The awarding of the Israel Prize to ZAKA founder, Yehuda Meshi Zahav, is proof that contrary to popular belief, a leopard can change its spots. In Meshi Zahav’s case, the award is in the category of Life Achievement and in recognition of his outstanding contribution both in advancing assistance at disaster events and for his work in creating unity and bringing people together in Israeli society.
According to the citation, Yehuda Meshi Zahav, 61, has for three decades headed the ZAKA Search and Rescue Organization which has become an essential factor in rescue efforts, saving lives and identifying victims in mass disasters in Israel and elsewhere in the world, and serves as an example and role model for the spirit of volunteering in Israeli society in all its forms. Meshi Zahav dedicates his life to unity within Israel out of a sense of mission and a genuine belief in the need to build bridges and maintain a dialogue between all sectors of society as the key to a shared existence in the State of Israel. Life achievement, at face value, means all of one’s life, but until he was 30 years old, Meshi Zahav was a rabid anti-Zionist, who organized violent stone-throwing demonstrations against desecraters of the Sabbath, and was arrested many times.
His epiphany came in 1989, in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on a bus traveling from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He subsequently escorted his sons when they entered the army, and in 2003, was among the beacon lighters at the ceremony marking the opening of Israel Independence Day festivities. He has not given up his religious lifestyle, and his attire is in keeping with haredi dress code, but he has made a few compromises in relation to bridge-building between all sectors of society.
He formed a women’s philanthropic adjunct to ZAKA under the title of Eshet Lapidot (Woman of the Torch), and seemingly has no problem in being photographed with each new member, and subsequently publishing the photograph. Photographs of women do not appear in the haredi media, and some of the extreme elements in haredi circles have been known to deface advertising posters featuring women or to simply tear the posters from the wall. A recent haredi advertisement calling for financial aid for 27 children who had been orphaned in a single week when their parents succumbed to the coronavirus, includes portraits of all the fathers. The face of the only mother is not shown. Instead, there is a blurred, long distance photo of her grave with the marker that bears her name.
Meshi Zahav acknowledges that women are people too, and that they are not inferior.
■ JEWISH, CHRISTIAN and Muslim peacemakers from Israel and abroad came together on Zoom this week to honor the memory of Elias Jabbour, a distinguished social worker, educator for peace and internationally acknowledged world expert in sulha, the traditional Arab means of conflict resolution. Jabbour, who died in January, was the founder of the House of Hope Peace Center in Shfaram where he served as deputy mayor and was instrumental in helping to settle countless disputes through the National Sulha Committee. In 2004, he was also a cofounder of the Abrahamic Reunion, long before the advent of the Abrahamic Accords which will hopefully bring greater stability and security to the Middle East. Jabbour’s book Sulha, was written in English to promote greater understanding of the importance of reconciliation and how it can be achieved.
The memorial event was organized and attended against the backdrop of the escalating violence in Umm el-Fahm and a wave of recent incidents in the Galilee leading to eruptions of anger and turbulence. Yet what emanated from Jabbour’s family, friends, colleagues and admirers who shared memories of the man and his work, was an aura of tranquility and a recommitment to nonviolence, mutual concern and respect. World-acclaimed singer Achinoam Nini (known internationally simply as Noa), who both speaks and sings of her hopes for peace, shared anecdotes of her Yemenite, Arabic-speaking grandmother who imparted to her something of the rich and diverse cultures of the region, and shared the song “There Must be Another Way,” which Nini and Mira Awad sang at Eurovision in 2009. Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh, who knew Jabbour personally, took time out from his party’s election campaign and spoke of Jabbour’s inspiring core values. Baruch Shalev and Juliet Dabbike Karkabi, the cochairpersons of Ossim Shalom (Making Peace) quoted passages from Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh stressing how human beings are not our enemy, which personified Jabbour’s attitude toward humanity, and Yoav Peck, the director of Sulha translated for the benefit of English speakers. Prof. Zaher Azam, head of the Internal Medicine Division at Rambam hospital, and adviser to the Health Ministry on the effects of and response to the pandemic among Israel’s Arab citizens who comprise 20% of the population, spoke of his deep esteem for Jabbour, noting that so many young people had regarded him as their life-changing mentor, The final speaker was Jabbour’s daughter, Nadine Jabbour Jarous, who presented a touching memoir of her father indicating that the family would preserve and continue his legacy.
■ THE JERUSALEM Municipality and the Jerusalem Development Authority are doing everything possible to attract visitors to the capital, especially in the aftermath of the economic disaster which befell so many business enterprises of the city during the past year. Even during the so-called lockdown, the Municipality supplied colorful chairs and tables to coffee shops and restaurants so that people could have some degree of comfort if they wanted to eat their takeaway snacks in the street before going home. Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion patrolled many of the city streets offering words of encouragement to those shops that were permitted to stay open. Among the open shops were those from the Max and Stock chains that do not sell food or pharmaceuticals, though occasionally have some cosmetics. Their other merchandise, though useful, could hardly be classified as essential, but they were open, as were several of the city’s shoe stores. Yet police were not visible in the vicinities of any of them. Most recently, several organizations headed by the Jerusalem Development Authority, joined forces to create and promote the Follow the Lights Festival, which closed on Thursday of this week.
In principle, the concept of illuminating 22 of the city’s landmarks was a great idea – but the timing after months of cultural denial was all wrong. It might have worked in Tel Aviv, which is a grid city that allows for better planning, but in Jerusalem, it was absolute chaos – especially on Monday night when the JDA hosted a group of journalists and a group of diplomats, and determined that never the twain should meet. A minibus was provided for the journalists and a very large bus for the diplomats. Journalists initially directed to the large bus, were asked to get off, and were told that only diplomats could sit there, though truth be told, there was room for both. The illuminated route included the Supreme Court, Israel Museum, Armon Hanatziv, Tower of David, YMCA, Crowne Plaza Hotel, Sacher Park, the bicycle path, the Mifletzet Monster, Mamilla Boulevard, the First Station, the Cords Bridge, the Rabin Tunnel, the Knesset, the Monastery of the Cross, Mount Zion Hotel, the Cinematheque the Old City Walls and the Khan Theater. Traffic congestion was such, that journalists barely got to see even half of these sites, though admittedly the installations at the Israel Museum were breathtaking. Jessica Cohen, the JDA escort who promised much, but delivered little, went through a series of personality changes from coquette to Sergeant Major to a dance model for Tik Tok at the final stop where Radio FM 106 was blaring across a car park to the delight of several children sitting on top of their family cars, as large beams of colored lights emanated from the scaffolding, cutting through the darkness. The three previous stops had been more interesting, but shorter.
The reason why this final stop was so much longer than the others eventually became clear with the delivery of large boxes of cold pizza. The minibus had passed several of the sites listed above, but had not stopped; in addition to which some of those sites were not even illuminated. While the intentions may have been good, they lived up to the old adage that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The organization of the tour was not exactly professional. The journalists in the minibus were asked to identify themselves but were not given name tags or anything else that would identify them as being part of a particular group. There was natural dispersion on the few occasions on which they got out of the minibus, and if anyone would have gone astray, there was no way for them to be identified by someone who might catch sight of them. There was also no roll call when people got back on the bus. To avoid the horrendous traffic congestion, the bus driver took a long, round-about route on which nothing at all was lit up, beyond ordinary street lights. Organizers should have realized that a culture-starved population would not stay at home, but would travel from Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beersheba to Jerusalem to follow the lights which were not always lit.