‘Grant me the physical and mental strength to be forever prepared to help the poor and the rich, the good and the bad, my love and my enemy, and may I always see the human in the infirm,” instructs the Jewish Physician’s Prayer, attributed to the great sage Maimonides.
Instinctively, when I heard that there had been a series of massive earthquakes in Nepal just over two weeks ago, I knew that I would soon receive the call. Just as we did two years ago after Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines and after the massive earthquakes in Haiti three years prior to that, Israel would not hesitate to outstretch its arm to those in need. Even when natural disasters ravage nations like Turkey and Iran, as Jews and Israelis we are morally commanded to offer our assistance.
I joined hundreds of other Israelis, who each left their worried families without a moment’s hesitation to board the plane to Nepal, where we would set up a field hospital in Kathmandu.
The scenes in Nepal were horrific.
Scores of badly injured people lay untreated in hospitals and medical facilities, the local doctors completely overwhelmed by their numbers. We worked around the clock to treat as many as we could. As well as treating people who made it to the Israeli field hospital, we were treating many Nepalese who were flown in by our search and rescue team.
One girl was brought to us by the Israeli rescue team from a small village five days after the earthquakes.
She was found unconscious alone in a wooded area and no one knew who she was or how she got there. At first she was in a life-threatening condition – she had suffered a major brain hemorrhage and had to undergo emergency surgery. However, on the last day of our mission, we witnessed her get out of bed and try to stand up.
Nevertheless, the devastation and trauma were such that there were very few silver linings during the mission.
A further example summed this up.
Another girl was brought to our hospital with relatively minor injuries and after a short while we wanted to release her. However, she had no relatives or family that we could find. She had no idea what happened to her father and mother and it was heart wrenching to see that even when we successfully treated our patients there would be mental, emotional and psychological scars and anguish for many years to come. Whole families and communities were ripped apart and devastated.
It is on occasions like these when one’s humanity is sorely tested. Every day at work in the pediatric emergency room at Shaare Tzedek Hospital I see trauma and injuries, but not on the scale that we witnessed in Nepal.
The experience affects all of us who were there and remains long after we return to our families and loved ones.
Nevertheless, I know I speak for every one of my colleagues when I say that we would willingly return without question if we are asked.
It is our job as physicians and healers to help the sick, the ill and the infirm.
However, as Jews, it our duty and moral imperative.
I saw and read the inflammatory reports and statements leveled against Israel for sending medical delegations to Nepal, especially the inhumane questioning of Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch (HRW). There we were, covered in blood, drenched in sweat, and sometimes tears, and exhausted, both mentally and physically after ending another 12-hour shift during which we saved multiple lives and mended broken bodies as best we could.
It is ironic that Roth can pontificate from the safety of a nice warm home thousands of miles away from the grief and devastation on his computer or smartphone about a nation he constantly maligns as non-caring and heartless.
Here in the depths of despair, when the Nepalese cried out for assistance, Israel sent its sons and daughters to their aid. This is how someone who is serious about human rights acts.
Less than a year ago I joined my Nachal Brigade as they entered Gaza to end the rocket barrages on our population centers. There too my task was to heal the sick and treat the wounded.
It mattered little whether it was my fellow soldier or a Gazan youth that required attention.
Regardless of headline-grabbing reports and anonymous sources pounced on by the international media like those from Breaking the Silence, we who serve in war and in peace know the truth.
We don’t seek acclaim or thanks, our sense of collective solidarity even with strangers across the world impels us to assist, to treat and heal.
This is Israel, Mr. Roth.
Perhaps if you came out and saw us from behind your computer screens you would understand what motivates us and what binds us to one of our founding doctrines of Tikkun Olam, fixing the world.
I am deeply proud to be part of a nation which does not hesitate for a moment to assist those in need wherever they may be.
Being part of the Jewish state is not just about self-governance, freedom and liberation for our people, it is also an opportunity for us as Jews to connect collectively with our ethical and moral foundations as a people which, among other things, instruct us to “always see the human in the infirm,” as Maimonides wrote around a millennium ago.
The writer is a doctor in the Pediatric Emergency Department at Shaare Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem and was part of the Israeli medical delegation and field hospital in Nepal.