By Dr Sarah Bernstein, Associate Director, ICCI
The heart-breaking tragedy of the Palestinian school bus that overturned and burst into flames last week after a crash with a lorry that swerved on the wet road and hit it head on, was greeted by a mixture of reactions on all sides. While some swung into action in order to save as many lives as possible, others chose to cast blame or try to make political capital and a rabid few apparently responded with despicable internet postings. Be that as it may, the vast majority on all sides were shocked and distressed at the deaths of small children.
On Friday morning I met with a group of Israeli and Palestinian women who are working on a theater project, one of the ongoing projects that have grown out of ICCI’s women’s dialogue program. Our conversation naturally swung to the terrible accident, and one of the women suggested that we visit the bereaved families or those with children injured in the crash. The women quickly swung into action – creating a card in three languages, buying small soft toys for the children, using their connections to find out where the children are and what their situation is. Yesterday morning a group of six of us, Jews, Christians and Muslims, went to Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital on behalf of all the women to visit the families of the children and one of the teachers. We heard heart-wrenching stories and tried to offer meagre words of comfort, and to offer a sense of support and solidarity.
Fadal and Salah were lying in the same ward, just as they were sitting next to each other on the bus. But whereas Fadal has regained consciousness and is responding to his family crowded round his bed, for Salah there seems little hope, and his father dissolved into tears at our presence.
On the next ward we found four-year-old Hala, who seemed to be making a good recovery until her condition deteriorated and the doctors discovered a fracture in her skull. As we gave her grandmother a small toy, she shared with us their amazing story – Hala’s older brother, aged five, had pulled her out of the bus to safety, almost certainly saving her life. Tears came to our eyes as we gave her another toy to take to Hala’s brother, released from hospital that morning.
As we left the children’s ward we bumped into someone I know, a lovely man who used to work as the caretaker of my synagogue when he first came on aliyah from the former Soviet Union many years ago. The last time I saw him was when I made a condolence call after the death of his son, who had been in my daughter’s primary school class, in an army accident. Here he is only three or four years later offering music therapy to the many children in the hospital, taking his trolley of instruments and offering comfort and distraction to all the children, Israeli and Palestinian, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, ultra-Orthodox and ultra-secular alike. I couldn’t help but wonder where he found the strength and hoped that his act of healing others helped in turn to heal his own soul.
Upstairs we found one of the teachers, pregnant and therefore on the maternity ward, trying to absorb the enormity of the tragedy. Battered and bruised, and shocked into silence until that morning, she told us that she had feared for her baby, who didn’t seem to be moving, but to her relief she now felt movements. We didn’t stay long – our presence was clearly overwhelming – but equally clearly all the families felt grateful for the support and help they felt they were receiving from many different directions.
There can be no doubt that our visit was a tiny gesture in the ongoing pain and struggle of these families. There can also be no doubt that ours was a much more appropriate response than that of hatred and glee. Reaching out to each other in times of profound human need, as well as in times of joy and celebration, can provide moments of universal empathy sorely needed in our region. I feel strengthened and encouraged to be part of a group of wonderful women who could give of their time and energy to offer support to others, and in doing so, who can serve as a tiny example of the way forward, as we all learn to set aside fear and hatred, and to come together to work for a better society for us all.