On a chilly day in the middle of February, seven young Syrian men appeared near the border fence separating the Syrian and Israeli sides of the wind-swept Golan Heights. Suffering from gunshot wounds, their bodies riddled with shrapnel, they called out to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers guarding their side of the fence and asked for permission to draw near. When the IDF soldiers saw the Syrians’ condition, they immediately permitted them entry, provided them with first aid, and transported them in military ambulances to Ziv Hospital in the northern Israeli town of Safed for further treatment.
“This is not the first time in the hospital’s history that we have received wounded individuals from the other side of the border,” hospital director Dr. Oscar Embon later said. “It is always a humanitarian activity and we concentrate on the wounded as we would on any other wounded person, focusing solely on the medical issue without going into other matters. We treat every wounded person as he is, and it does not matter where the person comes from.”
A Wellspring of Innovation
Much has been written about Israel’s proud status as the Start-up Nation, as Dan Senor and Saul Singer put it so aptly in their book. With more companies on the NASDAQ than Europe, China, and Japan combined, and more high-tech start-ups per capita than any other nation, Israel is a veritable wellspring of innovation. Google, Microsoft, and Intel have long had a robust presence in Israel; Apple is reportedly planning to open a third R&D center in the country. Advances in a vast range of fields—from medicine to agriculture, and from alternative energy to nanotechnology—have emerged from this tiny strip of the Mediterranean coast.
But not as much is known about Israel’s commitment to humanitarianism and international development, a principle that has accompanied the country throughout its existence and is enshrined in a document no less essential than its 1948 Declaration of Independence.
Commitment to Humanitarianism
“We extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness,” the Declaration reads, “and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.”
This vision of international cooperation had, in fact, been laid out 52 years earlier, in the foundational text of the modern Zionist movement. In closing his seminal book, Der Judenstaat (The State of the Jews), in 1896, Theodor Herzl wrote the following: “Whatever we attempt [in the state of the Jews] for our own benefit will redound mightily and beneficially to the good of all mankind.”
It may be argued that Israel’s commitment to humanitarianism is rooted even deeper, in what the Declaration of Independence calls “the eternal Book of Books.” The traditional Jewish commitment to tikkun olam (“Repairing the World”) has long served as an inspiration for social action, from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s participation in the 1965 Selma Civil Rights March alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to more recent activism aimed at bringing an end to the genocide in Darfur. It would seem only natural that the reconstituted Jewish State would seek to embody such a cardinal tenet of the Jewish ethical code.
Dr. Arye Oded, a former Israeli ambassador to several African countries, traces the genesis of Israel’s overseas development activities to a diplomat named David Hacohen. Writing in Jewish Political Studies Review, Oded notes that Hacohen, serving as Israel’s first ambassador to Burma in 1953, arranged for Israeli experts in a variety of fields to visit the Southeast Asian country and for their Burmese counterparts to travel to Israel for training. “Hacohen’s work became a model for Israeli aid,” Oded writes.
Later, Elyashiv Ben-Horin, a foreign ministry official, formally proposed the establishment of “a fund to provide technical assistance to Asian and African countries. Professionally speaking, our… experience can easily compete with [that of] other countries.” Teddy Kollek, then Director General of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s office and later mayor of Jerusalem, was also active in promoting aid programs for developing countries.
It is important to note that Israel, a nascent country less than a decade, was at the time contending with immense challenges, including a wave of immigration that had more than doubled the country’s population, high unemployment, an austerity regime, and the constant threat of armed conflict with its neighbors. The country was still engaged in the process of building its own national institutions—Israel’s first currency, the lira, only went into circulation in 1952 and the Bank of Israel, the Central Bank, was founded in 1954—and tens of thousands of immigrants still lived in tent cities known as Ma’abarot.
The Legacy of International Development
Yet the commitment to international development ran deep among the country’s early leaders. As Dr. Aliza Belman-Inbal, a former MASHAV official who is currently a fellow at Tel-Aviv University, and Shachar Zahavi, director of the humanitarian nonprofit IsraAID, wrote in a 2009 report on Israel’s development activities: “As Zionists, they aspired to establish Israel as a model amongst emerging states, leading the way forward for others to develop as Israel had. This deep sense of mission informed the commitment to development, in post-colonial Africa and elsewhere, of former Prime Ministers David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir.”
As it happened, Meir—then Israel’s foreign minister—accepted Ben-Horin’s recommendation and in 1957 MASHAV (a Hebrew acronym for “The Center for International Cooperation and Aid,” but more commonly translated as “The Agency for International Development Cooperation”) was born.
During its first decade, MASHAV trained more than 10,000 individuals from more than 90 countries and dispatched more than 4,000 Israeli experts across the globe. A 1960 MASHAV-sponsored conference on “the advancement of new states” drew 120 delegates from 40 countries, including President Joseph Kasa-Vubu of the Republic of the Congo, who arrived in Israel a mere five days after his own country was formed. A 1962 article about MASHAV in the British newspaper, The Guardian, noted: “Israel’s policy toward Sub-Saharan Africa should perhaps be seen in wider terms, and should be recognized to be not just part of its defense line against the Arab world, but also of a genuine desire to help. Africans respond because they recognize this.”
Consider the following statement by Belman-Inbal and Zahavi: “During the 1960s and 1970s, when Israel was itself still a developing country, it had a bilateral aid program comparable, relative to the size of its economy, to that of the major, developed-country donors of the time.” By the late 1960s and early 1970s, MASHAV’s international development activities were among the most extensive of national aid agencies. Belman-Inbal and Zahavi note that a 1975 report by the UN Development Program named Israel as the largest single contributor of expertise per capita of any nation in the world.
