Israel’s Legacy of Humanitarianism

Despite the rocky relationship between Israel and Syria, Israel is committed to helping Syria in its humanitarian crisis, treating refugees and sending supplies to communities in the war torn nation. The two countries have no diplomatic relations, but Israel still operates an extensive humanitarian effort in Syria nearly every day.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) recently revealed the scope of its humanitarian project in Syria, named Operation Good Neighbor. Since 2013, Israel has quietly treated around 3,000 wounded Syrian refugees in their hospitals, and the government is preparing to treat many more Syrians in wake of more chemical attacks. Furthermore, in the last year, the IDF has secretly helped 200,000 Syrians living in villages controlled by rebel groups by transporting 360 tons of food, 77 tons of clothing, and many generators, in addition to antibiotics, construction materials, and baby formula.

Though these numbers are just a fraction of the number of displaced people in Syria, the efforts are remarkable because of Israel’s unique relationship with Syria. Syria has never recognized Israel as a country, yet Israel is treating its people. Israel and Syria have technically been at war with each other since Israel’s founding in 1948—mainly because Syria calls for the destruction of a Jewish state and has rejected Israeli peace offers of returning the Golan Heights to Syria—but Israel is still looking for ways to help with the country’s humanitarian crisis.

Israel’s extraordinary humanitarian efforts are nothing new. In 1958, only a decade after its founding, Israel created its official humanitarian agenda after Foreign Minister (and later, Prime Minister) Golda Meir’s first visit to Africa. Since then, Israel has assisted over 140 other countries with humanitarian efforts. Israel was first to set up emergency hospitals in Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake and quickly sent water-purification experts to Japan after the March 2011 tsunami. In 2007, Israel also donated $5 million in aid to refugees from the Darfur Genocide, becoming one of the top 10 donors in the world. Vietnamese refugees fleeing communist takeover between 1977 and 1979 found home in Israel, where they were granted citizenship and government-subsidized apartments. Israel has also helped countless countries develop desalination and sustainable water technologies, some of which do not even recognize Israel as a state. But why has Israel been so quick to help other countries in need?

One aspect may be the country’s experience with terrorism and war. Since the country is a world leader in dealing with emergency relief and mass casualty situations, it may feel obliged to use its expertise in these situations to help other nations.

Perhaps it is also because the Jewish people feel an inherent connection with refugees and those suffering through genocide and traumatic experiences. Jews were stateless for 2000 years, and until the 1800s, the vast majority of Jews did not have citizenship or basic rights where they lived. Israel was built by refugees. In 1948, at its founding, the country had 802,000 people but accepted around 700,000 Holocaust refugees and around 850,000 Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa in the next decade. This would be the equivalent of the US, which has a population of 323 million people, accepting around 620 million refugees today. Many Holocaust survivors, until Israel’s founding, were living in European displacement camps with no home or belongings. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, most Arab countries kicked Jews out of their homes, robbed them of their belongings, and forced them to leave places where their families had lived for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years. Israel, again, accepted nearly one million Jewish refugees from the former USSR in the 1990s— people who were denied the right to practice their religion for decades.

As a country built of refugees that has experienced many mass casualty situations in its short history, Israel feels an obligation to assist other countries around the world, even countries such as Syria, which call for Israel’s destruction. Unfortunately, the US—a country similarly built by immigrants, but with 313 million more people—does not do its part in assisting refugees. Some Americans view Syrian refugees as a threat to American national security. Yet Syria poses a significantly larger threat to Israel than the United States, and Israel still sees Syrian refugees and displaced civilians as people desperate for food and safety rather than as a threat. To Americans who support President Trump’s indefinite ban on Syrian refugees: look to Israel as an example of a country that mitigates the risks of aiding refugees instead of outright denying the help. With the largest economy in the world, America has so much potential to ease the Syrian refugee crisis. Hopefully, Israel can serve as an example to the American government on how to maintain a commitment to humanitarian efforts in Syria.

This article was originally published in the Washington University Political Review.

About the Author
Nate Turk is a junior at Washington University in St. Louis, majoring in Marketing and Entrepreneurship and minoring in Near Eastern Studies.
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