The Arab Fisherman who saved my sister

In the early 1960s when my sister Ariela was 16, she and her friend decided to take a swim from the beach in Tel Aviv to one of the ships anchored offshore. In order to understand such an ill-advised decision, one would need to know the state of affairs in Israel at the beginning of the ’60s. In those days a trip abroad was almost unheard of for the common Israeli. People yearned to travel and enjoy the comforts—as we perceived them—that many European and American countries afforded their citizens. Luxury items, automobiles, restaurants and just the everyday feel of modern life fascinated us. In those days Israel was a much simpler place, and the thought of traveling abroad ignited the imagination.

This was the background upon which my sister and her friend decided to “travel abroad” by swimming to the foreign ship that was moored within sight. As teenagers, they did not really plan their “trip.” They made the assumption that the ship was close enough for them to reach. They did not contemplate any difficulties they might encounter on reaching the ship, nor whether it would be possible to board it.

With great hopes and aspirations, they started their swim in the salty Mediterranean. Within a few hours my sister’s girlfriend gave up and went back. My sister, on the other hand, felt it would be easier to continue all the way to the ship than to swim back to the beach.

My sister never made it to the ship. Her girlfriend was able to swim all the way to shore, and when it started to get dark she became worried and notified the authorities. In the meantime, my sister, alone in the water, was thirsty and hungry and losing her strength. She was lucky to find a floating log to hold onto. She saw the sparkling lights of Tel Aviv in the far distance and knew it would be impossible for her to swim back. As it got darker, my sister rapidly became weaker. She noticed a small, motorized fishing boat within shouting distance and screamed for help, but the men on the boat were not able to hear her due to the sound of its engine.

Luckily, the fishing boat was towing many smaller boats, and a young man seated in the last boat heard her screams. He somehow communicated with the main boat, which started circling until the fishermen found my sister holding onto the log and pulled her into the boat. Her entire body was shaking. She collapsed to the floor of the boat as soon as they dragged her from the water. They covered her with towels and blankets, gave her food and water and took her straight to the small port of Tel Aviv, where the police were already waiting.

It turned out that the fisherman were all Israeli Arabs from the city of Acko in northern Israel. Those fisherman knew my sister was Jewish. She was young, attractive, completely at their mercy—and they treated her as one of their own. They saved my sister’s life and saved our family from a horrific tragedy that undoubtedly would have remained with my parents and our five other siblings forever.

Several weeks later my sister took me along with her to the city of Acko to thank the owner of the boat and deliver a box of chocolates as a token of her appreciation. Being only 10 years old, I did not appreciate the magnitude of the tragedy that had been averted; I was simply excited to search for the right home with my sister. I recall walking on what appeared to be rooftops from one home to another asking the Arab neighbors for directions to the home of the fisherman who had saved her life. They were all familiar with him, and it was a short search.

It was an emotional moment when we met him and his father, whom I remember vividly. The older man had a round, pleasant face and was warm and friendly to us. We sat on the floor together, and the fisherman’s dad spoke softly. All I remember of his message is that it was positive and spiritually uplifting. He probably spoke about cooperation and peaceful coexistence. At that age, I was not fully aware of the problem between Arabs and Jews. I felt a strong emotional connection with the father and with his son, who had saved my sister’s life.

After a short visit at the home, the fisherman took my sister and me to a restaurant in Acko. For the first time in my life, I walked in a strange environment among people who were not Jewish and felt completely safe and at peace.

The experience remains embedded in me, and I repeat this story on a regular basis. Often, other Israelis reply with stories of similar experiences. I have learned that stories of Arabs saving Jews and Jews saving Arabs are common, not only in Israel but throughout the entire Arab world.





About the Author
Josef Avesar is founder of the Israeli Palestinian Confederation, which advocates for a mutual third government for Israelis and Palestinians. An American-Israeli of Iraqi background, he practices law in the U.S., but travels frequently to Israel and Palestine.