In Northern Israel, Arabs Take Care Of Jews Under Fire

A telephone call a few miles from the Lebanese border brings the story of an unusual group of innocents, Arabs and Jews.

It’s nighttime, Wednesday, Aug. 2, at Kishorit kibbutz, a residence for 120 adults with special needs—autism, schizophrenia. A group of residents gathered in the office of the director to make a call to a reporter. Here was Shiri Friedman, 28, crippled with cerebral palsy; Karim Rafa, a mentor who takes care of Shiri and others; Shuki Levinger, the director, and his assistant, Eva Ovzinsky. Over speakerphone, it was possible to hear the panic beneath the pose of calm. Already they had been in and out of their shelter 10 times since early morning.

The day began at 8 a.m., when Karim Rafa heard the announcement and raced across a field to rescue Shiri Friedman, who was in the shower. “Kulam mitbakshim laredet la miklatim,” said Ms. Ovzinsky. “Everyone please go down to the shelter.”

Mr. Rafa picked Shiri up and pulled her across a field. They have two minutes to get to safety. Mr. Rafa is Muslim; Shiri is Jewish. Mr. Rafa, a staff member, has moved his entire family nearby. “I am needed here. We have blind people, schizophrenics, the mentally ill. It is very difficult.” From the back of a garden, he could see the smoke plumes from the rockets that have battered the town of Carmiel, a few kilometers away.

“What is important for me to say is that here, in Kishorit, we are Arab and Jew,” Mr. Rafa said. “We have been here working together for 10 years. We are Muslims and we prefer to be here. I feel sorry for all of the people who kill from the two sides. We can solve all of these things without going to war.”

The kibbutz is a haven of pastel houses and gardens and workshops between Dir El Asad, an Arab village, and Carmiel, now a ghost town of rubble and vanished hopes. “It is an island of peace in the middle of the madness,” Graciela Samuels, a UNESCO official based in Paris and Tel Aviv, wrote. Ms. Samuels had returned from sleeping in the bunker near her 28-year-old daughter, Davina, a resident of Kishorit who is also enrolled at Boston University. “All of these special-needs people are being taken care of by Arabs. Everyone lives peacefully together. Why does no one understand what is going on here?”

Especially now, it is hard to understand this reality in Israel—that many Jews and Arabs share communities and citizenship, the day-to-day activities of their lives. “Ten years ago, when I went to the Arab villages, they would say, ‘You stole our land,’” Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres said Monday at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York. “Now they say, ‘Let’s talk about education.’” Mr. Peres, the 82-year-old wise man of Israel, spoke to the packed forum, his low, rumbling voice evoking the Israel of David Ben-Gurion holding a grapefruit in the Negev in the country’s earlier days. He was a reassuring presence in a room that was deeply divided over the country’s military tactics and the tragic consequences of the unintentional bombings of civilians. “If they [Hezbollah] win,” Mr. Peres said, “it will be catastrophic. It means going back to the dark ages.”

Kishorit’s director Shuki Levinger wrote to families concerned about their relatives via e-mail: “We cannot evacuate. We can only move away from Kishorit as a community with the full medical and psychological contingent in tow …. But with all the hotels in the center and the south of Israel being full to capacity with families from the north, the option of moving together does not exist …. The shriek of sirens blasting through Kishorit on an average of one hour a day through the day unnerves our members to such an extent that we have introduced our own gentler version: the telephone.”

Stranded, this is what the residents face, according to Ms. Ozvinsky:

8 a.m.: The first alarm reaches 300 telephones—the organic dairy that supplies goat milk to cheese factories, the toy factory that makes wooden dolls, the dog kennel where Kishorit residents help breed miniature schnauzers that are sent to dog shows in Europe and abroad.

Not far away, a telephone temporarily stops the construction for a new facility to serve the needs of the Arab community. There will be a Muslim school with a special kitchen, but all the adults will work together in the fields and workshops. The therapy will be Israeli but the language Arabic.

11 a.m.: There is another call to the shelters. And this time a rocket finds its way into the field where, earlier, Mr. Rafa had carried Shiri Friedman in his arms. “There was a huge explosion. We had been in the shelter only two minutes,” Ms. Ozvinsky said. “But no one was hurt.”

8 p.m.: Each resident sleeps in a three-foot space. They pass the time playing backgammon and telling jokes, watching the bombs fall on TV. The social workers try to give a sense of reality, but how can catastrophe seem reasonable to anyone, much less the mentally fragile? They have developed a code: “Not to worry. It is just a bomb. Everything will be O.K.” Still, many scream through the night, run from the bunks, cry and stay up all night. Then the morning comes.

As we spoke over the phone that evening, there was an interruption. “Another warning,” Ms. Ozvinsky said. “I have to go. You can call me on my mobile.”

On Thursday, transportation would arrive to take some of the residents to Tel Aviv. Among them would be Davina Samuels. She had called her mother. “There is a bus on Thursday,” Davina said. “Are you telling me you would like to come?” Ms. Samuels asked. Davina burst into tears. “It is the first time I heard her cry,” Ms. Samuels said. “She said, ‘Mama, I am so tired.’”

On Tuesday, Aug. 8, as the United Nations debated a cease-fire agreement, another e-mail arrived from Ms. Ozvinsky: “On an average there are between 8 to 10 sirens a day, but because of the situation we have been instructed to stay in the bomb shelters between 14:00 and 08:00 the next morning. During the last few days dozens if not hundreds of rockets have fallen around us. We have closed our dining room and the members and staff receive their meals on disposable trays in the bomb shelter.”

Marie Brenner is writer at large at Vanity Fair.

In Northern Israel,  Arabs Take Care  Of Jews Under Fire