By David Harris www.JPost.com

If all we knew about Israel came from the media, how would the country be portrayed? Images of war, conflict, corruption, and domestic fault lines would dominate.

And if all we knew about Israel came from international organizations, which make a habit of singling it out for vilification — especially when Israel’s very creation becomes an annual target for its enemies at the UN — what would we see? A nonstop litany of accusations of every conceivable evil known to humankind.

For many, these are the only sources of information about Israel. But anyone who’s been to Israel understands that the real place, seen up close, is quite different. That’s why there’s no substitute for a first-hand look.

Okay, Israel isn’t perfect. It has its share of problems. But what country — even among the most highly developed in the world — doesn’t have its shortcomings? And no one else faces the unique security challenges, with all the stresses and strains, which are Israel’s daily fare.

That said, Israel’s got an awful lot going for it — robust democracy, cutting-edge innovation, thriving arts, astonishing diversity, and no-holds-barred debate.

Above all, it has a zest for life.

You don’t have to believe me. Confirmation comes from an unlikely source, Sheikh Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, although he draws rather different conclusions.

He declared, “We have discovered how to hit the Jews where they are the most vulnerable. The Jews love life, so that is what we shall take away from them. We are going to win, because they love life and we love death.”

This love of life isn’t just about hedonism or narcissism, though, of course, Israelis aren’t immune.

It’s about something more. The Israeli zest for life derives from the Jewish interpretation of the meaning of life — namely, inspired by a higher authority, to be agents of change for a more humane and compassionate planet. It’s about the oft-cited Jewish notion of tikkun olam, or healing the world.

Some have argued that Israelis would be justified if they turned inward, circled the wagons, and said to hell with a world that hasn’t always treated either Jews or Israel fairly. And they argue that Israel, as the only UN member nation targeted with annihilation by both state and non-state actors, could be excused if it succumbed to total self-preoccupation in the interest of self-preservation.

Yet these views don’t prevail. There’s an irrepressible Israeli yearning to engage the world and make it better.

And herein lies a window into Israel’s soul, which may not be the stuff of media coverage or UN resolutions, but reveals an all-too-rare inner truth.

One particularly striking example. Remember the two Israeli soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, who were kidnapped across an international border by Hezbollah in 2006, triggering a war that summer? They were wounded when abducted, but very much alive. In 2008, their corpses were returned to Israel in a so-called swap.

In contrast, among those sent back to Lebanon was Samir Kuntar, a Hezbollah terrorist captured by Israel after he killed a four-year-old Israeli girl and her father in 1978. The details of the murders, according to Newsweek, were “so sickening they give pause even to some of Israel’s enemies.” These barbaric acts, for which he has never apologized, earned him a hero’s welcome upon his arrival to Beirut.

Not only was Kuntar returned alive — Israel has no capital punishment, even in such grisly cases — but he came back to Lebanon with a bachelor’s degree in hand, courtesy of the Open University in Israel!

Yes, Sheikh Nasrallah is right in one respect — Jews love life, and not just for themselves. With its humanitarian spirit and pioneering medical research and technology, Israel is a small country making an outsized difference on the world stage in advancing the quality of life.

But Nasrallah also believes that the cult of death has the upper hand. Here, he couldn’t be more wrong.

In truth, the affirmation of life, as embodied by Israel, will always triumph over an ideology grounded in murder and mayhem.

Consider some striking examples:
Wherever disaster strikes in the world, a group called Israeli Flying Aid is ready to respond. Made up of hundreds of volunteers who donate their time, it goes at a moment’s notice to places near and far that have been struck by earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones, floods, and political violence. The goal is to distribute food and medicine, provide first-aid assistance, and offer other survival help.

These volunteers are active in countries that have ties with Israel — and those that don’t. Often, their work is below the radar because countries accept their help, knowing the level of experience and professionalism, but, sadly, don’t want it known that it’s being provided by Israelis. But that public rejection has never been a deal-breaker for the group because lives hang in the balance. And sometimes they risk their own well-being to provide relief without government approval.

Or take Save A Child’s Heart, another completely volunteer effort. Based at the Wolfson Medical Center, near Tel Aviv, a team of dozens of top-flight medical personnel treat children with major cardiac problems from around the world, including the West Bank and Arab countries, and also train personnel in other lands to perform surgery.

Or consider Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, which I had occasion to visit recently. Stand in the entrance or walk its corridors. From secular Jews to devout Muslims, all patients receive outstanding care. And if you probe, you’ll discover that some of those patients are from countries that not only have no ties to Israel, but even regularly accuse the Jewish state of infecting Arabs with deadly viruses. Yet their citizens find round-about ways to reach Israel and benefit from its lifesaving health care.

Which brings us to the 13-year-old boy whose parents brought him to Israel after doctors in Iran, their native land, and Turkey were unable to treat his life-threatening brain tumor. Their names haven’t been revealed for fear of retribution once they return to Iran, a country that calls for a world without Israel. But there they were at Sheba Hospital in Tel Hashomer counting on quality care to save a life — and getting it.

Or take the aftermath of a recent terrorist attack in Jerusalem, where the wounded Israeli was transported to the same hospital as his Palestinian assailant, who was shot by police, in an effort to save both their lives.

Visit Hebrew University, where the thirty-fourth class of students studying for a master’s degree in public health was recently welcomed.

The overwhelming majority of the students, many already physicians or health-care professionals, come from developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. They receive full stipends from Jewish foundations to get their degrees. When they complete the program, they are far better equipped to improve public health and, yes, save lives.

And at this moment, courtesy of Israel, a large group of African physicians is in the country for an annual program of advance training. They come from across the continent, including Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda, and they’re spending several months acquiring new medical skills, once again, to save lives.

Last month, a group of twenty-five students from two Israeli medical schools, Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion universities, traveled for two weeks at their own expense to Ethiopia to volunteer in health agencies. Their goal, driven purely by idealism, was to help with de-worming efforts, especially in HIV/AIDS patients.

And one last particularly striking example. Remember the two Israeli soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, who were kidnapped across an international border by Hezbollah in 2006, triggering a war that summer? They were wounded when abducted, but very much alive. Earlier this year, their corpses were returned to Israel in a so-called swap.

In contrast, among those sent back to Lebanon was Samir Kuntar, a Hezbollah terrorist captured by Israel after he killed a four-year-old Israeli girl and her father in 1978. The details of the murders, according to Newsweek, were “so sickening they give pause even to some of Israel’s enemies.” These barbaric acts, for which he has never apologized, earned him a hero’s welcome upon his arrival to Beirut.

Not only was Kuntar returned alive — Israel, after all, has no capital punishment, even in such grisly cases — but he came back to Lebanon with a bachelor’s degree in hand, courtesy of the Open University in Israel!

Yes, Sheikh Nasrallah is right in one respect — Jews love life, and not just for themselves. With its humanitarian spirit and pioneering medical research and technology, Israel is a small country making an outsized difference on the world stage in advancing the quality of life.

But Nasrallah also believes that the cult of death has the upper hand. Here, he couldn’t be more wrong.

In truth, the affirmation of life, as embodied by Israel, will always triumph over an ideology grounded in murder and mayhem.


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