Life & Culture

How Magen David Adom showed me it's not about us and them


I was saddened to hear of the death of Oxford historian Sir Martin Gilbert this week. If you haven’t read Israel: A History, you really should. I did 18 months ago and it is one of the reasons why, as a Jew living in England, I began to feel a much more profound connection to Israel.

My copy of Sir Martin’s book was lent to me by my good friend Richard Lister. Although long overdue, I have not returned it to him. He hasn’t asked for it back and kindly indulges me as he knows it has become symbolic of my belief that modern-day Israel is not owned by Israelis, but by all Jews.

It’s something that I’ve become even more profoundly aware of recently through my work as Chairman of Magen David Adom UK, which raises funds and awareness for Israel’s emergency medical services.

It’s my way of ensuring that I contribute positively to society, specifically Jewish society. Like generations before us, I believe we all have a responsibility to do this and so last year began directing more of my time and energy into charity work.

While fundraising for MDA, I have observed a distancing of how people in the diaspora perceive Israel. It’s sometimes a case of them and us, Anglo-Jewry and Israelis. Reading about our history reminded me that we are not two groups but one.

Israel’s creation was founded on the vision of a small number of men and women to unite us in our historic homeland. We are all profoundly connected to this, even if we choose to live here in England.

MDA helped me find this connection and consequently Israel has become much more central in my life, allowing me to connect and contribute in the kind of tangible and meaningful manner that many Jews of my generation wish to.

Distressingly, the path of Israel’s journey is punctuated with neighbouring malevolence and consequential tragedy. This is why working for MDA and supporting the saving of life is so important.

Last month in Israel, Staff-Sergeant Dor Chaim Nini and Major Yochai Kalangel were both killed by anti-tank missiles fired at their convoy on patrol on the slopes of Mount Hermon near Har Dov.

I remember the area of this attack well having visited it twice before. The first time I was there was on my gap-year when I remember observing the high triple digit road numbers of highway 989 and highway 999, which run through the area, and thinking how they add to the sense of extremity of this segment of Israel’s northern border.

It was these same roads that MDA’s mobile intensive-care unit and 12 ambulances, several of them clad with protective armour, travelled on to attend to the wounded soldiers at this most recent incident.
MDA’s response was led by Shimon Abutbul, who co-ordinated the team of paramedics and emergency medical technicians. I met Shimon on my second visit to this region last summer. I was there touring MDA’s northern ambulance stations in Upper Galilee.

The lush greenery of this area, the vivid flora and sound of birdsong is so peaceful that it contradicts the constant alertness and vigilance required by the army, as well as the need for MDA to be both continually and uniquely prepared.

Shimon took us to where the ambulances in attendance last fortnight were dispatched from in Kiryat Shemona. As we toured the emergency treatment centre, he explained to us the unusual specifications needed for a medical building to be this close to an area of potential conflict.

The building’s Hizbollah-facing wall and ceilings are made from 24-inch reinforced steel. Its windows have 2-inch steel shutters that can be closed when an alert occurs.

The whole structure is a monolithic bomb-proof one to protect its occupants from potential missile strikes that could be fired at its five emergency room beds, one of which had been thoughtfully decorated with colourful stickers to make a child more comfortable in such unfamiliar surroundings.

This level of precaution and protection comes at a cost that other country’s emergency services don’t face. It is British donations to MDA that are renovating this emergency room and I know our donors are incredibly proud to be helping in Israel’s success.

Israel operates every day under threat of conflict and this provides constant challenges, both operational and financial. MDA is not run by government and is heavily reliant on donations from Jews, and others, all over the world to function successfully.

The financial commitment to sustain the readiness that Israel maintains would devastate Britain’s budget, and that’s before the post-election austerity that is certain to begin in the UK. Israel’s GDP is now $305 billion, the 36th largest in the world. Worryingly, last quarter, Israel’s GDP release showed that economic output fell for the first time in over five years.

This setback to Israel’s impressive economic growth was due to the 50 of the 90 days in Q3 at which Israel was at war. This is a very different impediment to the rest of the developed world whose economies continue to be affected by slowing global trade.

However long peace takes, Israel will have to contend with the extra costs it faces that the rest of its developed world peers do not. This year, Israel’s tax revenues will be lower due to its lower productivity and it will also need to pay for the direct and indirect costs of this conflict.

I am driven by Israel’s need for our help while it contends with these challenges.
Israel’s ability to stand by itself is increasing but, while the need for support is there, I want to help a country with which I feel immensely connected. Amid Operation Protective Edge, MDA had to spend an extra £2.5m on providing emergency and blood support services. Its fleet of ambulances and volunteers were used to capacity and the support the UK gave them was valued, appreciated and effective in ensuring the highest standards of care in Israel.

My work with MDA has taught me that MDA is more than a usual emergency service. It is an extraordinary emergency service and run by extraordinarily committed, expert and passionate people like Shimon and his team.

At a time when there are so many challenges for Israel to overcome, I’m glad he knows that we are here to help.

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