By Mehnaz M. Afridi
NEW YORK, New York: As I listen to sound bites of news, a swarm of words sting me: Iran, Israel, nuclear, Palestine-Israel at a standstill, Muslims kill Jews, and Jews kill Muslims. As a Muslim woman who teaches classes about the Holocaust at a Catholic college, I am constantly frustrated by the media coverage of the Middle East which overwhelmingly serves to highlight and entrench national and religious tensions, prejudice and conflict.
A recently-aired documentary by filmmaker Karen Ghitis, on Al Jazeera, was an extremely heartening exception to the rule. The film, Jerusalem SOS, showed Jews and Muslims saving each other’s lives.
The documentary, which aired last month, portrayed Arabs wearing orange vests printed with the red Star of David teamed up with haredi (or ultra-Orthodox) Jews with side curls, black skullcaps and tzitziot (knotted ritual fringes on their garments). And both groups have only praise for each other. Working as volunteer paramedics for the Orthodox Jewish organization United Hatzalah (UH), these Jews and Muslims are taking note of the most important aspects of their faiths: preserving human lives and justice.
I was reminded of the Quranic injunction that states that “on that account We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person … it would be as if he slew the whole humanity: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the whole humanity” (5:32).
Likewise, the Talmud (a repository of the ancient Jewish oral law and wisdom) states, “whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” (Babylonian Talmud, 22a).
In the documentary the UH-trained Palestinian paramedics note that there are often delays in ambulances reaching the sick and wounded in East Jerusalem because Israeli ambulances are not permitted to enter Palestinian neighborhoods without being accompanied by a police or military escort. Moreover, some of the homes have no addresses. Because the UH paramedics know the area well and drive ambucycles (ambulances on motorcycles), they are the first to arrive at the scene.
The film shows the rescue team transcending physical and political borders in order to save lives. Members of both faiths help each other provide for their communities on their respective holy days: Muslims come to the rescue of Jews on the Jewish Sabbath, and Jews help Muslims in emergencies on Fridays, as well as during Ramadan.
Eli Be’er, the founder of UH, was quoted in the Jerusalem Post as saying: “Jews and Muslims do not oppose working together, despite the invisible boundaries and suspicions that separate their communities. In the beginning, I met a few who were surprised about working together, but after they saw that they are great people and really professional, they all like it.”
These Muslim and Jewish paramedics have embraced the spiritual richness of their faiths and ignored the superficial boundaries of difference. Media outlets should try and take a cue from their story, and focus more attention on hope and cooperation.
Another heartening interfaith story from some months ago comes to mind. On 5 June, ABC News reported that “One Israeli man dying of a failing heart learned today that he would live, thanks to a Palestinian family who donated the heart of one of its members slain in the escalating violence wracking Israel.”
The Israeli who received the heart commented on how their hearts were the same, and ultimately they were the same inside.
Even though the rancor of negative media surrounds us, it is important to acknowledge that grassroots initiatives by organizations like UH, or the personal initiative of the Palestinian family who donated a loved one’s heart, are the key to building understanding between Jews and Muslims.
It is therefore crucial that Jews and Muslims tune into the many positive stories of life and death, faith and justice that occur on a daily basis on the ground.
I am always in search of such heartfelt stories that illuminate the commonalities of our faiths and demonstrate social justice. In the three monotheistic religions we are commanded not to bear false witness. After all, we are all children of God and it is through our actions and perseverance that we affirm our shared values and commitments to one another — irrespective of religious differences.
Dr. Mehnaz Afridi is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College in New York City. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).