Touched by an Arab, Jews rally in thanks

Malik wonders where his daddy is.

He's a "big boy." He sees his grandpa and his uncles and aunts sitting in the living room. They cradle his daddy's photo and tell stories. This makes two-year-old Malik feel funny and he hides his face in his mommy's lap.

But the story of Malik's father, Omri Jadah, is being told all over Israel. Malik will understand it, perhaps be proud of it, soon enough.

Mr. Jadah, a Palestinian, gave his life last month to save a drowning Israeli child. His sacrifice electrified Israelis, many of whom say they are surprised an Arab would risk his life for a Jew.

They have flooded Jadah's family with letters and donations in appreciation for a man who didn't see ethnicity or nationality that day on the beach, but humanity. Israeli-Palestinian political bickering will continue, but for this brief moment Omri Jadah has given people a way to reach across barriers calcified by time and bitterness.

"There were no geopolitics in his calculation to get in the water," says Tom Rose, publisher of the Jerusalem Post newspaper, which reported and then got involved in the Jadah story. "He saw a kid drowning. It wasn't an Israeli kid or a Palestinian kid, it was just a kid. We would all benefit if... that kind of thinking could percolate up."

The story begins at the Sea of Galilee, known here as Lake Kinneret. Ringed by cliffs and steep hills, Kinneret is Israel's only freshwater lake. Once dismissed by Mark Twain as a "squalid" place, it's now a thriving resort destination, particularly in the blistering heat of August.

Jadah had driven up for a short weekend break with his cousin Mohammed, something he'd done many times before. But this year drought has lowered water levels at Kinneret, tempting bathers to wade farther out than usual. One of them, six-year-old Gosha Leftov, ventured so far that the warm shallows suddenly dropped off, and he felt the current tugging at his legs.

Jadah had just finished a picnic of pita bread and savory stuffings when he spotted Gosha and plunged into the choppy water. Mohammed, who doesn't swim, remembers subsequent events in flashes. Jadah reaching the boy, bringing him close enough to push into Mohammed's arms, then calling out for help himself.

The Jerusalem Post printed a short article about Gosha's rescue. Within days, money started pouring in unsolicited. The Post's funds director hired temporary help to cope with the response, and soon after the newspaper established a fund for Jadah's family with a donation of over $12,000.

In the month since, they have watched that amount almost double as gifts of $1 and $2 arrive tucked inside notes for Jadah's pregnant widow, Kifaya.

"We're getting modest amounts from people of moderate means who are giving what they can," says Mr. Rose, who adds that it is a duty in Judaism to help others. "This has really touched people."

Two children sent in $5 along with a letter: "Our mother read us the story, and we have decided to donate whatever we have. We know it is not much, but we hope it will help. When we say our prayers in school, we will mention you and your late husband."

None of this surprises Jadah's family, which gathers in the living room to tell stories about him over cups of sweet mint tea. Jadah loved a good story, a rich meal, and playtime with his kids. He was a bit of a softy, Kifaya adds with a small smile - always looking to give clients and co-workers a break.

As they talk, Jadah's gold-framed portrait hangs on the wall above them, next to a photo of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who has declared him a "holy warrior."

"There was nothing unusual about Omri helping someone in need, as Islam directs us to help those in trouble," says Jadah's father, Abdul Harim, a burly man in a dusty blue work shirt. "And there's nothing unusual about these people helping us now."

Every day, Abdul Harim travels from their home in the small farming village of Habla to work for an Israeli construction company, just as his son did. "We eat with Israelis, we talk with them, we're friends," he says. "There are papers to sign, but in our lives there is already peace."

As an example, he offers the ties they have formed with the Leftov family, who now hang a photo of Jadah in their house in Upper Nazareth.

Kifaya, pale and slender with clear hazel eyes, listens quietly as her children clamber over her lap. Malik fidgets, and as the elders continue with their recollections, he presses his face against Kafiya's swollen belly.

Her baby is due in November, long before she finishes observing the traditional 130-day Muslim mourning period. If it is a boy, she says she will name him Omri.

In time, Kifaya will tell her children stories about their father. The most important one, she says, will be about his heroism. "He died for a good cause," she explains. "I believe he went to heaven. That's what God wanted for him."

"I can't even begin to express the connection I feel with the Jadah family," says Gosha's mother, Tanya. "But I'm sure every mother can understand."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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