In Israel, Disaster-Response Group Enlists Israeli Arab Volunteers
By: Goel Beno Translated from Yedioth Ahronoth (Israel).
There are collaborative ventures, amazing and moving initiatives, that we would prefer never to have a need for. A venture involving good intentions and important objectives, even the bottom line — ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs working together — truly extraordinary. Yet this time, it seems that both sides would prefer to remain jobless. That’s the way it is with ZAKA, the people in charge of collecting body parts after terrorist attacks [as well as after accidents and other tragedies]. Now the ultra-Orthodox organization has a new branch in a somewhat unusual location: in [the Arab town] Kfar Rameh, a branch made up entirely of minority-group volunteers. Yes, ultra-Orthodox and Muslim volunteers collaborate in one of the most sensitive spheres possible.
About This Article
Zaka, the Orthodox Jewish volunteer organization responsible for (among other things) gathering body parts at disaster scenes to enable proper burial, opens its first branch in the Arab sector. Goel Beno reports on an instance of unusual cooperation.Publisher: Yedioth Ahronoth (Israel)
Connected to life
Author: Goel Beno
First Published: October 24, 2012
Posted on: October 27 2012
Translated by: Sandy Bloom
Categories : Israel
It all began when a Bedouin family in the south of the country experienced a calamity in their home, then attacked the ZAKA team that arrived; the volunteers were forced to leave without doing their job. “They didn’t understand why we were there and viewed us as members of the establishment,” says Motti Bukchin, ZAKA’s project coordinator. “If even one of the volunteers had been able to communicate in their language, the outcome would have been totally different. Therefore we decided to train 12 volunteers from one of the Bedouin tribes, to give assistance when needed.”
Religious figure Akel al-Atrash agreed to recruit volunteers, and became one of them himself. “The objective is clear, pure and innocent — on behalf of the holiness of the dead. It's about time that more and more minority members assume responsibility and serve as goodwill ambassadors,” Atrash says. “You need a lot of strength and a lot of faith. Unfortunately, where there’s life there is also death and someone has to do the work. I only wish that we will never be needed.”
By next week [Oct. 28-Nov. 2] ZAKA will begin training 11 volunteers; these volunteers were meticulously selected as being able to cope with the psychologically difficult missions awaiting them. These tasks involve scenarios such as horrific road accidents, suicides, terrorist attacks, attempts to locate missing bodies, fires, concealed bones that are uncovered randomly. This is the new world that awaits the new ZAKA members.
The great fear is being attacked
“The importance of having minority-member volunteers in the [crime-accident] scenes who can communicate in the same language cannot be overstated,” explains Nasser Suwaad, married and father of five from Kfar Baana who had volunteered for MDA [the Israeli “Red Cross”] for four years and now has joined ZAKA. “Minority members don’t know anything about ZAKA and they view these ultra-Orthodox fellows as if they came from Mars. A minority-member volunteer is acquainted with [local] psychological sensitivities and customs, and knows how to act in all kinds of cases so as not to arouse antagonism.”
Yisrael Lichtenstein, who also volunteers for the ultra-Orthodox Ichud Hatzalah [ambulance corps in addition to ZAKA], is closely acquainted with the problematic situations that Suwaad refers to. “When I enter an Arab village I definitely am concerned, especially when I come at difficult moments when people’s emotions are working overtime and their brains have not yet kicked in,” he says. “The great fear is of being attacked, myself and my buddies, because relatives usually lose their sense of time and complain about ostensible lateness on our parts. We have been attacked more than once by furious family members and were forced to receive police assistance to protect us while we worked. It is terrifying. There is no doubt that if minority members will join us in such dangerous places, the results will be different. The language, the mentality, the expression of emotion — all these would definitely soften the blow.”
Will it also help you?
“There is no doubt that by working with Arab volunteers, we will also acquire at least a degree of sensitivity and the way to approach a family that has just suffered a fatal blow. Maybe we’ll also learn Arabic, so that our access to this population will be easier. During times of hardship or war, rapprochement between the religions will lessen the rage. Maybe they will view us as human beings like them. Not just black hats and tzizit [ritual fringes worn by Orthodox Jewish men] and people who don’t contribute anything to the country, but people constituting an integral part of Israel. Perhaps the minorities will encourage others to contribute to the country through ZAKA. This is their opportunity.”
