For months, I’ve been haunted by the images coming out of Aleppo. I’m Israeli, a citizen of a country that has been a longtime enemy of Syria – hostilities between the two countries have led to three wars – so perhaps I was not supposed to have been so deeply affected.
But the photos put me in mind of my mother, as a little girl in the Holocaust.
In the past week, as Aleppo fell to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and social media filled with heart-rending videos of Syrians saying goodbye, I did what I could from the comfort of my home: I clicked on a link and donated a small sum to the “White Helmets” – a Syrian volunteer organization that pulls people from under the rubble after attacks.
As the week progressed, I discovered that I wasn’t the only Israeli who sought to stretch a helping hand to our supposed enemies in the north.
An Israeli crowdfunding initiative called “The Syrians on the Fences,” which aims to raise money to help displaced Syrian children, was posted on the crowdfunding site “Mimoona” on Thursday. By Sunday morning, it had raised 436,000 shekels ($113,000) from more than 2,600 participants. The goal is to eventually raise 600,000 shekels, which will be used to buy formula, blankets, and medicine for Syrian kids, and transmit it across the Israeli-Syrian border.
The campaign is the brainchild of Shibi Froman, an Israeli businessman from the settlement of Tekoa, whose late father was known for seeking peace with Arab leaders. This October, during the High Holidays – the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, devoted in the Jewish tradition to prayer and atonement – Mr. Froman decided to pray for Syria.
During his prayer, Froman got a strong feeling that he had to do more: he posted a call on Facebook for a public prayer for the people of Aleppo and 1,500 Israelis – Jews, Christians and Muslims – responded. The mass prayer took place on Yom Kippur, in nine different locations across Israel, including 300 people who blew the shofar on the Israeli-Syrian border. A loose network of activists emerged and once prayers were over, they started thinking – what next?
He conceived of the campaign in collaboration with Gal Lusky, rescue expert and founder of the Israeli non-governmental organization, “Israel Flying Aid,” which provides rescue and relief to areas hit by war or natural disasters, usually in countries that don’t have diplomatic ties with Israel. Ms. Lusky has worked in Rwanda, Darfur, Pakistan, Iraq, Indonesia, and elsewhere; but since 2011, she has devoted much of her time to Syria, fundraising to buy food, blankets, baby needs, and medical supplies transmitting them across the border.
Most of the funds usually come from wealthy donors but in this case, she guessed – rightly – that ordinary Israelis would be willing to contribute.
Part of it may be the proximity. The Syrian border can be reached in less than three hours by car from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.
“Syria feels closer than Congo or the Balkans, or other places where horrible wars took place,” says Rana Werbin, a writer and editor from Tel Aviv, who donated to UOSSM, a union of medical organizations operating in Syria. “They are practically our neighbors.”
Comparisons with the Holocaust
For many Israelis, like myself, there are also echoes of our past – and our own family’s stories – in what we see on TV.
“There is much in common between the experiences of the people in Aleppo and those of my grandfather, a survivor of Birkenau concentration camp,” says Leead Leevneh, a Tel Aviv journalist, who also donated this week to UOSSM. “In both cases people lost everything and went through such extreme horror, that it erased everything else.
“In this sense,” he adds, “donating to Syrians felt like donating to my grandfather: It allows me to say, I can’t do much, but I can do this. However, to be honest with myself – the war in Syria went on for five years before I sat up in my warm bed and clicked the ‘donate’ button.”
But not all Israelis are moved by the Syrians’ plight – and some take issue with Holocaust comparisons.
When Labor leader Yitzhak Herzog called last year for Israel to absorb a few hundred Syrian refugees of the Druze minority (many of whom have families in Israel), right-wing Likud politicians responded with derision and suggested that Herzog absorb the refugees into his own comfortable home; right-wing pundit Erel Segal wrote that the Syrian Druze are “loyal to an enemy state and cooperate with Hezbollah and Iran.”
“Many Israelis, including prominent figures in the media, wish ‘good luck to both sides’ in the conflict and say out loud ‘better their kids than ours’,” says Yaron Ten-Brink, a journalist who called out Israelis for being indifferent to Syrian suffering in a long Facebook post, which prompted messages of support but also death threats. “Fear of Islam and hatred of Arabs are the prominent mode of the right’s thinking on Syria, although there are also right-wingers who express empathy and shock in the face of those images.”
‘Every show of solidarity moves [Syrians] profoundly’
Elizabeth Tsurkov, a Syria researcher at the Israeli think tank Forum for Regional Thinking, says that in the past week she’s been flooded by requests from Israelis asking what they could do to help. A post she published on a news site listing charities helping Syrians was shared thousands of times and became the most-read article on the site.
Ms. Tsurkov says that for those on the other side of the border, every show of support – no matter how modest – is paramount.
She has more than 2,000 Syrian friends on Facebook, and a few hundred Syrian followers on Twitter; every time she shared photos and videos from demonstrations taking place in Israel against Assad and Putin and in solidarity with the rebels, the images quickly spread on Syrian social media – although the protests themselves attract a few dozen Israeli participants at the most.
“Many Syrians have thanked me and the others for standing by their side,” says Tsurkov, “They feel so abandoned by the world, that every show of solidarity moves them profoundly.”