World-renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman, afflicted with polio as a child, just attended the 60th anniversary celebration of the Israeli Foundation for Handicapped Children. While in the Arab world disabled people have been called “the invisibles,” because they are segregated and hidden from the public eye, Israel’s work with illness and disabilities would merit a book in itself.
Israel’s ruthless determination in tackling head-on the physical problems that arise either from natural causes, terrorism or war is astounding and says much about Israel’s moral lesson to the world beyond the headlines on killings, kidnappings, snipers, and suicide bombers.
In the world’s consciousness, the word “Israel” has become equated with fear, when the Jewish state is in fact the world's most important laboratory for healers of diseases. There is an amazing quantity of research, of inventions, of newfound techniques for curing and helping the ill, the blind, and the paralyzed to return to normal life.
Scientists at Hebrew University have developed the drug Exelon for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and traumatic brain injuries. The Weizmann Institute had led to the development of promising new therapies for acute spinal cord injuries. Indeed, the late actor Christopher Reeve described Israel as the “world center” for research.
In Israel it is very common to see children with Down’s syndrome in television programs and there are many special parks for disabled people. Paraplegic war heroes are the protagonists of many soap operas and disabled athletes are extremely successful, like brave swimmer Keren Leibovitz.
Israel is different
All the archive photos of Franklin Delano Roosevelt show him sitting or standing; by order of the US president, they never gave away the fact that he was a paraplegic, put into his wheelchair by polio. Most Americans, before the TV era, never knew he was disabled. Yet Israel is a very different country.
Five major wars and frequent terror attacks since Israel’s founding in 1948 have resulted in thousands of disabled veterans and civilian survivors of suicide attacks. Each morning, these people wake up to the worst nightmares: brain injuries, birth defects, paralysis. They epitomize Jewish courage and Israel’s joy de vivre. They are a microcosm of the unfailing spirit so many of us in the West associate with being Israeli.
Israel's miracle is epitomized by Professor Reuven Feuerstein, the pioneer who has dedicated his life to pushing Down people beyond their supposed limits. He has said that “chromosomes will never have the last word” and has helped people with this syndrome to achieve a level of functioning that most people who work with them thought impossible.
Feuerstein’s method has been adopted by many European countries. Another example is the 2,248 “children of Chernobyl” who have been brought to Israel for treatment. Or doctors such as Mario Goldin, who emigrated from Argentina and whose objective in life was to reduce “the pain of those who suffer.” A suicide bomber killed him while he was waiting for the bus.
In Palestinian society, the most famous disabled was Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin. In Iraq, terrorists used many disabled women for suicide attacks. In Israel, Down syndrome youth can ask to be inducted into the army. This is the story of the Middle East conflict: death cult vs. Israel’s right to life.
Giulio Meotti, a journalist with Il Foglio, is the author of the book A New Shoah: The Untold Story of Israel's Victims of Terrorism