BALTIMORE - For Eliezer Sheffer, serving as a sergeant
in a paratrooper reserve unit during the Six-Day War remains an indelible
memory. A bomb sapper, he fought in a battle that helped unite Jerusalem under
Israeli rule and participated hours later in Mincha prayers on the Temple Mount
-- and for both experiences, Sheffer, an observant man, expresses pride to this
Yet another powerful association the now 79-year-old Jerusalemite
carries from the war occurred after combat had ceased and he was heading home,
when Sheffer crossed paths with a little girl named Basima Shafiq.
meeting would lead to a brief friendship with the girl’s Muslim family. Then, as
life inevitably does, the connection gradually flitted, and it would drift from
Sheffer’s mind in the ensuing decades.
But seeing a photograph last year
that he hadn’t known existed rekindled Sheffer’s thoughts about the long-ago
encounter and prompted him to wonder what’s become of the now middle-aged
Basima. He has since searched for her, to no avail.
“I’d like to see her
and to hear what her life has been like,” said Sheffer, a retired career
guidance counselor for Israel’s Labor Ministry who lives in the capital’s
Musrara neighborhood. “She made such an impression on me.”
friendly relations with Muslims have always come naturally. Growing up in the
then mixed city of Tiberias impressed upon him the value of good neighborliness.
Sheffer’s father, a Karlin Hasid, had a Muslim business partner, and mutual
visits by the families on their respective holidays were common. When Sheffer
lived in Jerusalem’s Old City, he frequently gave his house key to a grocery
store owner-friend named Muhammad for safekeeping.
“It’s part of my world
view,” Sheffer, now a great-grandfather, said by telephone earlier this
The Jewish soldier and the Muslim child first met four days after
Sheffer and his cohort from the 55th brigade, 28th battalion, were sent north
following the Jerusalem battle to join the fighting on the Golan Heights. But
when they got there, the war had ended. Three days later, they piled into a
military truck to head back south.
Near Jericho, in a region that days
earlier had belonged to Jordan, the truck passed Arab residents streaming home
on foot after having fled the fighting. One person stood out: Basima,
approximately 9 years old and wearing a white dress. Her water bottle was empty,
and Sheffer offered her a drink.
Rather than guzzle the proffered water,
Basima first washed her face with it before taking a sip. She asked another
soldier for a comb and straightened her hair. Sheffer and his fellow soldiers
offered Basima a ride back to her Jerusalem home.
During the drive, the
Israeli soldiers -- some natives of Iraq and other Arabic-speaking countries --
chatted with the girl. Basima related that she and her uncle had sought to
escape the war by heading for the east bank of the Jordan River. The two had
reached the bridge near Jericho that spanned the narrow river but discovered
that the structure had been destroyed in the fighting. While others reversed
course, Basima’s uncle started across the shallow water. The girl hesitated and
turned back with others. Her uncle continued to Jordan.
Once the military
vehicle reached Basima’s home in Jerusalem’s Abu Tor neighborhood, close to the
Augusta Victoria Hospital -- scene of a pivotal battle on Jerusalem’s northeast
slope days earlier -- Sheffer hopped down and escorted her to the door. The
girl’s parents hadn’t known the war was over and were concerned about the
Israeli soldiers outside.
Eventually, the door opened, and Basima’s
parents -- her father was Ibrahim, but Sheffer does not recall the mother’s name
-- soon brought out fruit and coffee. Sheffer and his friend from the unit,
Nissim Levy, sat at their table. Hosts and guests spoke for a while, then the
soldiers returned to their homes and their civilian lives.
following weeks and years, Sheffer sometimes brought his wife, Esther, and their
three children to visit the Shafiqs in Abu Tor. In July 1967, Sheffer’s friend,
Zevulun Hammer, who would become a minister in several Israeli governments, came
along, intrigued by the story of how the soldier and child had met.
the 1970s, Sheffer ran into one of Basima’s brothers in Jerusalem’s Old City.
The man told Sheffer that Basima had gotten married and moved to
That’s the last he heard of her until 2011. That was when
Sheffer’s daughter, Smadar, mentioned that a friend had just found a photograph
showing Sheffer giving Basima the canteen back in June 1967. The friend’s
father, Aharon Zukerman, was a freelance news photographer and had taken the
Small world, Sheffer thought. He set out to locate
Sheffer drove to the Abu Tor home but found that the block had
been razed and rebuilt. He showed the Zukerman photograph to area residents and
to Augusta Victoria employees. No one recognized the image or the names he
mentioned. Sheffer also was interviewed on the Israeli radio program “Hamador
L’chipus Krovim” (Searching for Relatives Bureau).
Speaking with JTA,
Sheffer said that he was most impressed by Basima’s precocious self-assuredness
in having turned back at the bridge and begun walking home alone, and by the
dignity she exhibited in primping her face before drinking from his
“It was her behavior: It made an impression. This was a girl who
was smart, who was ladylike, who had a nobility about her,” he said. “She was
like a princess.”
Sheffer said that the friendship he enjoyed with
Basima’s family, while short, should be the norm.
“For Jews in a
sovereign Jewish state, the relationship with minorities must be just, moral and
honorable. It’s a religious value -- and I can prove it from rabbinical
sources,” said Sheffer, who serves as chairman of the World Organization of
Orthodox Communities and Synagogues in Israel and the Diaspora, which is based
in Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue.
Israel’s ambassador to the United States,
Michael Oren, said in an interview Tuesday that in researching his 2002 book
“Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East,” he had
not come across stories akin to this cross-national, let alone
cross-generational, tale of friendship.
“It shows that divisions can be
crossed -- that the reuniting of Jerusalem wasn’t just a physical one, but a
personal one as well,” Oren said. “Interpersonal relationships, friendships,
between Israelis and Palestinians are only a positive thing and they can
contribute to peace.”
Please email Hillel Kuttler at [email protected]
if you know of Basima’s whereabouts.
If you would like
“Seeking Kin” to write
about your search for long-lost relatives and friends, please include the
principal facts and your contact information in a brief email.
“Seeking Kin” is
sponsored by Bryna Shuchat and Joshua Landes and family in loving memory of
their mother and grandmother, Miriam Shuchat, a lifelong uniter of the Jewish