When I arrived as Australia’s ambassador to Israel in 2013, in my first week or so in the country, I read a very small item in the side bar of the Jerusalem Post that caught my interest.
At the time the civil war in Syria was at a high level of intensity, including in an area just across the border with Israel, near the Golan Heights.
This news report, in a matter-of-fact way, as if it was the most regular thing in the world, stated that Israel had recently admitted across its border 20 or so Syrian civilians who had been injured in the fighting, and was now treating them at Israel’s main hospital in the north, Ziv Hospital in Tzfat.
I found this a little perplexing. Syria was formally in a state of war with Israel. Syria had never recognised Israel as a state or its legitimacy to exist. The border between the two countries across the Golan Heights was heavily fortified and militarised. Syrians could not travel to Israel and vice versa.
A few weeks later, my wife Rachel and I took a road trip up north, to visit Ziv Hospital and see for ourselves. What we saw astounded us. Young Syrian children, who had lost limbs during the conflict, were being fitted with prosthetic limbs by Israeli doctors and taught to walk again by Israeli physiotherapists. Their mother or another female relative usually stayed with them, for several months, rehabilitating and recuperating. Israeli-Arab social workers helped keep morale up and entertained the children.
Syria’s formal hostility towards Israel was ignored. The Syrian victims were treated as human beings, with compassion and respect.
I was so surprised by what I was seeing that I wrote an article about it in The Australian, concluding “Ziv Hospital is a profound example of humanity and decency at its most compelling. It is Israel at its very best, and a side of Israel that the world too rarely sees or acknowledges.”
Recent events in Ukraine have reminded me of this episode.
We’ve all seen the emotional videos and images of Ukrainian Jews landing in Israel. The Jewish Agency’s efforts to bring them to safety in Israel is a noble operation, but not entirely unexpected. No matter how challenging, bringing vulnerable Jewish populations to Israel has been part of the country’s raison d’être since its inception.
But providing Israel’s medical and military expertise to international humanitarian operations is another level of altruism, especially from a country with ongoing security issues of its own and considering the barbaric treatment of Jews throughout Ukraine’s complicated history.
Israel was the first country to establish a humanitarian field hospital in Ukraine, called Shining Star, in the western Ukraine town of Mostyska. The hospital, jointly run by representatives of Israel’s Ministry of Health and hospitals such as the Sheba Medical Centre provides care to the war’s many victims, and includes a labour and delivery room, as well as adult and paediatric wards.
In the middle of a war zone, and with all the risks this entails, Israel has set up a hospital to help the people of Ukraine, putting its own people at risk in order to help others.
In fact, whenever disaster strikes, anywhere in the world, Israel is often one of the first countries on the scene, providing assistance, medical facilities, and humanitarian support. From typhoons to earthquakes and tsunamis, including in our own region, Israel is there to help.
What’s remarkable about this is that despite so much hostility levelled at Israel in the region and beyond, despite so many developing countries leaving Israel in the diplomatic cold at the United Nations, Israel is always extending the hand of friendship and compassion. Rather than retreat into itself, Israel persists as an outward-looking country, keen to engage with the world and help solve the world’s problems.
This is why the claim made by a Labor member of the NSW upper house, Anthony D’Adam MLC, on March 23, is just so false. During a debate on a motion to adopt the IHRA working definition of antisemitism, Mr D’Adam suggested that “Israel has made Jewish people more unsafe”.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Today’s Ukrainian Jews, and prior to them the Ethiopian and former Soviet Union Jews, would strenuously disagree. Without Israel as a sanctuary and a refuge, many faced a grim future. With antisemitism on the rise in Europe and elsewhere, many Jews around the world feel safer knowing that there is a nation state that will stand up for their rights and speak out against intolerance and bigotry.
But today’s Israel also makes the entire world more safe, not just for the Jewish people.
Whether it is Israel’s water and agriculture technology, which is helping the developing world feed itself, or Israel’s clean energy technology, which is helping us all transition to a lower-carbon future, Israel’s innovation and ingenuity, and its willingness to share these technologies with the world, is helping us solve global challenges.
I know, from my own time in Israel as ambassador, that Israel’s intelligence and insights helped us save the lives of many Australians. Many terrorist attacks have been thwarted throughout the world by Israel intelligence services, including one planned at Sydney airport in 2018.
Not only does Israel make the world safer for Jews everywhere, it actually makes the world safer – period.
There have been encouraging signs recently that the rest of the world is finally waking up to this realisation.
Just last week Israel hosted a groundbreaking Abraham Accords summit. Senior ministers and diplomats from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, Egypt and the United States were hosted by Israel’s Foreign Minister in the Negev Desert, at Kibbutz Sde Boker – the final home of David Ben-Gurion.
This summit is now to become a regular event on the regional diplomatic calendar.
Israel is a constructive and positive force in world affairs. It is my hope that other Islamic countries, including Indonesia and Malaysia in our own region, will soon follow the lead of Egypt and the UAE and open normal diplomatic relations with Israel. The whole world will be safer and better off as a result.
Dave Sharma is the federal member for Wentworth and a former Australian ambassador to Israel.