An Open Letter to Rabbi Rick Jacobs and Reform Leaders Who Oppose the Appointment of Mr. David Friedman
— By Rabbi Erica and Mark Gerson
Dear Rabbi Jacobs,
As a Reform Rabbi and her husband, we read with interest your open letter opposing the nomination of David Friedman as the US Ambassador to Israel — a letter signed by the leaders of other Reform organizations.
We have known David Friedman for more than a decade — as I (Mark) am the Chairman of United Hatzalah, the crowd-sourced network of volunteer first responders in Israel that enables victims of pre-hospital trauma (choking, bleeding, heart attacks, strokes) to be treated in the moments that often separate life from death after a trauma and before an ambulance comes. United Hatzalah volunteers are now responding to 800+ emergency calls a day, saving (by a conservative estimate) 40,000 lives a year in Israel.
One of the seminal moments in United Hatzalah’s history — which we will always remember, because of its ramifications — occurred in a small group that gathered in David’s office in Manhattan, where we often met. Eli Beer, the extraordinary visionary and executor behind United Hatzalah, told a story.
Eli said that he had (on a matter unrelated to United Hatzalah) been with an Arab citizen of Jerusalem (Murad) — and this person was stunned (in the most positive sense) by how Eli rushed out of a meeting to respond to a nearby victim in need. Upon returning, Eli explained that was what he, as a United Hatzalah volunteer, did many times a day — leaving whatever he was doing to rush to treat someone whose life or death might be determined by how quickly he could arrive.
Murad told Eli that the Arab citizens of Jerusalem had to wait for ambulances at least as long as Jews — as political and geographic considerations often delayed treatment. Eli knew this was the case, as these same considerations made it difficult (and thus undependable) for Jewish volunteers to go to Arab neighborhoods with the speed and security they needed. But Murad had an idea: could you, he asked Eli, train and equip Arab citizens to provide immediate emergency treatment in the same way that you do to Jewish citizens. Eli said that, of course, the idea profoundly resonated with him — as he and his colleagues had often treated and saved Arab trauma victims, and that expanding the United Hatzalah system to comprehensively treat the Arab Muslim and Christian citizens of Jerusalem would help to fulfill his dream as a Jew and as a medical professional.
It would require Arab volunteers — which, Murad assured him, would be no problem. It would also require money — a lot of it: to buy equipment (including medically equipped motorcycles, defibrillators and much else), to support training, dispatch services and much else. Would the then overwhelmingly American Jewish donor base write significant checks to support a major program that would exclusively benefit the Arab population?
Eli took the question — really, the proposition — to David, us and several others. It was perhaps the most enthusiastically received question we have ever witnessed — where the “yes” was immediately and universally agreed on, with the discussion moving quickly to why and how. David was the most senior member of the group, and I think the only Orthodox Jew there. This was a magnificent opportunity, he led the group in agreeing, for us to help to fulfill our Jewish obligations to save lives whenever possible, to love the stranger and to improve life in Israel for all of its inhabitants and visitors. We agreed to a significant expenditure for the exclusive benefit of the Arab citizens of Jerusalem — with many of us (including David) making additional pledges to fund this work.
Fast forward to the present. We now have several hundred Arab volunteers — in Jerusalem and throughout the country. In the field and in the dispatch center, the Arab and Jewish volunteers work with each other closely all day every day to accomplish something that they all agree is sacred: to save lives. Stories of Jewish volunteers who have saved Arabs on Shabbat and Yom Kippur are now common as are stories of Arabs — well, like this one:
We were at the Knesset with David over the summer, as the Israeli Parliament was honoring United Hatzalah on our tenth anniversary. MKs from the right to the left came to the ceremony to express their appreciation for the life-saving work of United Hatzalah — and the social solidarity that United Hatzalah created by uniting Jews, Muslims, Druze and Christian citizens of Israel around life-saving. One of the speakers was not a MK, but Muawia Kabha — an Arab United Hatzalah volunteer from Central Israel. A young mother was driving on the highway near Muawia’s village when a horse darted across the highway causing her car to crash. She was bleeding to death — when Muawia arrived on scene. Using his equipment and training that David and others paid for, he saved her life. The woman surprised Muawia by coming to the event, with her young son who (but for Muawia) would have been orphaned. The applause — and Arab/Jewish love and gratitude — filled the room. We were sitting next to Yehuda Glick, a Likud MK from a settlement who had been saved by United Hatzalah following an assassination attempt by Islamic Jihad. MK Glick leapt from his seat, jumped on the stage and embraced Muawia in what became a photograph that ran throughout Israeli media for days.
This sentiment — which was borne by Eli’s question in David’s office ten years ago — was epitomized by that embrace, but it was only one example of this political and social significance. Eli Beer and Murd Alyan, the leader of United Hatzalah’s Arab volunteer corps, won the Victor Goldberg Prize for Peace in the Middle East — presented at the US Embassy in 2013. Israeli media is now full of stories of Arab and Jewish cooperation and partnership for peace — there was a TV segment where Muawia presented the aforementioned Jewish woman with the piece of medical equipment he used to save her life. There was “A Shocking Reunion,” the TV segment about Chaim Attias, an Orthodox volunteer from the settlement of Mitzpe Jerico, who arrived at the side of Haitham, an Arab man who had been electrocuted and was clinically dead near Damascus Gate in the Old City. Chaim brought Haitham back to life, and Haitham and his family welcomed Chaim into their home for a reunion full of hugging, kissing and crying.
This is the David Friedman we know — the David Friedman who from the earliest days when this vision of Jewish-Arab partnership in life-saving was only a dream — who helped to make these relationships (and the lives saved as a result) possible. There is nothing political about United Hatzalah. But maybe the previous attempts at peace failed because debates about the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration and UN Resolutions 181 and 242 and Oslo will never end in agreement — while the bonds of friendship, fellowship, service and love being formed and inspired by people like Eli and Murad, Chaim and Muawia are the necessary preconditions for sustainable political comity.
In any event, David Friedman could have given his resources and his leadership to any cause or charity — or none at all. And of all that is available, David chose — without any publicity or recognition for himself — to make support of the Arab and Druze communities in Israel the recipient of his generosity. It is because of that spirit that we believe that he will be an outstanding Ambassador of the United States to Israel, and hope that you will reconsider your opposition. Regardless, we hope that you, with him as Ambassador, will visit the Jews and the Arabs of United Hatzalah on your next trip to Jerusalem. Many of your colleagues in the Reform Rabbinate have taken groups on that trip, and have emerged some of the organization’s most devoted supporters, articulate proponents and inspired spokespeople — and it would be wonderful for you to know David as we have, and to see this sacred Jewish-Arab partnership in action.
We leave with this clip of Democratic Senator Robert Menendez from David’s hearing, and our best wishes: https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4657199/united-hatzalah
Rabbi Erica and Mark Gerson