Israelis Break Tradition to Help the People of Syria

By Thursday, December 22, 2016

The tragedy of Syria–together with the failure of the West and international law–has taken up much of the world’s attention. And with good reason.

Like many others, the State of Israel has chosen a policy of neutrality and non-interventionism. But despite this official government policy, Israeli citizens have insisted instead on intervention, both physical and spiritual. When it comes to Syria, Israelis–just plain old, regular Israeli citizens–are doing a lot right. It’s not just the aid. It’s the aid that citizens are organizing and insisting upon themselves. It’s the aid they refuse to leave to the government.

It’s also the aid that they are making sure goes to people who–it is safe to assume–might well not love Jews, or Israel itself. Syria and Israel have officially been at war since the establishment of the State of Israel, and have actively fought on opposing sides in three major wars since 1948. Syria has consistently refused to recognize the State of Israel. The two countries have no diplomatic relations, no tourism and no cultural exchange. Israelis are prohibited from visiting Syria. Yet Israeli civilians recognize that above all else, Syrians are a trapped and suffering people in need. So, for example:

A grassroots funding campaign was started by a group of civilians and hosted simply–in Hebrew–on an Israeli crowdfunding site dedicated to ensuring that supplies like blankets, baby food and coats reach the hands of the most vulnerable. They raised $200,000 USD in a handful of days. That’s with an average donation of less than $50.

Reservist doctors in the Israeli Defense Force wrote to Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot this week, demanding–begging–that they be called up and sent to Syria in order to deliver additional medical assistance.

An Israeli businessman recognized the need to ensure safe, reliable transportation for Syrian woman and children to Israeli hospitals for treatment, and organized buses for pickup and delivery of patients across the Syrian-Israeli border.

But there’s more. Despite the regional complexities, a strong Jewish emphasis on particularism, and an inclination toward religious traditionalism, Israelis are themselves actively storming heaven on behalf of war-torn Syria.

In October, just hours before Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Israelis hastily gathered together in prayer in cities across the country. “The world is silent. We are not,” was the rallying cry. The call went out over Facebook at one of the busiest times of the year. And people did indeed come together–religious and secular, with sidelocks and dreadlocks, skullcaps and baseball caps, many with children in arms–in Jerusalem, in Haifa, in Beersheva, in Tel Aviv. A group of us gathered together to pray in the Golan Heights, and showed our children that the unthinkable was happening just over there. And we came together to cry out to the Master of the universe to intervene on behalf of the suffering innocents.

As early as 2013, a leading figure in the religious–Zionist movement, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, did something radical for this environment: He wrote a new formal Jewish prayer. In Hebrew. For Syria. It is appended below, in translation.

This week, as we watch the gruesome scenes emerging from the fall of Aleppo, we can agree with the United Nations’ description of this as “a complete meltdown of humanity.” Yet we Jews and Christians are not permitted the lazy luxury of despair. We must hold fast to the tattered and fragile fringes of humanity and hope that still exist in the world. We must gather them up gently in our hands, and strengthen them. And we must certainly do so together.

Master of the universe, who makes peace on high,

Though we are not accustomed to new formal prayers, we can no longer look at the slaughter taking place in your world and fail to pray about it. Though we know that both sides in the war are guilty of wanton bloodshed, we are unable to keep silent when so many who are beyond the circle of conflict have fallen victim.

We beseech you in prayer to arouse in the killers their basic humanity and evoke mercy in their hearts, that they may recognize that we are all created in the image of God, and that there are limits even to human cruelty. May you bring to pass what is written in your Torah: “He who sheds the blood of man, by man his blood shall be shed, for in God’s image was man created.”

Grant us the wisdom to know how to act in this hour of distress, when the dark face of humanity’s evil inclination is once again fully exposed and we are unsure how to stand against it. Enable us to act with all our energies to prevent bloodshed in your world, above all in the Holy Land and its environs, as it is written in your Torah: “You shall not pollute the land where you are for blood pollutes the land; and the land will not expiate the blood shed upon it, but with the blood of he that shed it.”

May God who makes peace on high, make peace upon us and upon all Israel, and let us say amen.


{translation by Elli Sacks}

Faydra Shapiro

Dr. Faydra Shapiro is the Executive Director at the Israel Center for Jewish-Christian Relations.