I’ve belonged to the Hebrew University community in Jerusalem for eight years now, so you can take my word when I tell you that when various faculties hold extra-curricular lectures during class time, they usually don’t expect more than 20 or so students, who just happen to have a free period, to show up.
But when I arrived on campus yesterday afternoon and realized that almost everyone walking in the same direction as me, as well as half the people who arrived on my bus, were all headed to the same lecture, I realized this one was different.
I arrived at the scheduled time and place and saw approximately 200 people all trying to cram into a small seminar classroom. Forget about a chair. I was lucky to find room to sit on a table.
So what was so special about this lecture?
It wasn’t anyone famous. It wasn’t a prominent lecturer from an Ivy League university (who would probably have garnered the usual 20 or so listeners). It had nothing to do with the Israeli elections taking place in five days from today. The lecturer was a Syrian refugee.
Syria, having fought against Israel in a number of wars, directly and indirectly, is considered an enemy state. Israel has no diplomatic relations with Syria. Syrians cannot travel to Israel and Israelis cannot travel to Syria. A Syrian caught ‘fraternizing with the enemy’, could be arrested permanently. So you can imagine how extraordinary it is for a Syrian to be lecturing to Israeli students at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Amin, speaking under a false name, for his own safety, told us of his life in Syria prior to the war. He told us of the views and upbringing that all Syrians are instilled with regarding Israel: Israel is our enemy. Israel wants to destroy Syria. Israel wants to expand into our lands. We must attack Israel if we can, and if we can’t- we must always be prepared to defend ourselves against Israel.
And then he talked about how the uprising began. How a group of schoolchildren in the southern town of Dera’a sprayed anti-regime graffiti in their school. The children were arrested and tortured. When the parents of these children approached the man in charge of security in the region and asked for their release, he told them- forget about these children. Go home to your wives, sleep with them and make new children. If you don’t- my own men will go home to your wives, sleep with them, and make new children. Amin talked about how people who were shot by the government during the demonstrations that ensued could not go to a hospital for medical treatment, because if they did, they would be arrested by the regime and never seen again. He talked about how medical staff and aid workers were the first to be targeted by the regime, because that was their way of crushing any possible resistance.
And then Amin told us about his decision, being in the medical field himself, not to sit passively by, but rather to risk his life and help set up an underground movement. This movement did not fight the government. His movement supplied medical and humanitarian aid to those in need. According to Amin, of the 23 million Syrian citizens, approximately half of them are displaced. Hundreds of thousands have been killed. Countless others have been wounded.
Amin quietly got his family out of Syria. He would spend a few months at a time in Syria with his secret organization, giving help to those who needed it, and periodically visit his family for a couple of weeks overseas. Until one day, while he was overseas, he found out that his network had been discovered and Amin himself became a refugee overnight. His only belongings now were his single suitcase.
He eventually made it back into Syria and made contact with a friend who was involved in providing aid to Syrian civilians. Amin wanted to get back into the game, and the friend, it was rumored, had contacts who could help with that.
“But there’s a catch”, the friend told him.
“What do they want in return?”, asked Amin.
“It’s not what they want”, said the friend, “but who they are. They’re Israelis”.
This was the turning point in Amin’s story. He could not believe that Israelis, the enemy he was taught to hate and fear from a young age, were aiding Syrians. There must be an ulterior motive. They must be “Mossad” agents. They want to recruit Syrians, or to gather information.
But they were not “Mossad” agents. They did not want to recruit anyone. They were not after information. They were genuine Israeli volunteers trying to get aid to Syrian refugees.
For the past four years, Israel has been quietly helping Syrians get aid and medical treatment. Hundreds of Syrian wounded have quietly been brought to Israeli hospitals to receive medical treatment, far better than any treatment they would have received in Syria, even during peace time.
Most of the activities carried out by these Israeli organizations have to remain secret, because revealing them could put them at risk.
Amin told us of the time he saw an Israeli soldier risk his life in order to help a wounded Syrian cross the border and get into an Israeli ambulance waiting for him on the other side.
“I was always told that Israel wanted to kill us and drive us from our homes”, he recounted, “but here Israel was saving Syrians, while the Syrian regime was killing us, and had driven me from my home. That is when I realized that what I had always been told was a lie”.
At the end of his lecture, Amin received a long round of loud applause. He would have received a standing ovation- if there had been room to stand.
He then left time for questions.
Believe it or not, but there are BDS activists studying in Israeli Universities. Yes, I am aware of the contradiction here, but somehow these Palestinian students justify calling on others to boycott Israel, while studying in Israeli universities themselves. Anyway, one of the students who took the floor was a blind Palestinian woman, studying in the Hebrew University. Rather than ask a question, she launched into a long rant about how Amin had not once during his lecture mentioned the Palestinians and their cause, and that he was disrespecting the Palestinian suffering, by coming to speak at an Israeli university, which was built on the ruins of a Palestinian village in 1967 (which is false. Hebrew University was built in 1925, long before the State of Israel, long before the so called ‘occupation’ and was a Jewish enclave the entire time until 1967, when Israel liberated the surrounding area from occupying Jordan). People in the crowd gently pointed out to her that she was in fact a student in this same university that she was speaking against. Amin quietly answered her, when she finally allowed him to speak, that while the 2000 deaths in Gaza over the last summer are tragic, Syria has lost more than 200,000. Who is disrespecting who?
Maybe one day she will grow up and like Amin, she’ll realize that what she has been told is a lie. But I wouldn’t get my hopes up.
Other questions from the crowd were about neighboring countries, such as Turkey and Iran and the geopolitical situation; the Kurdish, Christian and Alawite minorities; and about Amin’s views on the possibility of putting back the pieces and Syrians living together again in peace after all this is over.
One student asked an interesting question: if you could ask for one thing from the major powers, what would it be? Amin answered that he does not expect any other country to fight for his. At first they thought that, seeing the extreme suffering of the Syrian people and the use of chemical weapons against civilians, it would be impossible for the international community to sit idly by. But they soon realized that it was naïve to expect the international community to fight someone else’s war. Every country has its own interests and that is how the world works. But if he could ask for one thing, it would be a no-fly zone. According to Amin, the regime’s strategy is that if it cannot hold a territory, it makes that territory unlivable. The regime does not wish to spend the money on expensive precision weaponry (like what Israel uses in Gaza, in order to avoid as much collateral damage as possible), but rather resorts to indiscriminate bombing, including dropping barrels of explosives mixed with metal shards from helicopters over civilian population centers. They have no way of defending themselves from this. “Either give us the means to defend ourselves from this, or instate a no-fly zone” he asked.
Amin came to talk about one of the most depressing subjects in the world today. The Syrian civil war has killed and displaced more people in four years than all of Israel’s wars with its neighbors, over 67 years, combined. Yet he succeeded in planting hope. It will be difficult, but when all this is over, he believes Syrians will be able to bury the hatchet and live together again. Extremism will always exist, he says, the ideas are there, but you can hold back the extremists. The majority of Syrians just want to live in peace.
And quietly, in the shadows, Israeli volunteers are working side by side with Syrians, helping the wounded, feeding the hungry, warming the cold and shattering stereotypes and breaking down decades of hatred. In the darkest of shadows, a light is shining…
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Read my previous posts on Syria: