When disaster struck in Lebanon on August 4th, killing dozens, injuring thousands and causing widespread devastation, Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi offered to send equipment and treat the victims.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked UN Special Coordinator Nickolay Mladenov how Israel could help and President Reuven Rivlin also offered a helping hand. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai expressed his city’s solidarity by projecting a flag of Lebanon onto the city hall building. Far from the public eye, Israeli non-governmental organizations, such as Israel Flying Aid are raising funds to provide food and medicine for the victims.
International and Arab media gave positive coverage to Huldai’s gesture and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed the move. This was not a first. Tel Aviv’s municipality has displayed the flags of Egypt, France, Russia, the U.S., Sri Lanka, Spain and the UK following disastrous terror attacks, and those of Italy, China and the U.S. in solidarity with their Covid-19 crisis. The Druze flag lit up the building in solidarity with the community’s fight against Israel’s Jewish Nationa State Law, and the LGBT flag graced it to support demands for equal rights.
Much to our horror, some right-wing Israeli politicians such as former Likud Member of Knesset Moshe Feiglin cheered Lebanon’s calamity, while others expressed anger at Huldai’s gesture. MK Smotrich claimed there was no need to pity the Lebanese, and his colleague MK Shaked labeled the display of an “enemy state” flag “a travesty.” Jerusalem Minister Rafi Peretz described it as “moral confusion.”
They were not the only ones whose reactions seem to reflect “moral confusion.”
Solidarity is a sentiment of relations between people. It stems from perceptions of similarity – of the fact that we are all human beings, and of mutual dependence, and from the understanding that the existence of human society depends on shared beliefs in what is good and valuable.
Solidarity is what allows us to work together for shared goals. People over the world mobilize to help victims of natural and man-made disasters because they resemble them, because the plight of others evokes their natural empathy and realization that they, too, could one day need help, and also because of the commonly held belief that this is the right thing to do – to offer a helping hand to those in need, to save lives, to fix the world.
Solidarity may be expressed in concrete terms – search and rescue missions, aid deliveries, hospital construction, participation in demonstrations and battling oppressive forces. Sometimes, it takes other forms – media declarations, art installations, street protests, public displays of symbols (such as a raised fist or kneeling), and the illumination of public buildings with the flag of a victimized state or community.
Since its founding, Israeli history has abundant examples of solidarity. Israel has dispatched dozens of humanitarian assistance teams to help the victims of flooding, wars, earthquakes and fires in Albania, Ethiopia, Brazil, Nepal, Haiti, India, the Philippines, Jordan, Mexico, and many more places.
Israeli expressions of solidarity are not limited to friendly states; they have also been directed at those with which relations are tense, and even hostile. Israel has helped Syrian refugees, expressed solidarity with Iran and Iraq following earthquakes, and offered Turkey help after a massive earthquake even in times of deep crisis in bilateral relations.
In addition to official state bodies, dozens of organizations and individuals have expressed their solidarity with victims of disasters over the years – from peace activist Abie Nathan and the kibbutz movement, through youth movements, student organizations and local government councils, as well as human rights groups and simply people who care. They, too, have helped Syrian refugees in Jordan, set up schools for refugees in Lesbos (Greece), performed surgery on children from Iraq, and much more.
Expressions of solidarity are directed at three main audiences. They show victims that they are not alone, that people are thinking of them and worrying about them, identifying with their pain and willing to help. Solidarity in the form of concrete help is obviously important for easing the crisis, but it is also significant in spiritual and morale terms.
When we express solidarity with victims, we ourselves are also a target audience. We do so as an expression of brotherhood, reaffirming a position of privilege that attests to a great extent to our own ability and strength. Even more so, expressions of solidarity strengthen a sense of self-worth and place one on the right side of history, on the side of the “good.”
The international community is the third target audience. Post-World War II norms are reflected in the establishment of international organizations, legislation, treaties, conventions, cooperation and aid to the needy. Among these norms, the expression of solidarity with the pain or trouble of others is perceived as worthy of praise. Expressions of solidarity with others contribute to a state or group’s image and reputation, and fuel a state’s soft power.
Therefore, Israeli expressions of solidarity with the disaster of others should not pose any dilemma or “moral confusion” – it is both a foregone moral duty and a wise diplomatic move.
At Israel-Turkey policy dialogues carried out by the Mitvim Institute, where I am director, the Turkish representatives often recall the significant aid Israel provided their country following the devastating 1999 earthquake.
More than 20 years on, that authentic expression of solidarity still resonates and plays a significant role in relations between the states and in boosting Israel’s reputation and image abroad. The same is true for the photos of Israeli field hospitals in Haiti or Nepal and from every corner of the world where an Israeli team sought to help. The benefit far outweighs any other considerations.
Clearly, not every expression of solidarity is well received by the victims. Expressions of solidarity on the part of those perceived as abusers or contributors to abuse by others are not deemed credible. That explains, to some extent, the chilly reception in Lebanon to Israeli solidarity.
However, that should not deter sincere expressions of solidarity, which serve the other target audiences and provide an opportunity to start affecting change within Lebanese society, too.
This would be especially true if other concrete, continuous steps were taken – such as treating the injured, delivering equipment and training medical teams – which stand a better chance of implementation by civil society than by the government. In expressing simple solidarity, we can be seen with a human face, and sow good seeds for the future.
** The article was published on Haaretz, 9 September 2020.