By Sarit Zehavi and Ido Daniel
Israel over the past few years has provided humanitarian aid to Syrian citizens on its border. To date, about 2,600 wounded Syrians lucky enough to have escaped the massacres have received lifesaving medical treatment in Israel. Additionally, there are private initiatives led by Israeli citizens that assist Syrian children and send them toys, blankets and even money.
Yesterday, a handful of extraordinary Israeli academics at Hebrew University of Jerusalem managed to host a panel of members of the Syrian opposition. The guests were given the floor to speak directly with Israeli students and share their experiences. But before going any further, one must appreciate just how dangerous and difficult such an event is: For decades, Syrians have been educated by their regime to view Israel as the vilest of enemies. A visit to Israel represents an enormous risk to them and their families, not to mention speaking to Israeli students in public.
Despite all the difficulties, the Syrians did come. And those who couldn’t attend were there anyways—via Skype, a perilous act for those ‘attending’ from Syria.
The hall was packed in anticipation of the event. After being introduced, the guests spoke about hopes for peace and about how their country is currently being torn to pieces. At a certain point, the Syrians remarked how grateful they were for the humanitarian aid extended by the Israel Defense Forces.
This sparked an outburst by Arab students who attend the University. With great animosity and vitriol, they screamed at and harassed the guests, accusing the Syrians of legitimizing the “Zionist entity” and calling them traitors. Mind you, these are students in an Israeli university, receive scholarships from Israel, and pay tuition fees subsidized by the Israeli taxpayer.
The guests asked the hecklers to “be more civilized”. This was met with further loud and disrespectful verbal assaults and shrieks. The moderator of the event asked the students to respect the shared value of hospitality, a cherished tenet in both the Arab and Jewish societies in Israel. But his entreaty fell on deaf ears as the students continued shouting down a Syrian speaker who tried, again and again, to utter a few words. The hosts of the event, after providing the angry hecklers with a few minutes of freedom of speech—the hallowed pillar of a democratic society—eventually had to ask security personnel to remove them.
As the irate Arab students were escorted out of the auditorium, the Syrian guests quietly remarked: “You all live here in paradise…”
A few important remarks about this sad incident:
Firstly, the Syrian refugees had come to ask for more aid from Israel. Israel’s policy has been to avoid interfering with the war in Syria as much as possible, yet the rebels were asking Israel to be much more involved at the humanitarian and the political level. In plain English, this means taking sides in the war and assisting the rebels, especially those on the Syrian side of the Golan.
Secondly, the speakers at the event said they had little faith in the current ceasefire as well as future talks in Kazakhstan since not all Syrian opposition groups would be participate. I was at the Syrian border today (January 18), and the loud ‘booms’ and gunshots I heard from the Syrian side were proof that no ceasefire exists there. At best, a situation of ‘less fire’. So, despite Aleppo’s surrender being a game changer, the Syrian war doesn’t appear likely to end this month.
Thirdly, the Arab students who incited the provocation were in fact trying to link the Palestinian issue with the fact that the Golan was taken from Syria in 1967. But the bald truth is that there is no connection between the two, because the Golan was never part of the British mandate in the region. Furthermore, there is no justification for students who fight for the Palestinian cause to view the Syrian rebels as traitors—just because the bloody civil war in Syria (and survival itself) occupies them more than the “occupied” Golan does.
Fourthly, only in a democratic country like Israel can students at an Israeli university denounce other individuals as traitors for the ‘sin’ of merely talking with Israelis. Such an attitude demonstrates just how blind the hatred is. Can these students not see, or appreciate, that they are living in a safe paradise in the midst of a bleeding Middle East?