Betsalel Steinhart
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‘Sir? Please, can you report this to the army?’

The day an old Arab man hovering at the site of a vandalized memorial took me by surprise

The sight of it as I walked closer hit me really hard, like a gut punch to the stomach. As I wandered around, alone, examining the wreckage, I literally felt the energy sucked out of me and unwanted associated memories forcing their way into my mind. I picked up some of the pieces and made a futile attempt at cleaning up and then sat down on a nearby rock, my head in my hands, close to tears…until comfort came from the most unlikely source.

Allow me to backtrack. I am lucky enough to be someone who truly loves their work. I am an Israeli tour guide by profession, with some 20 years of experience. I am also blessed to be the director of the Ramah Israel Institute, the Ramah Israel department responsible for providing transformative and memorable short-term trips to countless students and adults annually from the USA and Canada. Ramah is the summer camping arm of the Conservative movement across the USA and Canada, and Ramah Israel is the branch of the movement in Israel.

As part of this dual work, I both guide groups and oversee others, and one thing I do very regularly is meet groups at the airport, whether to welcome them or bid them farewell. A running family joke is that my second home is Ben Gurion airport and that they will start charging me rent soon.

On a recent morning, I met two groups at the airport. My first group landed, were met and welcomed, and sent on their way with my staff members with smiles and excited faces. I then had a couple of hours to spare before the second group came, so I decided to explore some local sites. I drove to the nearby Ben Shemen Forest area, and wandered through several sites of interest, eventually arriving at the site of the Graves of the Maccabees in the forest.

It was then that it happened. I walked up the path to a memorial I had been to once or twice: the IDF memorial for the fallen in the 1948 War of Independence battles in the Modiin area. It is not a very well-known or oft-visited memorial, especially in a country where memorials are a dime a dozen — but a memorial nonetheless.

As I approached it, I saw this:

Something wasn’t right.

I came closer, and then saw the wanton vandalism that had been inflicted on the memorial that I took these pictures of:

This one I found in two overturned pieces, and it particularly struck a deep chord:

The mess was everywhere — very stark, and very obviously done deliberately.  It was then that I just sat down, depressed and struggling to cope and find the words.  Who could have done this?  Why???  My mind immediately reached the unproven yet logical conclusion: it must have been Arabs, haters of Israel, who did this out of spite to the IDF.  My emotions of sadness and confusion were joined by that of anger, and in silent lethargy I just sat, moping and brooding and hating those who had done it.

I re-focused at the sound of footsteps approaching. I turned to see to my surprise the weathered face of an older Arab man, leaning on his walking stick, coming slowly towards me.  My instinctive fear brought me to my feet, and coupled with my thoughts of the previous minutes amidst the ruins, made me ready to immediately be on the offensive.

However, he then spoke to me, in accented but passable Hebrew. His first words – “Are you okay?  Would you like some water?” were followed by something even more surprising: an urgent “Sir? Please, can you report this to the army?”

To summarize the gist of our very brief conversation, the man – whose name I regretfully did not get – had noticed the damage at some point (apparently some time before), but was afraid to notify the authorities for fear of being suspected of doing it. He had waited to see if I had seen the damage and then came to tell me to report it. His greatest concern was to have me report it – which of course I did and would have anyway – because that is not how one treats a memorial to the dead. The dead are gone and cannot defend themselves; it is the height of cowardice to wantonly destroy a memorial to them.

He refused my request to take a picture with him – I understand why. Our interaction was only for a couple of minutes, before he walked away satisfied, and I went back to my car thinking, but it left a deep impression on me.

I would have liked a picture with him. You see, this Arab man not only offered me comfort, but also took away some of my sadness and gave me hope by demonstrating things I regularly always teach my students: don’t judge a book by its cover. Don’t jump to ill-based conclusions. Assume the good in all people.

Critically, his actions hinted at something deeper. He knew that it might get him into trouble – an Arab reporting on vandalism of an IDF memorial is, sadly, always going to be suspected in this country. He could easily have turned his back and never come back there. Yet he chose to come back — possibly more than once — and find a way of reporting it. What was more important was the religious value of paying respects to the fallen and not desecrating their memory.

It all boils down to a lesson I constantly teach to our Ramah students, the future leaders of our people. One of the focal reasons for Judaism –  for any religion – is to create a community, a people, a lifestyle, a culture where all of our human instincts are collectively honed for the good of everyone else.  Irrespective of how that religion is expressed, if its rituals, ideals, values and theology are doing the opposite, it is just wrong. More people across history have been killed or maimed in the name of religion and God than anything else. If someone is part of a faith and it is not changing them in that way, that person cannot in my opinion call themselves religious.

That Arab man could have left for fear of his safety, but his religion honed that instinct causing him to go the extra mile to report the vandalism.

I reported the damage to the Department of Families and Commemoration, in the Ministry of Defense, and received an email back. I hope it has been passed on.

I am glad my takeaway is not merely anger at those who perpetrated the damage, for anger, in the words of Maimonides, is “… an exceedingly bad quality; one from which it is proper that one distance oneself to an extreme” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Judges, 5:31). I come away from this encounter with a sense of goodness in the world, despite so much hatred, and that our work with groups (Ramah or otherwise) is gradually making the world a better place.

And I made it back to the airport in time to greet the second group — with smiles and a renewed sense of optimism.

About the Author
Betsalel Steinhart is a Licensed Tour Guide, and the Director of the Ramah Israel Institute for Ramah Israel. He lives in Bet Shemesh with his wife and five children.
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