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Finding New Heroes

Note: This blog post was written before this week’s outbreak of violence. As always, we encourage you to follow us on Facebook and Twitter for the latest on how the peacebuilding community is responding to the situation on the ground.

Last spring, towards the beginning of the pandemic, many of us paused each evening to open our windows and cheer on the healthcare workers on the front lines. We thanked grocery store employees for risking their health so that we could have food for our families. Our perceptions of heroism have changed in the past year, as a new kind of crises has generated new role models in our society. I was reminded of this change earlier this week when JCRC held a Speaker Series event with Israeli journalist Nathan Jeffay. Nathan is the health and science correspondent at the Times of Israel, and he joined us to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic, the vaccine rollout, and the relationship between the government and under-resourced communities in Israel.

One part of Nathan’s talk has stuck with me. He noted that through most of its history Israel’s national crises have been military engagements with its neighbors, and therefore many of Israel’s Jewish citizens have viewed many of its Arab citizens with—at best—indifference through these tragedies. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the opposite has been true. Israel’s Arab citizens work in the healthcare industry at a rate far greater than their proportion of the national population. Many doctors, nurses, and pharmacists are Arab citizens, for example, and this means that many Jews are seeing Arabs as national heroes. There have been many powerful stories in the past year about Jews meeting Arabs for the first time while in the hospital and leaving full of gratitude, and other stories about Arab doctors leading the fight against COVID in mixed cities like Haifa.

Similarly, there were places to see heroes following the recent tragedy on Mt. Meron. As with disasters around the world, many people stepped up to donate blood and offer food and shelter to the survivors of the stampede. Mt. Meron is in an area with many Arab towns, and they immediately came to survivors’ aid. A Bedouin police officer named Rami Alwan visited an ultra-Orthodox family in Bnei Brak to mourn their son who was lost in the tragedy. Rami helped save the boy’s father and brother. While some commentators have been skeptical of the motives behind these news stories, I believe that these narratives becoming a part of the mainstream discourse in Israel is a good thing.

Israeli politicians are helping to catalyze this change. Labor Party MK Ibtisam Mara’ana-Menuhin delivered her opening speech to the Knesset last month. She is the first ever MK to be a part of a mixed Arab-Jewish family, giving her a unique perspective within the Israeli government. In her speech she called for peace between Jews and Arabs, saying “Maybe it’s time we got to know each other’s trauma. Maybe it’s time for healing that will give us the strength to dare, to make true peace. Living together, Arab and Jewish men and women, we will learn to forgive and raise a healthier generation.”

While trauma has the potential to be a bridge builder, we hope that there are other ways that Jews and Arabs can come together in celebration of their common humanity. We see that in MK Mara’ana-Menuhin’s speech, in the past week in the wake of the Mt. Meron tragedy, and in the past year as we have felt the collective pressure and sadness caused by the pandemic. Let’s continue to push our understanding of heroism, and to engage with new models of leadership that emphasize our shared humanity and the willingness to embrace our differences.


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