Since then, MASHAV’s activities have only grown. In the fifty-five years since its establishment, the center has undertaken training and development projects in more than 130 countries. Some 270,000 individuals have participated in MASHAV courses, both in Israel and abroad. Today, MASHAV’s activities focus on the mitigation of poverty, provision of food security, empowerment of women, and enhancement of basic health and education.
“MASHAV’s philosophy is to encourage professionals from the developing world to find their own solutions to development issues and to adapt them to the reality of their countries’ specific needs and potential,” Ambassador Daniel Carmon, MASHAV’s current director, said in 2012. “Israel, through MASHAV, is sharing its know-how in agriculture, health, energy, education, the empowerment of women, and so many other fields where the Israeli experience can make a difference.”
But while Israel’s aid activities in the realms of food security and agricultural innovation have improved countless lives over time, the country’s lifesaving expertise is more immediately sought in times of crisis. Having endured seven wars and thousands of terror attacks over the course of its sixty-five-years, Israel has developed emergency know-how and crisis protocols that are readily shared in times of need.
According to the Israel Defense Forces, no fewer than sixteen IDF emergency aid missions have been dispatched across the globe over the past twenty-eight years. From Mexico to Kenya and from Turkey to Japan, thousands of people have been provided with medical care, and hundreds have been saved from certain death.
When a devastating earthquake struck Haiti on January 12, 2010, a 220-person IDF aid mission was one of the first dispatched to the island nation. Upon the delegation’s arrival, it split into two teams: the first, comprised of search and rescue specialists, immediately went to work sifting through the rubble in search of survivors; the second, a medical delegation, set up a field hospital in a Port-au-Prince soccer stadium.
During the IDF mission’s time in Haiti, the medical team treated 1,100 patients, performed more than 300 lifesaving surgeries, and delivered 16 babies—one of whom, a little girl, was named Israel by her grateful
Observers marveled at what Israel was able to achieve. “I’m just amazed. I’m just amazed at what’s here,” said CNN medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen as she walked past a large Star of David placed on the soccer field in a segment that aired in the earthquake’s aftermath. “This is—this is like another world compared to the other hospital.” “One unit has become legendary: the Israeli medical unit,” said ABC’s Diane Sawyer, in a segment featuring the network’s medical editor, Dr. Richard Besser. “The Israelis arrived here Friday night; by Saturday morning they had set up a field hospital,” Besser said. “As you walk through this campus, it has military precision. You see a pediatric ward, you see a maternity ward, a newborn intensive care unit.”
Israeli nonprofit organizations remain in Haiti, continuing humanitarian work to this day in cooperation with MASHAV.
In August 2012, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit published an interview with Lt. Col. A., commander of the Israel Air Force squadron responsible for flying the aid missions around the world. He said:
As I see it, [the aid missions are] part of the Jewish identity that obliges each and every one of us to aid people in time of need, anywhere in the world. I have no doubt that whenever and wherever help will be needed, we will arrive. As an Israeli citizen and an IDF soldier, I see myself obligated to every person in need—whether he’s Israeli or not. Our commitment to people in need is not a national one, but a universal one.
Closer to home, Israel has often extended humanitarian assistance to its neighbors, despite ongoing tensions.
According to the Office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Defense Ministry department responsible for implementing government policy vis-à-vis the West Bank and Gaza Strip, 210,469 Palestinians in need of medical care were admitted into Israel to receive treatment in Israeli hospitals in 2012. A report by the World Health Organization found that 91.5% of applications to enter Israel for medical purposes were approved in 2012, while a further 7.2% were awaiting approval, pending security clearance.
Israeli nongovernmental organizations play an important role as well. One NGO, Save a Child’s Heart (SACH), works with Israeli government agencies and medical centers to provide lifesaving medical treatment to children from 44 developing countries, including some that do not maintain diplomatic relations with Israel. Approximately half of the 3,000 children treated through the program have been Palestinians, 70% of whom have come from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Though Iraq has been at a state of war with Israel since 1948, dozens of Iraqi children have received medical care in the Jewish state. SACH is the largest organization of its kind in the world and all medical staff involved in the program work voluntarily.
These activities continue even during hostilities. Writing in The Jewish Week one week after the November 2012 clashes between Hamas and Israel, Lt. Nira Lee described her work as a COGAT liaison officer on the Gaza-Israel border:
Had you told me four years ago that there were IDF officers who stayed up all night under a hail of rockets, brainstorming ways to import medical supplies and food to the people of Gaza, I am not sure I would have believed you. But I can tell you it is true because I did it every night.
What amazed me the most was the singular sense of purpose that drove everyone from the base commander to the lowest ranking soldier. We were all focused completely on our mission: to help our forces accomplish their goals without causing unnecessary harm to civilian lives or infrastructure. Maybe stories such as these make for less exciting headlines, but if they received more attention there would perhaps be more moral clarity, and thus more peace in the Middle East.
A Light Among Nations
The seven Syrian men who staggered toward their country’s border with Israel in February knew that their supposed enemy to the southwest would come to their aid when they needed it most. Indeed, Israel’s commitment to helping those in need is embedded in the country’s national DNA. It has manifested itself throughout Israel’s existence and continues to do so in a myriad of ways, both close to home and at the furthest reaches of the globe.
Perhaps, as Lt. Lee notes, if Israel’s national dedication to tikkun olam were better known among both its friends and its foes, we might be one step further toward repairing our fractured world.
Avi Mayer is the Director of New Media at The Jewish Agency for Israel, the largest Jewish nonprofit organization in the world. He tweets at @avimayer.