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Terror Helps Brings Together Delegates at Zionist Congress

June 20, 2002
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It was Adam Deutsch’s first time giving blood, and the national president of the Young Judaea youth group was happy that his first donation was to Magen David Adom, the Israeli relief service.

“It’s all been very powerful,” said Deutsch, 18, a delegate to the World Zionist Congress, who spent Wednesday afternoon with 100 other participants visiting bombing victims at Hadassah — Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem. “It’s really been making me think.”

The 34th Zionist Congress, which is often called the parliament of the Jewish people, has been disrupted by two bombings in Jerusalem this week.

But for the 750 delegates from around the world attending the four-day conference to discuss Zionism in the 21st century, reports of terrorist attacks affirm their emotional and physical commitment to the Jewish state.

As Deutsch and a steady stream of congress participants lined up to have their blood pressure taken and veins prodded by Magen David Adom staffers, news of a suicide bombing in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood drifted through the room.

“You see?” said Leon Schorr, a delegate from Brazil, who was holding a Coke in one hand and a cookie in the other after donating blood. “This is what we have to do. I’m in Jerusalem, I am a Jew, there are bombings. This is the minimum I can do.”

In a painfully ironic way, the tension in the country helped unify the delegates: It’s easier to feel a sense of unity and solidarity when giving blood or visiting terror victims than debating the values of Zionism, delegates said.

“Usually I’m not in Israel, even though I’m pro-Israel and pro-Zionism,” said Julie Berman, a congress observer from Cape Town and mother of two, who has two brothers and a sister living in Israel. “I’m never here for the bomb blasts. I always feel so far away.”

But not on Wednesday afternoon, when the congress delegates and observers divided themselves into three groups.

Busloads of delegates went to Ben-Gurion International Airport to greet more than 300 new immigrants arriving in Israel. Another set of buses went to visit new immigrants at absorption centers, and around 100 delegates went with Deutsch to Hadassah’s hospital in Ein Kerem to visit victims of recent terrorist attacks.

Dividing themselves into groups of 20, the delegates visited with several victims, including the family of Ronit Elchiani, who was in intensive care as a result of wounds she sustained in Tuesday’s bus bombing.

Elchiani’s upper body received a major part of the blast, explained Ron Kronish, a spokesman for the hospital. Her head, chest and lungs were riddled with nails and screws from the bomb, and she will require several operations before beginning a lengthy rehabilitation process.

His description elicited several sighs and more than a few tears from the group, which was a cross section of the political parties, organizations and factions that make up the Zionist congress.

But it is particularly these kinds of visits that bind the delegates together, despite often deep political and theological differences, delegates said.

“The congress lets me see both sides of the coin,” said Berman, who wore a gold talisman pendant on a chain around her neck and a peace dove pin on her lapel. “It helps me to hear the right-wing side and different degrees of the left. It’s been an eye opener.”

It was also surprising for some of the delegates visiting Hadassah to find out that the hospital treats Arab patients. The patient in the bed next to Elchiani was a Palestinian man with stomach wounds who had been holed up in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity for two weeks.

The hospital initially believed he was a terrorist, and had two Israeli soldiers guarding his bedside 24 hours a day. Police later discovered he was a captive in the church, and was able to escape before the end of the five-week siege.

“That’s the character of the Israeli nation,” said Selma Dyckman, a delegate from Amit who was holding a Book of Psalms in order to pray for the sick. “And all they’re asking of us is to come visit and sit in a restaurant. It’s the least we can do.”

At the hospital, social worker Rita Abernoff, director of the hospital’s social services, told the group how her team of social workers handles the families of terror victims.

There is a phone center with 20 phone lines staffed by social workers who can update callers with news and details of where victims have been hospitalized. For families that prefer to speak to someone in person, the hospital has set up a center with 24-hour shifts of social workers to speak to families in crisis.

At times, the social workers are occupied with finding all the family members of a terror victim. In accordance with Jewish law and Israeli tradition, the deceased are usually buried on the day they died, but that can’t happen until all family members have been notified.

When Shiri Nagari, 22, died of her wounds following Tuesday’s bus bombing in Jerusalem, it took five hours until the hospital could locate one of her brothers, a soldier serving in the Gaza Strip.

And when friends came looking for Baiman Aazi Kabhah, 23, an Israeli Arab student who was missing after the bus bombing, the social work staff spent hours tracking down Kabhah’s cousin.

“I think it’s huge that Hadassah is willing to treat everyone, regardless of who they are,” said Deutsch, the Young Judaea president, sipping some water after giving blood.

But the hospital visit “felt kind of strange,” he admitted, wondering out loud what he could possibly say to comfort the families. “The only thing I could think of was, ‘Yihiyeh tov, it will be okay.’ “

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