The organization’s numerous volunteers include doctors, teachers, heads of municipalities and more. When the moment of truth arrives, they all leave everything and rush to the site. Hanna Touma, resident of Rameh, is among the new volunteers that joined the organization. “As a MDA volunteer, I saw that when I spoke the same language as the family members, it changed everything,” he says. “I have no doubt that the presence of someone like me, and others from minority groups who will join the organization, will make the work easier. It is a matter of saving lives.”
Minister of the Development of the Negev and the Galilee Silvan Shalom who had supported the ZAKA-minority group initiative from the beginning, also came to the ceremonial inauguration of the new branch. Also present was his deputy Ayoob Kara, as well as Yehuda Meshi Zahav, head of ZAKA. “The picture of ultra-Orthodox Jews with payot [side-locks] next to priests, Imams, Circassians, Christians, Druze and Muslims under one roof, is a sight that borders on science fiction,” says Shalom. “This is proof that differences between nations and ethnic groups can be bridged. I have no doubt that the project will serve as a model for similar projects in other regions.”
Minister Shalom doesn't exclude the possibility that volunteering in ZAKA may lead to national service among minorities. “Peace begins inside us,” concludes Meshi Zahav. “The more joint activity there is between secular and religious Jews and between Jews and Arabs, the more we will succeed in bridging the controversies and rivalries that are eating us up inside. This collaboration will allow the ultra-Orthodox to more easily enter disaster sites in the Arab sector, and minority-group members will be able to integrate the volunteer deployments in the Jewish communities.”
Circassian Shogen Pashmaf, minority group coordinator in the Galilee Development Authority and one of the initiators of the project, said that the Galilee Development Authority allotted 350 thousand shekels [$91 thousand] to the enterprise, in addition to 400 thousand shekels [$104 thousand] allotted by ZAKA. “We appealed to the head of the [local] council in Kfar Rameh, Shuki Latif, and asked for a building. He immediately found one for us. We began to recruit volunteers through the heads of the local authorities, and responsiveness is increasing all the time. We all live in the same region, everyone takes care of everyone else, we are all human beings committed to honoring the dead and there is no reason that minorities should not take part in dealing with victims of tragedies.” Latif added, “Death does not discriminate between Druze, Christians, Muslims or Jews. This is holy work.”
From the power of faith
ZAKA currently has 1,500 volunteers and an additional 3,000 that it can call up during emergencies. Some volunteers arrive in their private cars, some on motor scooters; four of these scooters have already been acquired for the minority volunteers. As part of their training, the new volunteers learn from members of the Criminal Identification Department how to behave upon reaching the crime/accident scene, what they are allowed to touch and what not, what items may be moved and how to document the findings and their positions. Chairman of ZAKA’s rabbinic committee Rabbi Yaakov Roje, will explain to minorities the basics of the Jewish halacha [religious law] concerning respect for the dead, alongside representatives of other religions. Afterwards they do a practical exercise, at the end of which they undergo a fire-test in the field. There the ZAKA people will test whether the volunteer can succeed in carrying out his work when faced with difficult sights.
In the building allocated to the volunteers, personal files have already been arranged for each volunteer; in each file is a professional treatment kit. The shelves are stocked with rolls of bags for collecting bodies, disposable wipes for gathering and absorbing blood, as well as disposable smocks, overshoes, gloves, and even a special cream to smear under one’s nose in order to neutralize terrible smells.
“Bullets have no address, neither do rockets, and certainly not road accidents,” says Bukchin to the group. “We wanted that members of the ethnic groups here should also take part in our work, to honor each deceased person according to his customs and religion. One needs a lot of drive and high emotional stamina. Volunteers come from the power of faith, to work in a place from which they receive no money. This is the most inhumane work for a human being. We prefer people with families who can receive support at home, or those who have already been exposed to harsh sights.”
Here and there, the volunteers exchange shocking stories from past experiences or especially macabre jokes that cannot be committed to paper. “Sometimes we encounter double tragedies, for example a volunteer of ours who committed suicide because he was suspected of criminal acts. When you reach the scene, it is terrible,” says Lichtenstein. “In another case, a volunteer’s son committed suicide. The father was on his way to the scene without knowing it was his son and we notified him not to go there. In an accident in my own city, I reached the scene and found a young female student wearing a blouse with the symbol of the school which my children attend, and in which my wife teaches too.”
The Arab volunteers listen and pray in their hearts that they will not be forced to treat severe cases such as these. But deep inside, they already understand that they won’t have a choice. From now on, death will become an inextricable part of their lives.
What did they use to say: “'Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.” – Norman Cousins
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