Richard Friedman
Jewish Federation director, Journalist

Medical care for Syrians reminder of “Good Fence”

In 1976, almost 40 years ago, I stood on the border between Israel and Lebanon. With me were about 30 other then-young adults, almost all from Birmingham, Alabama.

We were in Israel on a Birmingham Jewish Federation Young Leadership trip and, at the time, I was a reporter for the Birmingham News, Alabama’s largest newspaper. What we were witnessing was unprecedented and historic, something I would write about in a series of stories about the trip that I did for the Birmingham News upon my return.

Our group was standing at what had come to be known as “The Good Fence.” The phrase referred to an opening that Israel had created, literally and figuratively, between Israelis and Arabs in Southern Lebanon whose lives had been disrupted by a brutal civil war.

The Israelis, through a border opening, were providing humanitarian aid — food, water, medical supplies and medical care, among other things  — to Lebanese civilians to help sustain them. This was a groundbreaking initiative by the Israelis who had been shunned by the surrounding Arab countries ever since Israel’s rebirth as a modern nation 28 years earlier in 1948.

The headline on my Birmingham News story would read, “Is ‘Good Fence’ Policy a Harbinger of Peace?” We on the trip, along with the Israelis and Israel’s  friends abroad, were sure hoping so. Unfortunately, the Iranian-backed terror group Hezbollah now rules southern Lebanon, and the hopefulness created by the Good Fence, which our group could see on the faces of both Israelis and Lebanese that day, has long vanished.

What got me thinking about all this was a recent New York Times story on the assistance Israel has been providing to Syrians injured in their country’s civil war. Wounded Syrians have been quietly coming into Israel and, as the article notes, been receiving free medical care. The examples contained in reporter Isabel Kershner’s story reflect the same kind of humane outreach by Israelis and gratitude from Arabs that we saw at the Good Fence in 1976.

The Times headline could have just as easily been the headline on the Birmingham News story I wrote in 1976, substituting the word Lebanese for Syrian. The Times headline read, “Despite Decades of Enmity, Israel Quietly Aids Syrian Civilians.” One of the Syrians the story quotes is a wounded mother of six, who had been at an Israeli hospital in Nahariya with two wounded daughters for nearly six weeks. She admits, “I grew up hearing that Israel was an enemy country and that if you met an Israeli he would kill you.”

The circumstances in the Middle East, in both Lebanon and Syria and other Arab countries, have changed dramatically since 1976. What hasn’t changed is Israel’s remarkable willingness to extend a hand to Arabs in need, even those who live in countries that refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist.

Israel is an extraordinary country. Jews and others who care about human rights and human dignity should be deeply proud of the Jewish state, even with its complexities, dilemmas and imperfections.

Despite being shunned by Syria, which has waged war intermittently against Israel since 1948, Israelis are extending an outstretched hand to Syrians in need, wanting to help them. It is a reminder of what our Birmingham group saw at the Good Fence nearly 40 years ago as Israel was assisting Lebanese civilians.

The Israeli guide who accompanied our Birmingham group in 1976 said something powerful at the Good Fence that day, which I quoted in my Birmingham News story: “I believe there is a very good future when someone can cross the border between two enemy countries and say ‘You are good’ and ‘God bless you for what you are doing.'”

May that future come soon.

About the Author
Richard Friedman is Executive Director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation in Alabama. He also is a well-known Alabama journalist.
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