashomer Hatzair. “Here we have people suffering just across the border from us, but the only way we can help them and interact with them directly is to take an hour-long flight to somewhere else.”
The Lesbos project, which will be overseen by the Tel Aviv-based humanitarian assistance organization Natan, is the latest example of an Israeli grassroots initiative aimed at helping victims of the conflict in Syria. Among other things, it aims to create both formal and informal educational and social frameworks for the young refugees, including leadership programs, while working with other humanitarian groups active on the island as well.
Most of the Israeli initiatives to date have focused on providing food, clothing, medication and other basic necessities to those suffering from the bloody civil war raging in Syria over the last six years. Some, however, have involved less tangible forms of assistance, such as petitions, protests and prayers.
The Israeli army operates a field hospital on the northern border, where wounded Syrians are treated. Many Syrians have also received care in Israeli hospitals. But the government of Israel has, for the most part, not gone out of its way to extend assistance to these beleaguered people, leaving the field open to civil-society initiatives such as this new one.
In a break with long-term policy, however, Minister of Interior Arye Dery recently announced plans to provide asylum to 100 Syrian orphans. These children will either be adopted by Arab Israeli families or placed in boarding facilities. A ministry spokeswoman could not say for sure when they would be arriving, noting that Israel was still discussing the logistics with United Nations officials.
Among the grass-roots initiatives launched in recent months, Operation Human Warmth, spearheaded by Israeli Jewish youth movements in December and January, collected truckloads of winter coats and blankets for Syrians forced to leave their homes. Through their Kitchens Without Borders initiative, several dozen Israeli restaurants – both Jewish- and Arab-owned – donated, over a two-week period in January, all proceeds from sales of Syrian-inspired dishes to the international Karam Foundation, which assists refugees.
Last October, hundreds of Israelis participated in a special interfaith prayer service held in Jerusalem in solidarity with the victims of the conflict; also, many synagogues have incorporated special prayers for the welfare of Israel’s neighbors to the north into their Shabbat service.
In December, Tag Meir, a nonprofit anti-racism group, organized a human chain from the U.S. Embassy to the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv to show support for the Syrians suffering from the war. Na'amat, Israel’s largest women’s organization, used its network of preschools across the country for a huge baby food-gathering drive.
In addition, the country's kibbutzim have mobilized on behalf of Syrian refugees, organizing care packages, as have townships on the northern border. To date, more than 4,400 Israelis have signed a petition calling on their government to open its border with Syria and provide refuge to victims of the conflict.
Among the most successful projects to date has been Just Beyond Our Border, which since its launch in December has raised close to $370,000 for food, medicine and equipment for Syrian children displaced from their homes – more than double its original goal. The merchandise will be delivered by Israeli Flying Aid, a humanitarian-aid organization that operates in countries with which Israel has no diplomatic relations.
On their crowd-funding page, the project's organizers – a group of concerned citizens – urge their fellow Israeli Jews to own up to their special responsibility. “We promised ourselves to be different,” they write in their fund-raising pitch. “After all, with us, it’s ingrained in the flesh – the pain, the famine, the helplessness, the apathy. ‘Never again,’ we swore. We will not allow it. We are different. Have we forgotten?”
The Syrian civil war has left more than 400,000 dead with about 12 million homeless. It would indeed seem natural for Israelis to be moved to action due to the parallels with their own history, and given the enormity of the tragedy and their physical proximity to it. But at the same time, taking such action is somewhat out of character. After all, Israelis have not been known to show much compassion for others suffering in their midst, be they Palestinians or African asylum-seekers.
“When Israelis see images of terrible things happening in Gaza, they feel in a way that they’re to blame, so it inhibits their sympathy,” explains Elizabeth Tsurkov, a researcher on Syria at The Forum for Regional Thinking, a Jerusalem-based think-tank, who is also active in international fund-raising efforts on behalf of the refugees. “And the same holds true for African asylum-seekers. With the Syrians, though, they [Israelis] don’t feel they are to blame in any way, so their feelings are not inhibited.”
The fact that Israel and Syria are still officially sworn enemies has apparently not been an obstacle either.
“Israelis today are able to differentiate between governments and simple citizens, and they don’t hold simple citizens accountable for the acts of their government,” says Hagai Katz, an expert on philanthropy from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
Besides that, he notes, “Syria may still be an enemy but it is no longer a threat to Israel.”
Meanwhile, with nine days left to go on their crowdfunding campaign, the Lesbos project coordinators are keeping their fingers crossed that they reach their goal of 200,000 shekels ($53,000). If they do, Ranin Kahil, a 21-year-old Ajyal youth movement leader from Ramle, plans to be among the first members of the group to head off to the island.
“If we can make this happen,” she says, “I will feel that I have done something very important in this world.”