Zaka first responders Yossi Frankel (right) and Benzi Oring pose in front of one of the organization’s emergency vehicles.
(photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
Last week ZAKA, the volunteer organization known for its first response to terrorist attacks and natural disasters, announced that from now on the bodies of terrorists it recovers would be placed in plain black, plastic body bags, rather than in the white bags known by their ZAKA insignia. The decision followed complaints that, because ZAKA is a “holy organization,” its name would be defiled if used to wrap the bodies of terrorist murderers.
ZAKA founder Yehuda Meshi Zahav noted that, while the organization treats all without discrimination due to religion, race or nationality, “when referring to heinous, cruel murderers, we should know to differentiate and separate the victims and the murderers, and not desecrate and contaminate body bags printed with the ZAKA emblem.”
This curious ruling did not occur in a vacuum, but was part of a response to new regulations issued by the Israel Medical Association governing first responders to terrorist attacks. Previously, the IMA had followed the basic principle of triage – sorting victims according to the seriousness of their condition – but with one modification. Until last week, this principle was applied first to Jewish victims, under the Talmudic concept “the poor of your city come first.”
The IMA ethics committee, in response to an appeal by Physicians for Human Rights, annulled the “my people first” principle and determined that wounded must be treated only in accordance with the gravity of their condition.
Some outcry was not long in coming. One who commentated, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow of the modern-Orthodox Tzohar group, who is also a member of the Helsinki Committee, condemned the decision as “a grave mistake” and insisted that victims have priority over attackers. He noted, however, that this might not apply in “special circumstances,” for example “when it is impossible to determine who the terrorist is and who the victim.”
In other words, when the ethnic identities of perpetrator and victim are unclear, both should be treated merely as human beings in need of lifesaving help.
This is a principle that ZAKA unfortunately opposes, counter to the now official policy of the IMA, not to mention certain core principles of medical ethics.
Physicians make a moral commitment to the oath of Hippocrates, which states, among other principles: “If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life... Above all, I must not play at God.”
In rejecting the IMA’s ruling, ZAKA is stepping beyond its role as a celebrated first responder in Israel and abroad. By telling its volunteers to give preference to one brand of human over another, it is indeed forcing them to play God.
At least the country’s emergency rooms do not have this dilemma. As one nurse said, when she was asked after a recent attack how she felt about treating terrorists, “Once they cross the threshold they are all just patients.”
The picking and choosing among those suffering to favor one’s own kind is actually a matter of assigning guilt: I will treat the victim before the one who is guilty of causing harm. Really? How would that guilt-based treatment work in a car crash? Should the driver who caused the accident be rescued last, if at all? Dr. Tami Karni, a surgeon and chairwoman of the IMA ethics committee, points out that, in a mass casualty event, “Priority should be given to the treatment itself, not additional sorting of wounded in accordance with criteria not connected to their health.”
ZAKA is a Hebrew acronym for Zihuy Korbanot Ason, or Disaster Victim Identification. Its full name includes “Identification, Extraction and Rescue – True Kindness.”
The “true kindness” refers to the acts it performs for victims who do not survive and cannot thank them, as for gathering body parts and spilled blood for proper burial.
Meshi Zahav tried clumsily to offer ZAKA a way out of the dilemma. “In reality, it’s a bit easier, because it’s forbidden to touch the terrorist until a police sapper comes to check if he’s armed with a bomb. This is what gives us time to check injured Jews in the meantime... The terrorist murderer deserves death... We need to know that there is also a limit to morality. If we don’t make the distinction, we will lose direction.”
By deciding to limit morality, ZAKA is already losing direction.