It began just after the second consecutive horrific terrorist attack in the Jerusalem area in early February.
The first one, outside a synagogue in Neveh Ya’acov, left seven people dead. Days later, three more Israelis, including two young brothers, 6 and 8, were killed by another Palestinian terrorist in a car-ramming attack in Jerusalem’s Ramot neighborhood.
While all that was unfolding, leaving Israelis feeling vulnerable, angry and fearful of a new intifada in the works, the judicial reform protests were already in full force, with the divisions in the country becoming sharper with every passing week.
Amid those headlines was something that didn’t appear anywhere. Only the principals knew about it. Call it, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, a crack in darkness to let a little light illuminate the notion that all was not lost – with the world, the country, and with ourselves.
Call it the Mohammed Incident.
A 36-year-old married father of two, Mohammed (not his real name) is a baker who traverses Area C every day from his home in a Palestinian village near Abu Dis, to his job in a nearby settlement.
He says that the burekas in Israeli bakeries and cafes are too heavy and he takes pride in preparing pastries with delicate, flaky dough that commuters enjoy when they stop for gas at the fill-up station connected to his bakery.
Mild-mannered with a soft-spoken voice and a baby face, Mahmoud is part of a group of Palestinian friends who meet each month over coffee (and burekas) under the auspices of the Interfaith Encounter Association, with a group of Israelis from Ma’aleh Adumim.
I’m one of them. We talk about holidays, marriage customs, prayers and family, with a focus on what binds us, rather than what divides us.
It turns out, there’s a lot that binds us, whether it be a distrust of government (them the PA, us, well it’s obvious), our goals of providing a good and secure life for our children, and a realization that neither the people of Israel nor the people of Palestine are going anywhere.
Also, health issues.
A year or so ago, Mohammed begin experiencing fatigue and chest pains and went to his local doctor, who sent him to a hospital in Ramallah for a battery of tests, including an EKG. The diagnosis was an irregular heartbeat that required an operation.
However, along with those issues that can unite Israelis and Palestinians, there are clearly differences. One is the national health service, which almost all Israelis are fortunate to have. Not so with Palestinians. The operation that his Palestinian health service was suggesting would cost Mohammed in the ballpark of NIS 60,000.
Regardless of how good his burekas are, that’s not the kind of money the average Palestinian laborer has at his fingertips. So Mohammed refrained from undergoing the operation and over the months, began to suffer more from tiredness and lethargy.
At our last meeting, an idea came to me. I mentioned it to Mohammed and told him not to get his hopes up.
Without any illusions that I would even get an answer, I asked Judy Siegel, the veteran health reporter for The Jerusalem Post – who possesses a vast black book of medical professionals in every sphere around the country – for a couple of email addresses and phone numbers.
I then reached out to Prof. Offer Amir, the director of the Heart Institute at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center. In my email, I explained Mohammed’s situation, attached all the relevant tests he had already done, and asked if there was any mechanism in place that could help him, despite him not being an Israeli citizen or member of an Israeli health fund.
To my amazement, I received an answer from Amir within 24 hours. He wrote ”I went over the tests and in my opinion he needs one more test done. I spoke with Prof. Luria, the director of the unit and I sent a request to the management of Hadassah as well as the company that provides the necessary equipment to see if they’ll waive the costs accrued.”
In less than a week, Amir sent another message: “It hasn’t been easy but there’s a chance that this will work out. Send me Mohammed’s phone number and we’ll invite him to come in for the test.”
The following Sunday morning, Mohammed arrived at Hadassah bright and early, and with the help of Amir’s staff, went through all the bureaucratic hoops that we’re all used to. The test they performed later in the day confirmed the initial diagnosis that he was in need of an operation.
Without hesitation on the hospital’s part, he was admitted and the following morning the operation took place. Amir sent a message later in the day, saying: “A very complex ablation (over four hours) but a very successful one, done beautifully by Prof. Luria.”
The next morning, Mohammed was released and spent the next week recuperating at home. And then he went back to work.
THERE ARE two sets of people who won’t be happy with the Mohammed Incident. One is those who think that Israel’s “occupation” has created a lopsided situation in which Palestinians, like Mahmoud, are totally at the whim of someone’s goodwill, to receive the care and treatment, that is part and parcel available to any Israeli citizen.
The other set is those who bristle over the idea that a Palestinian – a non-Israeli citizen – would receive red-carpet pro bono treatment by Israel’s finest, when hospitals are complaining about budgets, lack of doctors etc. Let’s deal with the misery and suffering of our fellow Jews first.
And let’s not forget a third sector, the reason we’re not using Mohammed’s real name – those in Palestinian society who would view him as “collaborating” with the Zionist enemy.
That’s a lot of people who would choose ideology over Mohammed having a healthy heart. Is it any wonder that as a species, humans are certainly doomed?
All sides may have valid points, but they are looking at the situation from their narrow corner – bogged down in the century-long struggle over this land that has caused many of us to lose our perspective, unable or unwilling to break out of those confines.
I didn’t choose to publicize the story of Mohammed to toot my own horn, or to boast about how altruistic the medical staff at Hadassah is, but to raise the issue of how our actions (and inactions) can lead to surprising results.
I sometimes have ambivalent feelings about our interfaith group, wondering if it does an iota of good. What does it matter if we can sit around, break bread, enjoy each other’s company and learn about each other’s culture, when the struggle outside is still real and not going away? It’s a drop of water compared to the flood of tears flowing from the eyes of the families who lost loved ones in Neve Yaakov and Ramot.
Does an Israeli effort at providing a Palestinian man with a new lease on life stand up in any way to the horror of those tragedies? The answer is probably no, but that doesn’t mean that effort shouldn’t be made.
When I stopped by the bakery last week, Mohammed was energetic and beaming. He was feeling good, still suffering some aftereffects from the operation, but effusive and grateful in the realization of the good fortune bestowed upon him.
He offered me a couple burekas on the house, which I politely declined.
“Too much cholesterol. I have to look out for this,” I said, patting my chest.
We both had a good laugh, parted with a hug, and went about our days – two neighbors who never would have known each other if not for a decision by each of us to join a group aiming to foster dialogue and familiarity. One of the thousands of decisions we make every week, most inconsequential, but in this case, life-changing.
We are separated by just about everything in the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, but are now bonded by something greater than just about anything – an appreciation of life and the connections that get to the heart of the matter.