There Is No Ulterior Motive Behind Organ Donations by Religous Israelis

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An organ transplant at a hospital in Israel.

In her recent opinion piece, Tal Niv argues that the motivation for our kidney donations - and for those of the religious community in general - is a desire to gain moral superiority. In a different essay in Haaretz, the practice was linked to a broader move by the religious Zionist movement to command the ship of state. At first I thought it best not to respond, because the essay refers to me directly. But after the issue sparked a wider debate, I decided to allow myself to write a few more principled words.

That said, I will begin with something simple and personal, and then expand on this: My motivation, and that of my brother Avishai, for donating a kidney was the simple understanding that there was a sick person, struggling and undergoing dialysis treatments, whose life is like no life at all and is in danger, and I can help save him. Not out of superiority, not taking control and not condescension, only a privilege that was given to me. Sometimes the truth is simple.

To my mind, it also has to do with the way one chooses to look at life: through a prism of cynicism and suspicion, always searching for hidden motives and interests, or a prism that looks for the good in people, that believes people and believes in them, and that recognizes that usually, what you see is what there is.

For example, when you see a young man carrying the shopping bags of an older women leaving a market, you simply see a good deed, not some clever trick. And if by chance the young man is wearing a kippa, you don’t see it as an attempt to take control of the state.

Just as the young man helping the older woman isn’t doing it to feel morally superior, so too most charitable actions are not done for that perhaps. Sometimes a good deed is just a good deed.

“Religious Zionist society is taking another step in a dangerous direction in which self-sacrifice that goes as far as removing an organ is an act signifying total devotion. And that in turn signifies moral superiority,” Niv writes.

For a moment one might think someone forced me to lie on an operating table in some dark place and removed one of my organs, and not that I chose to have this operation, in a hospital with excellent doctors, only after innumerable tests, and to donate a kidney entirely of my own free will.

More important, my brother and I feel no moral superiority toward anyone. Not, for example, toward our eight siblings. I don’t feel that they – educators, speech pathologists, nurses and a social worker – are less moral than I. I don’t walk around with a morality meter or a donation yardstick. Our wonderful parents simply taught us that giving is a great virtue, and that everyone should give according to their abilities and their desires. Without making comparisons, without judgment and certainly without condescending to others.

Perhaps it is also worth mentioning that I did not donate a kidney as a representative of religious Zionism, although I am proud of my religious Zionist education. It wasn’t part of some covert scheme to seize the helm of the state, and certainly wasn’t out of some need for thrills and glory like those “young people [who] sneak[ed] across the border to Petra, risking their lives and then returning in all their glory,” as Niv wrote. Come on, what does risking your life stupidly for a momentary thrill have to do with undergoing surgery in order to save someone’s life? Young people lost their lives needlessly trying to get to Petra. Here, lives were saved.

The claim that organ donation has become fashionable in the religious community is questionable at best. I doubt that fashion is a relevant definition of the decision to undergo a complex operation with a long recovery period, but even if it is a growing and admired practice, what’s so bad about that? Happy is the community that admires its members for donating a kidney or anything else. Happy is the State of Israel, the world leader in living-donor organ transplants. How beautiful it is that in Israel people pitch in to help one another, even people they don’t know.

Beyond its cynical and suspicious tone, there is also ignorance in the essay. “Religious people oppose organ donations from the dead,” Niv asserts. Just like that, without an ounce of qualification. [The English translation of the op-ed was amended to “[S]ome Jewish religious authorities and religiously observant individuals ...”] I, my brother and many other religious Jews failed to understand how that fit in with the Adi organ-donor card in our wallets. So much generalization, ignorance and stereotyping in a single sentence.

Before concluding, a few words about my brother as a parable. Avishai served as an officer in the Israel Defenses Forces for about 20 years in classified and significant positions. He chose to live in Beit Shemesh, he is raising six children, he does volunteer work at a charity and he also chose to donate a kidney two weeks ago to a stranger. By the way, at first he didn’t want the donation made public, but when he realized it could lead to additional donors – that is, to save additional lives – he agreed.

If people such as Avishai and over 1,000 other donors bother anyone, I think it’s those who are bothered who have a problem. If the fact that many Israelis have a strong element of generosity and compassion frightens and threatens anyone, perhaps that person should ask themselves why it is so frightening.

The fact that the writer finds a need to warn against a manifestation of social solidarity and lifesaving and sees in it “extremist potential” might actually prove that she represents a particularly extreme outlook.

But Niv’s words and mine ultimately float in the air. Only deeds remain; more important are Yair, Jacky and the more than 1,000 other Israelis who were given new lives.

It turns out that sometimes it’s not a matter of moral superiority or grabbing the reins of power, only a humble attempt to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”

The writer is culture and sports minister of Israel.

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